SEIU Healthcare Minnesota looks to its past in order to move forward


At a time when many pundits and prognosticators are declaring the demise of the labor movement, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota is defying the doom and moving forward. The 10,000-plus members of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota face great challenges, not only in the federal Affordable Care Act and the state MNSure program, but also in two new campaigns.

These campaigns promise not only to change conditions of employment but also to transform the inner life of the union. On the one hand, they are preparing to mobilize for their next major contract in 2015, which will involve the Twin Cities’ largest hospitals, nursing homes, and clinics; on the other hand, members are undertaking a campaign to sign up, organize, and empower more than 12,000 home healthcare providers and personal care attendants.

SEIU’s first step in moving forward is to take a clear, calculated look at their own past. On September 20, the union pulled together more than 300 stewards at a hotel in Minneapolis to celebrate the union’s 80th anniversary. They sought to draw some lessons from that history, to undertake some collective thinking and planning, and to begin to put new plans into action.

Stewards are the key to the life of a union. They continue to work alongside rank-and-file union members, facing the same rules and regulations, the same managerial attitudes, and the same pay. They give voice to union members’ issues and frustrations, while they also serve as linchpins in the dissemination of information and the mobilization for actions. As the American collective bargaining and labor relations system has become increasingly bureaucratized and professionalized, stewards have been the symbols and agents of the kind of workplace democracy that inspired old time union organizers.

This look at the past was not an exercise in nostalgia. It was a strategic move grounded in careful analysis.

The American labor relations system born in the 1930s and shaped in the 1940s is badly broken. Its implicit core concepts – that management would bargain “in good faith” with unions, that management and unions shared a “social contract,” that workers would be rewarded for their loyalty and their improvements in productivity – have faded into the mist generated by the global economy’s creation of a race to the bottom.

Today, union-avoidance attorneys steer the corporate ship. The wind in their sails blows from anti-union ideologies, which demonize collective bargaining and the very concept of union representation. Every contract negotiation is freighted with the prospects for profound changes in work rules and job descriptions, plus substantial cuts in wages and benefits. Often, the very existence of the union is at stake.

In the 1950s and 1960s, American unions adapted to the national labor relations system. They lauded the dues check-off, which removed a time-consuming part of stewards’ jobs, allowing management to deduct union dues from workers’ paychecks. They yielded the right to strike over grievances, putting workers’ pursuit of fair treatment in the hands of impartial arbitrators and a process which could take years to reach results. They hired lawyers and lobbyists and entrusted much of the union’s day-to-day work to hired staff. Stewards were encouraged to provide “service” to workers, while union leaders kept track of the union’s growing treasury. Critics have called this union adaptation “the business model,” and they have noted that it led members to relate to the union like it was an insurance company.

This model made a mockery of such historic terms as organized labor and labor movement.

When American employers launched what Doug Fraser, the then president of the United Auto Workers, called a “one-sided class war” in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the business model collapsed. Union members crossed their own picket lines during strikes, voted to saddle new hires with lower wages and benefits, and even made concessions themselves. Employers opened non-union facilities inside and outside the U.S. and availed themselves of non-union contract employees, while major unions failed in one organizing campaign after another. A rout was under way, in which job security and compensation have plummeted and the gap between workers’ compensation and that of their employers has reached its greatest proportions in history.

The leadership of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota turned their attention to the history of the American labor movement before the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which became the foundation of the American collective bargaining system that is now falling down around us. They have found in their own history a set of experiences that can serve as guideposts for these emerging campaigns.

Their 80th anniversary celebrated – and drew upon – the efforts of hundreds of women hospital workers to organize and achieve a contract in the difficult days of 1933 and 1934, at the depths of the Great Depression. These “non-professional” women – African Americans, Native Americans, Latinas, the daughters of immigrants, new arrivals from the severely depressed agricultural Midwest – washed the laundry, cooked the meals, cleaned the rooms and halls, and provided support to nurses and doctors. They struggled with long hours, split shifts, low wages, and no sick leave or pensions.

They organized several hospitals – Swedish, Northwestern, and St. Barnabas – at once, clustered in downtown Minneapolis. First and foremost, they relied on their own workplace power, using direct action on the job, including short sitdown strikes. The women participated in every step of the collective bargaining process, making it democratic and transparent. They built community and solidarity among themselves through holiday parties and picnics. They gained the support of male workers, in the hospitals and in downtown buildings, with whom they joined as members of Building Service Employees Local 113.

These women also relied on the nascent labor movement for support, particularly during and after the dramatic Teamsters’ strikes of February, June, and July-August 1934. As they achieved their first contracts at these three hospitals, the Minneapolis Central Labor Union and its Minneapolis Labor Review newspaper urged union members throughout the city to boycott the hospitals that were resisting Local 113’s efforts to expand its organization.

No mention can be found in the historical documents of these women relying on lawyers, lobbyists, or professional staff to solve their problems for them. 

SEIU Healthcare Minnesota’s 80th anniversary celebration was an opportunity for talks, workshops, and discussions about how to transform the 300 stewards present from “service providers” to “organizers.” Reaching a contract settlement in 2015 that will improve workers’ lives will depend on those stewards educating, informing, organizing, and mobilizing the union’s 10,000-plus members to fashion workplace strategies, to involve their families in union rallies, to reach out to the churches, social organizations, and community groups to which they belong, and to present a vision of how well-organized healthcare workers can protect and improve patient care.

SEIU has also supported grassroots organizations like Neighborhoods Organized for Change and Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, and joined in struggles against foreclosures and for tax fairness. The union also turned to the stewards to devote their next day, a Saturday, a day off, to door-knocking to reach home healthcare providers and personal care attendants in order to explain to them, from their experience and perspectives as rank-and-file union members, how unionization has enabled them to work to make their jobs better. No one can explain better than a rank-and-filer the value of belonging to a union: the rights protected by the grievance procedure, the opportunity to have a voice in shaping union positions on bargaining issues, the fairness provided by a seniority system, as well as improvements in wages and benefits. Moving forward in the current political and economic climate will be a labor intensive process.

The stewards of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, informed by their own history, are preparing to shape their future.


CORRECTION 10/3/2013: The final paragraphs were inadvertently omittted when this blog was first posted.