Stern Imposes Corporate Model on Union;
Sets Up Call Centers to Handle Grievances
By Harry Kelber
June 4, 2008
Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has taken another major step to transform his union into the likeness of an American corporation. At his bidding, the delegates at SEIU’s convention in Puerto Rico will vote for “call centers” that will function like the customer service agency of any large-scale corporation.
Thus, if members have complaints about violations of the union contract or problems about pensions, overtime pay or discrimination, they will no longer be able to take up their grievances with their union representative or local officials. They will have to get in touch with a call center, where they will receive “expert” responses to whatever workplace problem is worrying them. Here is how the new procedure will work out in practice:
Let’s take the case of, say, Debbie Johnson, a clerical worker at a hospital, who has been told she will be laid off by the end of the month, with no reason given. She can no longer get advice and support from her local union representative, but is told to contact the call center, where she will get the necessary assistance. She phones the center and hears a voice saying: “All of our staff are currently busy servicing other union members. Please hold or e-mail us your complaints.”
After 20 minutes, a voice says, “I‘m Betty. How can I help you?” Debbie explains her complaint. The voice says: “I’ll refer your problem to the person who may provide you with the help you need. Please give us your name, e-mail address and phone number where you can be reached.” Poor, frustrated Debbie.
Indeed, it’s ridiculous to assume that staff people at the call centers would be able to give sensible answers by remote diagnosis of complaints from thousands of union members, covering a myriad of situations and problems. By substituting remote-controlled call centers for live, knowledgeable union representatives, Stern and his loyal associates hope to discourage members from complaining. Moreover, they will be able to keep track of the number and quality of the complaints and use the information to their advantage.
Stern Seeks to Stifle and Punish All Critics of His Policies
The convention delegates are expected to give Stern the authority to discipline local union officials who vocally disagree with his policies and permit him to take action against local unions that preach union democracy and worker rights. He wants complete freedom to conduct future organizing campaigns without opposition from any union source.
Stern has squashed dissident locals by putting them under trusteeship, to be run by his loyal staff under his orders. These trustees then run for local union office and end up getting elected, even though they may have no knowledge or experience about the particular industry where their members are employed.
By such means, as well as acts of favoritism, Stern has not only stifled dissent, but built up a national network of local union officials who are beholden to him and who willingly endorse his policies and practices.
In his obsession with organizing new members at any cost, Stern has been willing to make concessions to employers in what his critics call “sweetheart deals,“ even surrendering some basic worker rights to get their approval to organize their employees.
The SEIU has apparently worked out a deal with the embattled governor of Puerto Rico, Anbal Acevedo-Vilá. In return for money and other favors, he would give SEIU a clear path to take over the 42,000 Puerto Rican teachers, who now belong to the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR)
According to the New York Daily News, the governor told Dennis Rivera (an SEIU vice president, who was once a progressive union leader) that the teachers’ union is “yours to take.” Previously El Diario-La Prensa reported that Rivera had discussed the teachers’ union with Acevedo about possible SEIU monetary support for the governor, who has recently been indicted on corruption charges.
In November 2007, after nearly three years working without a contract, the Puerto Rican teachers unanimously voted to strike at a mass union meeting of over 7,000 members. A strike was called in late February 2008 that drew wide support and lasted 10 days.
The Puerto Rican government declared the strike illegal and moved to decertify FMPR. Almost simultaneously, SEIU announced that the island’s union of school principals and supervisors was affiliating with SEIU — and would attempt to take over the teachers’ union. FMPR is resisting the raid and receiving support and financial aid from union teachers and their allies on the mainland.
On May 31, the opening day of the SEIU convention, about a hundred FMPR members broke through the barricades, after bloody clashes with anti-riot police, to establish a picket-line in front of the entrance to the convention center. They distributed leaflets and made their case to dozens of SEIU delegates who dared to leave the hall.
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Stern’s goal is to run the SEIU like an American corporation with himself as an all-powerful CEO, and with a minimum of interference from the union membership. He has publicly expressed his contempt for union democracy and worker rights as obstacles to his frantic drive for new members. In his vision, union members will be reduced to silent shareholders, counting on him to deliver them benefits whenever he is able.
Who knows? If Stern can expand the union to even a fraction of what he promises, the SEIU may eventually be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
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