The SEIU: The Fastest Growing Union in the United States

Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens

The Service Employee International Union (SEIU) continues to defy the trend of record-low union membership in the United States. After doubling its membership from 1.2 million in 2000 to 2.2 million today, it is among the fastest growing unions in the country. Indeed, the union’s long history of innovation and transformation, as depicted in Ken Loach’s film Bread and Roses (2000), at least partially explains its growth. The film focused on the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign in which a 1990 strike (by mostly undocumented immigrants) against the largest commercial cleaning contractor in the United States, International Service System Inc. (ISS), was brutally attacked by the police. In its aftermath public outrage forced the ISS to negotiate a union contract for 700 of its janitorial employees in Los Angeles.

The SEIU’s stance in the labor movement has not changed from the innovation portrayed in the movie. It is now moving toward creating a new coalition that will bridge not only distinct forms of service labor, but also ethnically divided workers in Los Angeles. The most powerful base for the Justice for Janitors movement has been the group of Latino immigrants who constitute the greatest presence among its rank-and-file. Now the organization is working to join janitors and security guards, a traditionally African-American dominated labor force. This move not only strengthens the SEIU-Justice for Janitors in Los Angeles, but also the national SEIU, which includes janitors, healthcare workers, security guards, and other service employees throughout the United States and some parts of Canada. It brings people together as “workers” who might not share the challenge of undocumented status, but who do share the same low wages, the same precarious work conditions, and often the same marginalized communities. The SEIU again proposes to do the gritty work of creating solidarity across ethnic lines, perhaps the most significant work to respond to the hostile anti-immigrant climate that currently pervades the United States.

On a recent Saturday afternoon local leaders from the SEIU-Justice for Janitors gathered at the UCLA labor center on the edge of MacArthur Park near downtown Los Angeles to strategize for the upcoming year of organizing. Many of the women, who made up about half the number gathered, sat with children on their laps, while other children played quietly in the background. The question that dominated their discussion was about how to strengthen the union’s base; their plans were ambitious. The SEIU in California is working to unionize airport and security workers, janitors contracted for buildings, janitors and food service workers in higher education, entertainment and allied workers in sites like Staples Center, Petco Stadium, and race tracks, and workers in multi-service companies that provide cafeteria, janitorial, property, and linen services.

The impact of these changes is already evident at the SEIU local 1877 in downtown Los Angeles. Spanish and English echo through the hallways and the parking lot of the buildings, where workers, many in distinctive SEIU bright purple t-shirts with yellow lettering, include documented and undocumented Latino immigrants, U.S.-born Latinos, and African-Americans. This effort is challenging, in part, because of tensions between and among these communities. In the past unions sometimes failed to confront the claim that immigrants were stealing African-Americans’ jobs. Monique Morris, the NAACP’s vice president for Advocacy and Research, observed that politicians are now using this “divide and conquer” claim to push “copy-cat” legislation following the draconian anti-immigrant laws recently passed in Arizona. The new strategy joining Latino and African-American workers reflects the continuing ingenuity of the SEIU, in bringing together communities that have been traditionally pitted against each other.

David Huerta, vice president of the southern California janitorial division of the SEIU, observed to NACLA that large-scale Central American and Mexican migration in the 1980s came at the very moment when unions in the United States were under siege. The Reagan administration, while providing massive amounts aid to Central American militaries and counterrevolutionaries, whose brutal human rights violations caused a mass exodus of civilians, also undermined unions at home. As labor organizer Victor Narro told me, the manufacturing base in Los Angeles (and the rest of the United States) began to disappear, and sub-contracting of service workers emerged as a way to de-unionize service industries. In Los Angeles, Huerta remembered that union membership rapidly dropped from around 80%, to under 50%, to 30% of workers. In this environment, he said that unions, far from pushing for workers’ benefits, began scrambling to try to keep employers from taking away good wages, health, and pension benefits.

In 1988, SEIU leaders met in Denver, Colorado to address the unionization crisis. From that meeting emerged the SEIU-Justice for Janitors campaign, which included a combination of legal aid for workers, unification of distinct service employees throughout the state, public shaming of those responsible for exploitation, and emphasis on improving community, not just workplace conditions, the same core strategies used today. Janitors were not only an invisible force because of the form of their labor, but also because many were immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and Asia. Most were undocumented and many arrived to Los Angeles after suffering devastating conditions of economic crisis and political violence in their countries of origin. By the force of these immigrants, the SEIU succeeded, seemingly against all odds, in transforming this metropolis into a “union town” through its Justice for Janitors campaigns.

The long-term organizing contributed to a series of agreements that combined distinct union locals throughout California into a single force of some 40,000 workers from northern California to San Diego. National SEIU organizing also contributed to successes. A 1991 campaign that included newspaper ads “From the Big Apple to the Bad Apple,” called on Apple Computers in the Silicon Valley, ostensibly one of the most progressive companies in the United States, to follow the lead of New York City by paying its janitorial workers a living wage of $14 an hour in addition to decent benefits. The ad noted that Apple CEO John Scully made $16.7 million per year, while janitorial staff earned $5 an hour and received no benefits. And it suggested that this came down to a moral choice: New Yorkers valued workers and their community; Californians should follow their lead. They did. In 1992, Apple Computer replaced its non-union labor contractor with a unionized janitorial firm.

SEIU-Justice for Janitors’ efforts to incorporate new workers from distinct ethnic and labor sites ensures that it will continue to grow and to work towards transforming labor conditions in California. In Los Angeles, SEIU is preparing for contract renewals of janitors in May 2012, and of security workers in December 2012. The union hopes that by continuing to improve conditions for those among the lowest paid and most vulnerable, it will “raise the boat for everyone” – a decided difference from the trickle-down economics that ravaged unions during the Reagan era.

However, as SEIU organizers discussed in MacArthur Park, it will do little good for them to be growing as a union if they are alone. Strength comes from numbers and the number of unionized workers in the United States, despite immigrants’ efforts, remains stunningly low. With public employees unions in California under direct attack by political conservatives who blame their wages and benefits for the economic crisis in California, the SEIU has an important job in continuing the struggle to unionize, especially to ensure that divided workers are not scapegoats for bad business and government policies.


Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens is a NACLA Research Associate.

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