For the past ten years I have worked for SEIU, most recently leading a campaign to organize 9,000 healthcare workers at St. Joseph Health System (SJHS) hospitals across California. I was drawn to SEIU because of its commitment to social justice, including its inspiring Justice for Janitors campaign, its successful work on behalf of homecare workers, its leadership on immigrant rights, and its innovative strategies to hold corporations accountable. I have been an organizer since 1970, when I first started organizing with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW). I know a little bit about struggle and the terrible cost of internal union conflicts. I’ve been shot at by a supermarket security guard, knocked unconscious by a Coachella Valley grape grower, and survived a heated confrontation with the Salvadoran military.
This is why SEIU’s recent attacks on UNITE HERE have come as such a shock. I am deeply disappointed that SEIU president Andy Stern is financing and helping staff a disruptive attack on the leaders and members at UNITE HERE around the country — the worst instance of a union undermining another union since the Teamsters sought to undermine Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in the late 1960s and 1970s. Last month I decided to leave SEIU, in part because of these attacks.
Over the past six weeks, a number of longtime friends and allies from the UNITE HERE leadership have asked me to join them in their current struggle. Let me tell you why I am proud to support the courageous members and leaders of UNITE HERE.
UNITE HERE has made organizing non-union hotel, gaming and food service workers its top priority. Unionized workers in each of those industries have sacrificed to advance organizing.
In 2004, in San Francisco, Local 2 members went out on strike, were locked out for fifty-three days, and held up their contract for two years, costing the industry over $100 million, in order to maximize their bargaining power for workers in New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Honolulu! The industry gave in and negotiated unprecedented card-check agreements in hotels in the Midwest and Southwest.
UNITE HERE is doing exactly what Change to Win set out to do: organize and use leverage along core industry lines. It is more than ironic that this union is being raided by SEIU, another Change to Win union.
This unjustified attack comes at a time when more than twenty thousand hotel workers are organizing campaigns to win new contracts in one of the worst economic downturns in decades. Sadly, Stern’s actions are also causing very serious collateral damage to the progressive movement.
First, they jeopardize the opportunity to reunify the divided national labor movement. Second, Stern’s war of choice has created deep divisions within the national immigrant rights movement. Third, at the local level, this conflict rips asunder decades-long relationships and progressive labor-community coalitions in cities across the country.
One of the most important lessons that I learned from my father, Fred Ross Sr., is that organizing is about relationships. My relationships with UNITE HERE leaders are deep, born of common struggle for worker justice, immigrant rights, farmworkers, peace with justice in Central America and, most recently, solidarity on behalf of the 9,000 unorganized SJHS healthcare workers fighting for free and fair union elections.
These relationships span thirty-six years, from the time I was a twenty-five year old organizer with Cesar Chavez and the UFW. I have probably gone to jail with hotel workers as often as with farmworkers.
Back in 1973, I recruited New York UNITE HERE leader Bill Granfield for the UFW. In turn, the legendary Miguel Contreras, whom I knew from the UFW, recruited me to join a picket line at the Parc 55 Hotel with members of HERE Local 2 during its citywide 1980 hotel strike. This was the first of many lively and militant street actions I would join with HERE members.
While I was going to law school at the University of San Francisco, my father and I helped a young reform leader, Sherri Chiesa, in her first election as an officer of HERE Local 2. In 1983, a young organizer from the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), Mike Casey, recruited me to do human billboarding with him on behalf of Ohio tomato workers who were boycotting Campbell’s Soup. In December 1989, when Neighbor to Neighbor launched an international boycott of Salvadoran coffee, Mike Casey and Tho Do, along with dozens of HERE members, joined us.
HERE was the first union in the country to recruit and welcome ex-UFW organizers into their ranks. UNITE HERE leaders learned valuable lessons from Cesar Chavez and the UFW. They were willing to make sacrifices and to undertake long, hard campaigns to win against tough odds. They have brought creative strategies to the struggle.
I have also long admired and respected UNITE HERE president John Wilhelm for his commitment, tenacity and strategic vision for building a democratic, vibrant and powerful union and revitalized labor movement.
I have longtime friends and allies on both sides of this conflict. SEIU and UNITE HERE have joined together countless times in mutual solidarity, supporting each other’s strikes and causes.
Ten years ago I recruited SEIU executive vice president Eliseo Medina, whom I have known for more than forty years, to join me, John Sweeney and hundreds of HERE members to engage in a massive sit-in in front of the Marriott Hotel in San Francisco. Several years ago, when I was organizing a city-wide contract campaign with SEIU Local 1877 President Mike Garcia, the members of HERE Local 2 were our most important labor ally. Three years ago, when I was first organizing support in Orange County with SEIU for the St. Joseph Health System campaign, the first labor leader to join us was the local UNITE HERE leader Ada Briceno.
SEIU and UNITE HERE have also been important strategic allies in the broader movement to fight for social and economic justice in this country. For example, Eliseo Medina, John Wilhelm and Maria Elena Durazo are critical allies in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform.
At this critical juncture, when we face both a major economic crisis and an historic opportunity to win universal healthcare, labor law reform, and comprehensive immigration reform, we must find a way to resolve this conflict based on mutual respect and solidarity. To win these epic legislative battles we will need unity and laser-like focus.
My hope is that SEIU will reclaim the best of its proud tradition and help build a more powerful and unified labor movement. Under Andy Stern’s leadership, SEIU made an enormous contribution to the election of President Obama and a progressive majority in Congress. Now he can make a major contribution by making peace with UNITE HERE.
Until he does, I will be standing in solidarity with the members of UNITE HERE.
Si se puede,
Fred Ross Jr.
Ross Jr.is a longtime labor and community organizer.