Postmodern Union-on-Union Fight

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is being denounced by a group of its own employees for doing, well, nothing wrong or illegal, but something that SEIU wants to keep businesses it unionizes from doing: laying off staff and contracting out some operations. Reports The Washington Post:

The Service Employees International Union, considered the most influential union in the nation, has notified the union that represents about 220 of its national field staff and organizers that 75 of them are being laid off. In return, the workers’ union, which goes by the somewhat postmodern name of the Union of Union Representatives, has filed unfair labor practices charges against SEIU with the National Labor Relations Board. The staff union’s leaders say that SEIU is engaging in the same kind of practices that some businesses use — laying off workers without proper notice, contracting out work to temp firms, banning union activities and reclassifying workers to reduce union numbers.

“It’s completely hypocritical,” said staff union President Malcolm Harris. “This is the union that’s been at the forefront of progressive issues, around ensuring that working people and working families are taken care of, but when it comes to the people that work for SEIU, they haven’t set the same standards.”

In the same story, Post reporter Alec MacGillis describes SEIU, correctly, as “the country’s fastest-growing union,” so it seems odd for a union that is growing to lay off the staff it needs to push that growth — but not when considering where SEIU has been spending the money it gets from member dues.

[SEIU President Andy Stern] is also engaged in a costly power struggle with the former elected leaders of one of SEIU’s largest chapters, in Northern California, who were ousted by SEIU two months ago and are now vying with it for the loyalty of the chapter’s members.

Harris said his union’s understanding is that the layoffs are the result of budget troubles faced by SEIU, which, on top of the California dispute, spent $80 million during the 2008 election and is planning to spend tens of millions more to advocate on behalf of Obama’s health-care plan and card check.

Harris said SEIU leaders have made clear that the laid-off employees will not be guaranteed jobs at local chapters. In the case of organizers who are rehired by local chapters, he said the SEIU national office would still subsidize their salaries and help supervise them, but by classifying them as working for local chapters, they would no longer be covered by Harris’s union. Fewer than half of workers at SEIU chapters are unionized, and Harris’s union’s contract with SEIU forbids it from trying to help organize SEIU employees in local chapters.

SEIU’s national office has been contracting out more and more work to a staffing agency, Harris said, including advocacy for card check.

SEIU, like any organization, has the right to hire people and contract with vendors on whatever terms it deems appropriate, and which the other party is willing to accept. Unfortunately, SEIU and other unions seek to keep businesses from having that same flexibility.

Staff union head Malcolm Harris, in addition to accusing the SEIU leadership of  hypocrisy, says, “”I would want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but the direction they seem to be moving in is union-busting” — to which SEIU’s response gives some amusingly unintentional credibility.

SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette denied that work is being contracted out and that SEIU is trying to undermine the staff union. “That would be the cynical way of looking at it,” she said.

In Washington, another word for “cynical” is “smart.” (Thanks to Eli Lehrer for the Post link.)

For more on SEIU, see here.