Day 1 - Is SWU Bad for the Public Sector?

Once I got my food I had a really interesting conversation at the lunch table with several rank-and-file SEIU members. I was sitting next to a woman from 1199 New York who remarked that this convention, her fourth one, lacked energy. The man sitting next to her commented on all the security.

Another delegate started talking about Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE HERE, who spoke right before lunch. He said he had some differences with Raynor’s assessment of the Service Workers United (SWU) alliance that SEIU has with UNITE HERE. According to him, “SWU has been terrible for us. It undermines our wages.” He explained that he is a public sector worker, and that there is contracting out in his building. The workers at Sodexo doing this contracted work make a lot less than he does, even with the union. And because the union has been focused on organizing the Sodexo workers they have been softer about fighting the privatization of public jobs in the same buildings.

It all reminded me of the article about Andy Stern in HRO Today magazine, a human resources trade journal, where Andy seemed to embrace outsourcing, at least as long as the union could play some role “as an intermediate force” in an industry to make these increasingly rapid changes less painful. What I can’t figure out is why embrace outsourcing, when the union hasn’t been able to bring any of these jobs up to the standards in place when the jobs were still done by public sector workers?



Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

I was active in the living wage movement for a long time and I remember back in 1996 listening to Jackie Goldberg, then a city councilor in Los Angeles (now a state representative) saying that it wasn’t like rocket science figuring out how to save the city money by taking union jobs that start at $14 an hour, have a pension, full health care, and good vacation policies, and replace those workers with minimum-wage workers who have no benefits or time off. It seems backwards to fight to raise the standards of those jobs once in the private sector, especially since the union hasn’t been able to win standards for any recently organized private sector jobs at anything near the standards for public sector workers.

Why not fight to keep these jobs in the public sector? As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure.

Mark Brenner is the former director of Labor Notes and is currently an instructor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education & Research Center.


Anne Munro (not verified) | 06/04/08

Dear Mark
I had been interested in reading this account, but so far you seem to have been totally determined, in advance, to find all that is negative. And only that. When you find this difficult (and obviously there is a lot going on) then you just fall back on being snide.

For your own sake, and for the union's, why don't you report on what is happening openly and honestly? Not about how angry it makes you feel, but about what it IS.

I'm not on either side in this conference; in fact I would argue that the perception of "sides" is an illusion. But if we are going to have a democratic union then it requires people -- you, no less than anybody else -- to start from a position of good faith.

If you choose to reply to this, please do not do so by attacking the union. That would just be weird.

veganpete2 (not verified) | 06/04/08

I have actually looked in great detail at food service as a potential area our Local could pressure public sector employers to bring back in house. What I have found is that it is very expensive for public sector employers to bring this back in house once it is has been contracted out due to some extent equipment costs and that public sector employers achieve tremendous cost savings through contracting out this service. Therefore, it would be a tremendously heavy lift for our Local to bring this service back in house and the use of union resources would come at the expense of other services we are trying to contract in.

However, there are plenty of other areas where unions should push to have services contracted-in and performed by public sector workers such as the use of contracted RNs, CNAs, and other healthcare workers. Usually it costs public employers more to contract out work in this area than it does to bring it back in house. A lot of people, including elected officials, assume that it is always cheaper to contract out work when it is not always true. Therefore, it much easier for the union to get public employers to contract this in, and make sure that people performing this work have quality jobs.

Also there are services where public employers are achieving cost savings through contracting because they are not enforcing quality control standards for the private vendors performing the work. One specific area I know about that affects my local is litter control, where the public entity simply achieves cost savings because they don't enforce the quality standards in the contract. If it did it would actually be less expensive for the public employer to have the work performed by public sector workers.

In my local there are numerous areas that fall into the two categories above which is where I think unions should focus there efforts first on the contracting issue, rather food service where unions could spend a large amount of resources for a relatively small gain to the detriment of public sector workers who work in other areas such as the ones listed above.