Newly discovered documents reveal that SEIU carried out its intended strategy in attacking UNITE HERE, but that its plan was flawed from the start. From wrongly believing that the entire labor movement could be turned against UNITE HERE (the opposite occurred), to thinking that a “field” campaign of robo calls and mailers to UNITE HERE members would turn them against their own union (the strategy backfired), SEIU’s newly revealed seven point plan exposes a union once known for its savvy “Justice for Janitors” campaigns but whose leadership has taken a wrong turn.

Instead of researching facts, soliciting broad input, and carefully deliberating over a decision that could weaken SEIU nationally and in its California battle against rival NUHW, a handful of SEIU leaders moved quickly to mount an aggressive campaign against UNITE HERE that never had a chance of success. SEIU now faces an estimated 100 elections involving 20,000 workers against rival NUHW in the first five months of 2010, and a June contest for 45,000 workers at Kaiser Hospitals. SEIU’s misguided war on UNITE HERE, and its ongoing strategic deficiencies, could soon cost it dearly.

SEIU’s unsuccessful attacks on UNITE HERE hurt its public reputation, alienated other unions, labor activists and many progressives, resulted in the exodus of key SEIU strategic staff, and boosted efforts by rival NUHW in California to supplant SEIU as the state’s chief representative of health care workers. And newly released documents from the former offices of SEIU Executive Vice-President Bruce Raynor (as quoted in headnotes below) show that SEIU’s failed campaign reflects a systemic defect in its strategizing that could imperil its future.

“Turn the Labor Movement Against Them”

When Andy Stern and Bruce Raynor plotted SEIU’s plans to takeover UNITE HERE in late 2008, they believed that the labor movement would back them. They believed this despite Stern’s longstanding practice of contrasting the “21st Century” SEIU with the presumably “old school” other unions, the SEIU President’s lack of warm personal relations with other labor leaders, SEIU’s leaving the AFL-CIO in a huff in 2005, and SEIU’s own internal belief that labor leaders were jealous of Stern’s success.

SEIU’s plan also ignored UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm’s extremely close personal relationships with national labor leaders. Incoming AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who played an active role in UNITE HERE’s landmark strikes in the 1990’s against the Horseshoe Casino and Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, was among Wilhelm’s closest allies.

So despite overwhelming evidence that labor would not back SEIU’s attacks, Stern, Raynor, SEIU Organizing Director and Executive Vice-President Tom Woodruff, and SEIU’s powerful multi-state Local 32BJ President Mike Fishman believed the opposite.
Ultimately, 27 national union presidents signed a solidarity pledge backing UNITE HERE against SEIU, 29 Central Labor Councils passed resolutions against SEIU’s raiding, and no union in SEIU’s own Change to Win Federation backed its campaign.

“Direct Mail and Robo Calls to Members”

Stern, Raynor and their consultant Steve Rosenthal anticipated that mailers and robo calls would incite UNITE HERE members to seek to leave their union and join SEIU. SEIU proceeded absent any evidence of union member disaffection, and apparently without considering the high risk that its strategy could backfire.

That’s exactly what happened. SEIU’s “field” campaign rallied UNITE HERE members to defend their union, and turned them against SEIU.

What should trouble SEIU members, and those in California considering joining or staying with SEIU, is that Stern, Raynor, Woodruff and Fishman proceeded with this “field” campaign despite any evidence it would work.

Raynor was motivated by revenge against his former union. Fishman was driven by 32BJ’s potential for stealing UNITE HERE’s food service workers in the Mid-Atlantic states. Stern felt the original UNITE HERE merger was a mistake and that both pre-merger unions should be part of SEIU. Many believe Stern was primarily motivated by the chance for SEIU to control UNITE’s Amalgamated Bank, which generated $23 million in profits in 2008, but he has denied this.

It’s worth noting in assessing SEIU’s wrong turn that Fishman led SEIU’s campaign to raid UNITE HERE food service workers in Philadelphia last October, which ended with the workers choosing UNITE HERE by a 2-1 margin. Fishman’s local also recently aligned with developers and Mayor Bloomberg against grassroots activists, a UFCW-affiliated retail workers union, and clergy in the Bronx who were demanding that a proposed commercial development at a local Armory pay workers a living wage. On December 14, 2009, the New York City Council voted down the SEIU/developer backed project by an astonishing 45-1 margin.

“Retain Control of Key Assets and Use Financial Powers”

SEIU also thought it could starve UNITE HERE of resources, forcing Wilhelm to quickly choose between collapse and an SEIU takeover. Considering that Raynor allegedly illegally shifted $10 million from UNITE HERE to SEIU, and had depleted his former union’s strike fund in a year when many locals were preparing for strikes, an outsider unfamiliar with the culture of UNITE HERE might have felt that SEIU’s “financial powers” could in fact force a quick surrender.

But Stern and his colleagues were not outsiders. They knew that UNITE HERE’s entire culture is based on its ability to wage multi-year strikes and boycotts, and to fight “one day longer” than its adversaries.

SEIU had no reason to believe that UNITE HERE would quickly submit, and as its campaign unfolded, it was SEIU who suffered financially. SEIU’s merger with the vestiges of the former UNITE has been a financial drain, while the potential loss of members in California that is linked to its raids against UNITE HERE is costing SEIU millions.

The Immediate Impact of SEIU’s Wrong Turn

SEIU decided to attack UNITE HERE as it was reaching, and then implementing, its controversial January 28, 2009 decision to place SEIU-UHW, its third largest local, under trusteeship. Knowing it would be battling the former SEIU-UHW leadership and its worker supporters, now in rival union NUHW, in decertification elections throughout California in 2009 and 2010, the savvy SEIU of the past would have made absolutely sure not to create new enemies, or give NUHW new allies.

That’s why Stern brilliantly signed a national peace agreement on March 18, 2009 with SEIU’s longtime adversary, the California Nurses Association, which otherwise could have provided resources to NUHW. But by then launching an attack on UNITE HERE, which included particularly vicious anti-union robo calls and mailers to the union’s San Francisco and Southern California members, SEIU pushed UNITE HERE into NUHW’s camp.

Once SEIU pushed UNITE HERE into aligning with NUHW, UNITE HERE’s many defenders in the labor movement began looking at the SEIU-NUHW struggle from a new perspective. NUHW now has the clear support of most California labor officials, progressive politicians and activists, and active rank and file union members, nearly all of whom had stayed out of the SEIU-NUHW struggle until the former declared war on UNITE HERE.

SEIU: Stop Focusing on the Past

In response to the release of these documents setting forth its strategy, SEIU criticized UNITE HERE for being “fixated on trying to make the same tired claims at a moment when workers need more.” But in the wake of NUHW’s 283-13 drubbing of SEIU-UHW in Santa Rosa, its likely victories among nurses and professional staff at Kaiser Hospitals in Los Angeles later this month, and its increasing strength as over 100 decertification elections are approaching, SEIU should feel compelled to fully examine why it attacked UNITE HERE at the worst possible time.

In April 2007, I defended Andy Stern when Sal Rosselli and other current NUHW officials charged him with making “secret” sellout deals in the SF Weekly; Stern thanked me for the support, saying “it matters.”

Understanding the history of SEIU’s wrong turn in forcing out the former UHW leadership and then attacking UNITE HERE matters even more. SEIU needs to explain to the nearly 65,000 workers choosing between SEIU and NUHW why it undertook such ill-conceived and divisive plans. After all, the workers’ own futures could depend on it.

Correction: In the original version of my December 21, 2009 article on NUHW’s victory in Santa Rosa, I wrongly stated that SEIU’s campaign mailers had been prepared by the highly successful San Francisco-based BMW consulting firm. BMW had no role in these mailers. Multiple sources both within and outside NUHW assumed BMW’s involvement, but this was not the case. I apologize for the error, and removed the BMW reference as soon as they contacted me.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.