Service Employees Union Pushes for More Strategic Focus, New AFL Leader

John Sweeney, John Wilhelm, James Hoffa, Andrew Stern

May 2005

For more than 20 years, there has been a growing recognition that the labor movement is in crisis. Over the past 12 months, even the most ardent defenders of the status quo have accepted that we are in trouble.

Ten years after the election of John Sweeney to lead the AFL-CIO, labor’s decline has continued to a level now below 1 in 12 private sector workers.

The Sweeney era has demonstrated that it is not enough to change the leadership of the AFL-CIO. More importantly, there should be structural change as well.


Over the past few years, recognizing that gains will continue to be harder to achieve at the bargaining table as the number of workers represented by unions falls, SEIU implemented programs that mandated all of the 300 SEIU locals to devote at least 20 percent of their resources to new organizing. Members of dozens of local unions voted to merge or restructure to unite the strength of workers in each of our primary industries. We also instituted a series of reforms that have encouraged coordinated bargaining with common employers.

As a result of changes like these, more than 700,000 workers have joined SEIU in the past eight years. During that period, our local union (SEIU Local 250) alone grew from 33,000 workers to 100,000. Then, last year our members and our counterparts in SEIU Local 399 in southern California voted to form a united statewide health care workers union with 137,000 members—United Healthcare Workers West.

The best example of the strength derived from combining our two locals in an industry can be seen at Catholic Healthcare West (CHW), the largest hospital system in California. In 2000, our union represented 1,500 workers at three CHW hospitals.

More that 700,000 workers have joined the SEIU in the past eight years. The union says it may leave the AFL-CIO unless the federation commits to major new investment in organizing and replaces its leadership. Photo: Jim West.

After a five-year effort that required multiple strikes and a strategically focused campaign, we won a corporate-wide election agreement. Just this past year, we negotiated our first statewide master agreement with CHW, which covers 14,000 SEIU caregivers at 28 hospitals. The agreement includes employer-paid health insurance for employees and their families, a voice in how our hospitals are staffed, a defined-benefit pension plan, and a multi-million-dollar training and upgrade fund.

As the largest affiliate in the AFL-CIO, and a significant participant in numerous state labor federations and dozens of local central labor councils, we also analyzed the AFL-CIO’s strategies and how our resources were being used by the federation.

At our International convention in San Francisco in June 2004, we authorized our officers to put forward a set of proposals to produce fundamental change in the AFL-CIO. If that change were not possible, we authorized our officers to withdraw from the AFL-CIO to build something stronger.

After Bush’s reelection, SEIU put forward a ten-point program to reform the AFL-CIO called “Unite to Win.” The goals of many of our proposals are not controversial: taking on Wal-Mart; expanding the diversity of our unions’ leadership; real solutions to the health care crisis.

But two elements of our proposal generated particular controversy: 1) devoting more AFL-CIO and affiliate resources to organizing; and 2) clearly identifying lead unions in each industry with the focus, resources, and strategy to win—instead of letting unions divide workers’ strength and undercut each other through overlapping organizing across industries.

For weeks after we made our proposals public, there were few responses on their merits but a great deal of fanfare about SEIU’s “arrogance.” The pace of the debate changed dramatically when the Teamsters offered a response to the issues SEIU presented in Unite to Win. After the Teamster response, the floodgates opened.


At its March meeting, the AFL-CIO executive council split into two camps: those who advocated more resources for organizing and a shift to more industry-focused unions and those who opposed those changes and advocated instead for shifting resources to politics.

In a heated exchange, Sweeney, with the support of AFSCME President Gerald McEntee and Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, led defeat of a proposal supported by the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE-HERE, the Laborers, the United Auto Workers, and SEIU to increase spending on new organizing by $35 million per year, channeled to lead unions pursuing industry-based strategies.

In its place, Sweeney and his supporters passed a proposal to double spending on politics to $45 million per year, thereby decreasing the amount of money the AFL-CIO devotes to new organizing.

The two proposals depict fundamentally different approaches to how the labor movement begins to organize out of this mess. From our perspective, the key to rebuilding workers’ strength—both at the bargaining table and in politics—is strategically organizing more workers who are engaged and mobilized to fight for standards that improve their lives. Through that struggle, we will build a more powerful labor movement that will then have the ability to effect political change.



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In contrast, the Sweeney/McEntee/ Gerard approach ties the labor movement to the fortunes of the Democratic Party. With a Democrat-controlled White House and Congress, they claim, labor law reform will be possible, which will then make organizing easier. According to this view, new organizing campaigns are futile while Republicans control the machinery of government, particularly the National Labor Relations Board.

Reportedly, Gerard from the Steelworkers actually said he plans to apologize to his local unions for having spent resources on new organizing. How a diminished labor movement will expand political power without organizing new workers is left unanswered.


There has been a great deal of speculation about whether SEIU will remain in the AFL-CIO. That is a decision that will take place only after discussion within all our local unions, but from the perspective of our local it is hard to imagine why we would stay unless several basic changes are made.

First, there would have to be major new investment in organizing by the AFL-CIO and its affiliates.

Second, AFL-CIO rules and practices regarding jurisdiction, mergers, dues rebates, and other issues would have to be reformed to clearly establish unions with an industry focus. To give one example, Articles XX and XXI of the AFL-CIO constitution should be revised to give priority in organizing to those unions in an industry that already have a proven track record of representing that industry’s workers.

Currently, jurisdiction is decided by which union hits the ground first, with virtually no consideration given for bargaining standards, union density, capacity to succeed, or other factors that may be greater indicators of the capacity and political will to win on the ground.

Third, the AFL-CIO needs a new leader. Although we didn’t start out in this position, Sweeney’s handling of this important debate has demonstrated that he is not the person to lead labor into its next phase. It is just common sense that a new industry-based strategy and structure could only be led by someone who fought for—and not against—that change.

Some of Sweeney’s supporters have reacted to the debate by further dividing workers’ strength. Despite his avowed reluctance to spend union resources until there has been a shift in political climate, AFSCME President McEntee sent hundreds of his paid union staff in an attempt to undermine a ten-year campaign by 49,000 child care workers in Illinois to win the right to join SEIU.

More than 20,000 workers had signed cards for SEIU, yet several weeks before the election AFSCME entered the scene, badmouthing SEIU and hoping to get a piece of the action. SEIU won that election by a 6-1 margin.

It is important to note that even if SEIU decides to withdraw from the AFL-CIO, that would not be the end of our relationship with other union partners. Like many organizations, we have a number of collaborative relationships through coalitions and other venues in which organizations that share a set of common principles work together.

Do we as leaders have the courage to make decisions based upon what is best for workers in this country, rather than what is best for us as individuals? The future of American workers may depend on the answer to that question.

Sal Rosselli is president of United Health Care Workers West/SEIU