How do we optimise communications between union members and union staff? Over the past few years many unions have experimented with call centers. Results and reactions have been mixed: some have established their worth, others have been a costly disaster. Below is an excerpt from Steve Early’s forthcoming book: “The Civil Wars in U.S. Labour — Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of The Old?“. In it, Steve explores the pros and cons and different approaches to call center servicing through an analysis of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) experience. The SEIU launched an ambitious plan to service hundreds of thousands of members through a network of “Member Resource Centers”. Critics feared the role of union stewards and shop floor activity was being undermined. Inevitably, the exercise also raised bigger questions about the process of relationship-building within unions. Depending on the model implemented, call centers can facilitate this process or act as a poor substitute. No matter what your feelings are about the Change to Win split, this article is very much worth reading. We can learn a lot from the SEIU experience, which is why this story is so important. Does your union have a call center? What has your own experience been? Let us know below.
In the recession of 2008–9, some moviegoers sought humorous relief watching a film that spoofed corporate America’s love-affair with out-sourcing and its often insensitive handling of laid off workers. In Up In The Air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, an HR consultant who works for a highly specialized firm based in Omaha. Bingham racks up millions of frequent flier miles, as he travels around the country informing people they have been fired. Clooney’s character is quite skilled in this line of work, which requires deft one-on-one handling of each worker’s anger or emotional distress when he or she gets the bad news. At each “exit interview,” Bingham hands out glossy information packets about whatever severance pay and “employment transition services” his corporate client is offering. But, more importantly, Bingham delivers a carefully customized pep talk about how losing your job is actually a great opportunity for personal growth and career development—elsewhere.
Bingham’s smoothly-delivered spiel strikes some as insincere, but at least he’s sitting in the same room with them, looking them in the eye, talking face to face, ready to offer a Kleenex, if any tears begin to flow. The film’s main plot twist—and there are several—revolves around his own firm’s decision to reduce costs by using on-line video-conferencing instead of on-site visits. In a memorable scene, we see a skeptical Bingham returning from a business trip and getting a quick tour of the new call center created for this purpose. The firm’s “termination managers”—their new job title—are now working with head-sets on, in small cubicles. We see them talking to fired workers, in highly scripted fashion, on their computer screens. Bingham is so aghast that he turns on the smug young executive (played by Natalie Keener) who designed the new system. “I don’t think a MySpace page qualifies you to rewire an entire company,” he tells her. “You know nothing about the way I do things.” By the end of the film, her melding of call center servicing and HR outsourcing has collapsed in disarray. And Ryan Bingham is back on the road again, terminating workers the old fashioned way.
Maybe I’m just “old school” (like the character played by Clooney), but if anyone had told me 20 years ago that call centers were a way to rebuild the labor movement, I would have said they were crazy. The idea might work, as a funny plot twist, in a Hollywood spoof of unions. Not that Hollywood has ever paid much attention to their actual representational role, as traditionally performed in workplaces, with the essential help of shop stewards. Even in Up In The Air, all the fired workers are white-collar and, thus, presumably non-union; none have a co-worker at their side, to advise them of their rights or provide other assistance, in any of the meetings about their termination. The idea that a union might want to embrace a corporate model of “customer service”—using call centers for critical interaction with members who have job problems or questions—was strange indeed. But that’s where SEIU seemed to be headed, in June of 2008, as I waited around in the hot sun outside the San Juan convention center during the debate and vote on this very question.
Getting Away From Grievance Handling
On the eve of the convention, Andy Stern pressed hard for delegate approval of more “Member Resource Centers,” as the union’s call centers are known. “We have a 1930’s teletype model of representation in the 21st century world,” Stern told the New York Times.”[i] You can Google almost anything. But then you call your local union office and you have to push 1 or 2 and then you can’t find someone who speaks the language you speak.” Since unreturned phone calls is a widespread union member complaint—among native born workers, as well as immigrants—anything improving “customer service” in this area sounds like a good idea. However, Stern put a slightly different spin on it when addressing business audiences. In 2007, for example, he informed the Wall Street Journal that SEIU wanted to develop “a new model [of unionism] less focused on individual grievances, more focused on industry needs.” [ii]
His downplaying of grievance-handling was also at odds with his past criticism of union democracy because it detracted from representation. “It’s hard to make the argument that unions with direct elections better represent their members, “ he has said. “Our members are more concerned about being serviced. That is what I hear about.”[iii]
To improve servicing, while freeing up more resources for organizing and political action, Stern and Anna Burger proposed that:
“During 2008 and 2009, we will work together to evaluate, test, and pilot member resource centers (MRCs). We will determine the most effective and efficient manner in which to implement MRCs and to provide high quality member representation. . . . across the union.
“By 2012, a majority of members will have 24/7 access to quality information and services from member resource centers. . . . MRCs will meet union-wide standards for cost, quality of service to members, ease of access, multiple language capability, support available to member leaders and staff, and quality of data to support SEIU programs and strategies.” [iv]
Prior to the vote on MRC Resolution #204, all convention delegates, plus guests and reporters, got a clever invitation printed in Spanish and English on pink telephone message slips. It asked: “ Are you tired of talking to machines? Leaving voice mail messages? Getting put on hold? Visit the MRC exhibit to find out how SEIU locals can improve member service and support stewards and other member activists.” Those who inspected the mock call center became eligible for a prize “just for visiting,” plus they could don head-phones themselves to hear a sample exchange between a member/caller and a MRC staffer. Computer screens displayed the kind of contract information that MRC reps would supposedly have at their disposal to handle individual queries, while performing other useful functions, like updating the union’s membership data base with personal information provided by callers.
Every delegate also received a glossy 30-page document entitled, “The Union of the Future: Membership Action and Leadership to Win for Working People.” This was the report and recommendations of a fifteen-member SEIU committee, chaired by Burger, that spent three years exploring ways to enhance “local union strength.” Burger’s panel was aided by union advisors and an impressive array of CEOs, corporate consultants, pollsters, and business school professors (hailing from the Boston Consulting Group, the Beneson Strategy Group, X2 Technology, QB International, MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and Peter Hart Research.) To “take a deeper look” at “the member experience,” SEIU also contracted with a Palo Alto firm called IDEO, “a world leader in innovation and design . . . known for working on products such as the Macintosh mouse and the Palm pilot.”
An Import From Australia
Burger’s “Union of The Future” report included a much-cited section on the “near-death experience” of organized labor in Australia. There, the right-wing governments in power prior to a Labor Party victory in 2007 introduced draconian legislation to curtail collective bargaining, dues check-off, and union density. “The combined effect of the conservative attack was that many unions lost half their membership within a very short time period.” As part of their come-back strategy (as recounted by SEIU), the Aussies “reorganized representation using modern call center technology” so workers with a weakened shop-floor union presence could call “a central location for critical information and to file grievances.”
Aided by advisors from Australia, SEIU public sector locals on the west coast began working with the International union in 2006 “to create the largest most technologically advanced MRC yet.” Two years later, according to the Burger report, this facility in Pasadena was “serving more than 200,000 members from California locals 221, 721, 521, and 1021,” with a high level of customer satisfaction. Citing organizational synergies achieved in Australia, the report projected a rosy future in which members would be “so strongly supported” by call centers that stewards and field staff could then “focus on building the union: identifying and developing leaders; organizing around workplace issues; fighting for better contracts, uniting more workers, and winning politically and in the community.”[v]
An accompanying promotional video extolled the same possibilities, plus additional ones. Jenny Yang, Local 721’s enthusiastic young MRC project coordinator, explained that call centers were critical to SEIU becoming “this really, you know, kick-butt organizing union for the 21st century.” Annelle Grajeda, the Stern-appointed leader of Yang’s local, predicted that MRCs would allow SEIU “to be more creative, to partner with our employers to bring innovation and quality to public service.”
Rank-and-file members from several California locals, including 721, strongly disagreed with Yang and Grajeda. They spoke out against Resolution 204, on and off the convention floor. Mel Garcia, a 30-year SEIU activist at Kaiser, told reporters that no union can function well without elected stewards who are “known, respected, and trusted” by their co-workers “With call centers,” Garcia argued, “you take away that face-to-face connection. If members have to pick up a phone and call an 800 number, how can they feel protected and supported, particularly in a discharge situation? That, to me, is not a union. . . . If a member calls me or comes to my desk, they’re going to say, ‘Get back to me.’ If you call someone on the phone in this big call center system, it will be very easy for your message to get lost and your call not returned.”
Delegate Leslie Harding, a Kaiser HMO surgical technologist from Redwood City, California, expressed her opposition on UHW’s daily convention blog. There she wrote: “I never dreamed I’d see my own union imitate credit card companies, the IRS, and major insurers and try to turn us into ‘dial a union.’ Having a union is supposed to help us stand up to management, not just give us the ability to pick up a phone and call a 1–800 number. A union is not about long-distance representation from someone who’s never set foot in your work-place, who doesn’t know you or your manager, and who doesn’t have any understanding of what goes on where you work.”
UHW also prepared a formal critique of Burger’s report. Entitled “‘Justice for All’ ‘or ‘Control for Just Us?’” the document explained why shop steward functions shouldn’t be outsourced:
“Throughout SEIU’s history, we have learned that powerful unions require trained and effective workplace leaders, strong shop-floor organization, and a culture of solidarity and action among members. . . . [They] require stewards and member leaders who can organized their co-workers, interpret and defend their contract, conduct issue fights, handle grievances and resolve problems. This combination of people, skills, organization, and culture allows members to build worker-led unions . . .”
UHW warned that MRCs would be used, by SEIU, “to dispense with workplace conflict administratively and re-construct the union as an issue advocacy organization to pursue priorities and execute campaigns in which workers would have little say.” Emulating the AARP or MoveOn.org, SEIU might then “become the biggest, strongest, and best-funded issue advocacy organization in America” but it would no longer resemble, in any way, “an organization of workers, by workers and for workers.”[vi]
On the convention floor, UHW tried to amend Resolution #204 to clarify that new MRCs were designed to enhance the work of stewards, not replace them. “We’re not against new ideas for being more innovative and effective, as long as they work,” Sal Rosselli explained. [vii] But the effort was defeated. A large majority of the delegates supported the leadership recommendation to expand call center coverage. One of the dissenters, Michael Fenison, a UHW delegate from Inglewood, CA., angrily disputed Stern’s claim that MRCs were still being introduced as a pilot project. “This resolution is being forced down our throat and we’re going to get call centers whether they work or not,” he predicted. [viii]
A Teletype Model of Representation
My own call center skepticism (and sympathy for UHW’s losing side of the argument) was not born of any great attachment to mainstream labor’s “teletype model of representation.” That model didn’t empower stewards enough either. And it rarely encouraged membership action, on the job, to put pressure on employers to resolve problems quickly and more favorably to workers. Instead, full-time union officials filed grievances on behalf of individual members, who then passively watch a long and legalistic slog through the multiple-steps of the contract grievance/arbitration procedure. Some cases are won, many more are not, and others just disappear along the way—leading to considerable frustration at the rank-and-file level in many unions.
Still, I couldn’t help wondering whether SEIU officials infatuated with call centers—as a “21st century alternative to our last century grievance morass”—had ever visited the real thing, since the model they were adopting was so obviously corporate-inspired. As a union rep myself, I’d spent more than a quarter century in and around telecom industry call centers run by giant firms like AT&T and Verizon. There, thousands of CWA members service a “customer base” far larger than SEIU’s. Over the years, I had helped unionized customer service representatives (CSRs) joust with management about work organization and scheduling; training and equipment; coaching, monitoring, and changes in their sales scripts; performance standards and “productivity” incentives; and the use of “foreign language queues” to better assist non-English speakers. I was also involved in many disputes about service quality, as phone companies made CSR work more computer-paced, highly-scripted, and, often, less helpful to customers. [ix]
One of the local unions I assisted began tackling such issues in 1980, after an NLRB election victory in three phone company offices in New Hampshire. Back then, only 150 customer service reps out of 3,000 were unionized in New England. As a result of successful strike action by CWA and IBEW over the next two decades—and much membership mobilization in support of “bargaining to organize”—the rest got organized eventually. By 2003, CWA Local 1400 had about 1,800 dues-payers spread out over four-states in a dozen Verizon call centers ranging in size from 50 to 500 workers. [x]
Unfortunately, under an increasingly domineering and undemocratic local president, 1400’s steward system had atrophied badly. Critical information was hoarded among the four full-time officers who worked out of union headquarters in New Hampshire, where all grievance handling was centralized and tightly controlled. The top leadership had failed to recruit, train, and maintain a network of stewards and chief stewards. Rank-and-filers were not involved, to the degree they should have been, in the presentation of grievances to the company. As a result, some stewards quit in frustration or disgust, while others felt poorly equipped to answer questions about the contract or handle day-to-day issues in their offices.
As CWA’s shop floor presence diminished, more members with a question or problem began to think of “the union” as just the four full-time officers, tucked away in New Hampshire. Being customer service reps who worked all day on the phone, they began to pick up the phone themselves, on their breaks and lunch hours, and called the local’s own 800 number. Throughout Local 1400, the habit of dealing directly with the union office—or, more often, just the president herself—began to spread. As the volume of member calls increased, more and more requests for help or information didn’t get answered in timely fashion, or at all. As the CWA staffer assigned to this local, I began to get more of what (in phone company jargon) is called “over-flow calls.” Members would contact the national union to determine the status of backlogged grievances or arbitration appeals, hardship transfer requests, missing FMLA paperwork, or other matters the local was supposed to handle or keep them better informed about. Few callers were happy about the amount of time they had already spent “in queue,” during previous phone contact with the local.
This membership dissatisfaction reached the boiling point in late 2002. It became the deciding factor in a hotly contested election for Local 1400 officers. The 20-year incumbent president, a founder of the local, was ousted, along with most of her executive board allies. The new president was Don Trementozzi, a service rep from Rhode Island who had two decades of prior union experience in the Machinists and AFSCME. The first thing his slate did, after getting sworn in, was re-establish and strengthen the local’s workplace steward network. This required recruiting and training new stewards, making sure they knew the contract and giving them the chance to enhance their skills and self-confidence by participating in worksite-level labor-management meetings.
Mobilizing For Power With Stewards
The local’s rank-and-file executive board—previously underutilized in the grievance procedure—was redeployed to do more contract enforcement work alongside the stewards and elected chief stewards. A new system was developed to keep members better informed about the status of their grievances at each step of the process. For the first time in the local’s history, workers who filed a grievance were invited to participate in all three pre-arbitration steps of the grievance procedure (a change in practice that VZ labor relations reps particularly disliked). Workplace activists began to get a steady flow of information about their legal and contract rights. For the first time, CWA’s internal organizing manual—“Mobilizing For Power”—was put in the hands of any member who wanted a copy. This 60-page guide includes the following self-criticism of the “servicing model” of unionism, as it evolved over time. It makes the case for doing things differently, with a much bigger dose of direct action on the job:
“CWA, like most unions, was organized on the basis of member involvement. Fundamentally, a union’s power at any point in time is nothing more than the total energy and support of its members who can be mobilized. The basic premise of ‘mobilization’ is that we must return to our roots and commit to a strategy that rests on increasing our power through membership education and involvement. We have become too reliant on the crafty union negotiator, the clever chief steward, and the experienced local president to solve our problems. We can no longer solely rely on grievances, arbitrations or labor laws to achieve workplace justice.” [xi]
Trementozzi didn’t hunker down in the Local 1400 office, like his predecessor during the waning days of her old regime. Instead, he and other officers remained highly visible and accessible (just as they had been while campaigning for office, on their own time and at their own expense).[xii]
They made frequent worksite visits to help lay the groundwork for the local’s participation in a 2003 contract campaign at Verizon that extended from Maine to Virginia and involved 75,000 IBEW and CWA. One building block of that campaign was an improved union communications network, utilizing members’ home email addresses; these were collected, one-on-one, in each workplace as stewards talking to their co-workers about the importance of receiving regular mobilization and bargaining updates via an electronic newsletter called “Unity@Verizon.” Union sticker-wearing, group grievance-filing, informational picketing, and other displays of workplace solidarity (like wearing red to work every Thursday) also became the order of the day. When negotiations on the local negotiations got underway, the 1400 bargaining committee was expanded to include board members, as well as officers. And, for the first time in the local’s 23-year history, working members were also invited to attend as observers, on their own time.
During this rebuilding process, Trementozzi delivered the same message in every office he visited : “If you have a problem, don’t call the local—go to your steward first.” The local’s four elected full-timers (plus their experienced office manager) continued to get plenty of calls, of course, but not as many from members directly. Far more of their phone conversations were now with stewards, chief stewards, and elected vice-presidents calling on behalf of a co-worker in their own office, but seeking information or advice about how they themselves should handle the problem on the scene. For contract enforcement and membership mobilization purposes in 2003, Local 1400 ended up with 75 to 100 newly-empowered workplace activists, many of whom had previously been sidelined by the union.
Over time, the local’s old dysfunctional division of labor was gradually replaced by a new and more effective one. 1400 utilized members for all kinds of union-building work—either as volunteers or on a “lost-time” basis, in which case they were paid by the company (where possible under the contract) or, more frequently, by the local or national union. During Trementozzi’s second term in office, 1400 was able to expand its external organizing activity, using the same member-based approach. A rank-and-file committee recruited several hundred new members at customer service centers or mobile phone retail stores. In these new bargaining units, the local went through the same process of promoting rank-and-file participation in first contract bargaining and/or labor-management meetings. Patient steward recruitment and training enabled these newly organized workers to become familiar with their contracts and, with backing from the local, develop confidence in their collective ability to deal with management at the work-site level.
With members in three different telecom bargaining units, covering four states, Local 1400 now conducts regular conference calls involving up to 120 stewards. They are encouraged to schedule an after-work party at someone’s home, MoveOn.org-style, and participate in the call together, as part of a local group. 1400 also has a Facebook page for its activists and the highest level of CWA COPE participation in its history (20% of the membership as opposed to only 5 workers donating in 2002.) By 2009, the new leadership had restored sufficient confidence in the union to get a dues increase passed (from 1.3% to 1.6% of base pay); now it can fully participate in multiple central labor councils and Jobs with Justice coalitions. The challenges that Verizon workers face are daunting—including a corporate de-unionization strategy that has pushed CWA-IBEW density down to about 30 percent within the company. Already, Local 1400 has been in the forefront of the fight against one facet of this strategy, the dumping of rural landlines. Along with the IBEW, it waged a vigorous campaign to block the sale of Verizon operations in northern New England. The deal was approved by utility regulators anyway. As predicted by both unions, the successor employer, FairPoint Communications, soon went into bankruptcy. [xiii]After difficult bargaining, Local 1400 was able to keep most of its old Verizon contract intact for the members affected.[xiv]
When reformers first took over 1400, they could easily have perpetuated the de facto call center servicing model inherited from their predecessors. As trained, experienced, energetic young CSRs, they were well equipped to upgrade the union’s own “customer service.” All they had to do was keep their Verizon head-sets on, sit in a new office all day long, and handle Local 1400 “call volumes” more efficiently than their jaded predecessors. But they chose not too. “I don’t see how a call center for members could ever be effective because that’s not what having a real union is all about,” Trementozzi said. “There’s no personal interaction or relationships of trust—it’s like calling Verizon about your phone bill. What gets management’s attention is people doing things together at work and building an organization, from the bottom up.”
“Our call center is a little different.”
In SEIU’s brave new world of “mega-locals”—described further in the next chapter—a local the size of Don Trementozzi’s wouldn’t count for much and might not even be allowed to exist at all. His several thousand members don’t have the “scale” necessary to support massive new organizing and more effective political action, according to SEIU. Local 1400 dues are still too low, it doesn’t have enough full-time staff, and the competitive elections it holds every three years (with forty to fifty percent of the membership voting) is just a dangerous distraction from the challenge of “building power for workers.” In addition, SEIU strategists would say, the culture of this CWA affiliate is much too focused on “local union interests”—ie the workplace problems of “just us”—rather than the sweeping SEIU objective of “Justice For All.” As SEIU board member (and former CWA organizer) Stephen Lerner has argued, “servicing and defending remaining islands of unionization” (like Local 1400 at Verizon) is simply not viable any more. That’s why, in Lerner’s view, MRC expansion is a “radical development.” By embracing more call centers, “delegates overwhelmingly voted to commit SEIU to changing the world, not just their worksites.” [xv]
In big locals on both coasts and in the mid-west, SEIU has been using MRCs, not just to free up resources for politics and organizing, but to assist members who don’t have traditional “worksites.” As we saw in the last chapter, hundreds of thousands of the union’s newest recruits work in their own homes or someone else’s. In such settings—far removed from the cubicle-filled world of a big white-collar employer like Verizon—there’s no way to have easy access to a shop steward; there aren’t even other union members around, unless they happen to be doing home care or child care in the same neighborhood. So one reason for SEIU’s shift to call center servicing is the very real challenge of being responsive to dues-payers who work in relative isolation from each other. According to Anna Burger’s convention report, MRC’s are already providing “great service” to “home care locals in California, Washington, Oregon, and Illinois. . . . in an industry without common worksites.”
The 80,000 janitors and security guards in Local 32BJ, which is headquartered in New York City, also have access to a regional call center. By 2008, it was reporting 500,000 calls a year from members in workplaces from Hartford, Ct. to Washington, D.C. As a result of switching to this system, 32BJ claims, more union staffers could be re-assigned to “organizing the largest contract action team ever in the commercial janitorial division” and “dramatically increasing member participation in COPE.” In the mid-west, a similar multi-state property services local reported that it now had “a strong system of representation in place” thanks to a call center launched in 2004 and a companion “grievance center.” At Local 1, “not only have services improved,” according to Burger’s report, but more resources are now available for “crucial campaigns, including organizing 5,000 janitors in Houston.”
While visiting Chicago, I was able to talk to Local 1 President Tom Balanoff about his MRC experience. “Our call center is a little different,” Balanoff explained, when I asked about criticisms I had heard at the SEIU convention and in California. The Local 1 MRC grew out of a merger ten years ago of three SEIU locals, all undergoing demographic changes in their membership. Under the old system of servicing, field reps handled all their own calls from members in their assigned buildings, filed all the grievances, and made workplace visits. “Reps like to be lawyers,” Balanoff said, and, as a result, an estimated 60% of local resources were consumed by contract administration. While little staff time was left for “moving program” or “mobilizing workers,” there were still “a lot of problems and complaints from members” about servicing. According to Balanoff, some staffers couldn’t speak the language of the foreign-born members they represented, who used to be Polish and are now often Latino or from the former Yugoslavia. Local 1’s call center now serves workers in English, Spanish, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian and “members like getting phone calls answered in their own language,” Balanoff said. The local itself has 50,000 members spread out over 7 states and 10 other major cities, including Indianapolis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Kansas City, and far off Houston.
Krystyna Razwadowski, a tall, blond, and friendly Polish immigrant who is Local 1 Member Resource Coordinator, and Ed Bowen, the union’s Grievance Director, provided a tour and explained how the 70 or more staffers working for the organization have been redeployed. The local has its multi-lingual “Member Resource Representatives” on duty and fielding calls from union headquarters on East Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago. Its “Grievance Center” is staffed by “Grievance Representatives” who work in the same Chicago office and other mid-western cities within Local 1’s expanding jurisdiction. The remaining staffers are called “Field Representatives” and, as their title implies, are still deployed in the field but not for grievance-related purposes. When a member contacts the union, MRC personnel, under Razwadowski’s supervision, do the initial in-take and end up answering most questions themselves. “We found that 60% of the calls coming into the local weren’t about filing a grievance,” Balanoff explained. Instead, janitors and security guards just wanted basic information about benefits, their next wage increase, or other contract entitlements. To answer such questions, the call center reps, some of whom had used to be administrative/clerical employees of the local, consult either hard copies of contracts or a data base with relevant contract information. Whether a worker, a spouse, or other relative calls, the reps use the conversation to update the member’s contact information. If the local’s records show the caller is not yet signed up for COPE or involved in any other Local 1 programs, they encourage such participation.
If the caller is complaining about a contract violation—like mistakes in pay—that are fairly simple to straighten out, the call center reps will try to straighten things out with an employer. Bigger or more complicated problems, like being disciplined or discharged, get referred to the Grievance Center, where grievance reps (some of whom used to work in the field) make a determination about whether or not to file an individual or group grievance. These “dispute” calls also trigger “action needed” email notification of the relevant field rep and Local 1 departmental director. (The union has different departments for allied/industrial shops, security firms, and different types of building service contractors.) The standardized in-take work of the call center and its coordination with the grievance center enables grievance cases to be logged in, tracked, and closed out, with less paperwork, and greater organizational capacity “to at least quantify the work, measure how quick reps resolve grievances, how many are resolved,” Balanoff said. If the union decides not to pursue a member complaint, Bowen said that the staff “try to educate stewards and members on the reasons why that case will not be successful.” Local 1 directors also use MRC-generated data to flag reoccurring problems involving contract interpretation that may need to be addressed in future negotiations with management.
Nothing But Positive Feedback?
The stocky, goateed Bowen is a former security officer at a nuclear power plant, where the workers were represented by SEIU. He became a full-time union field rep back in the days when “we were all jacks of all trades.” He says his own job performance suffered then because “I was so bogged down in grievances,” particularly about pay issues. Today, he believes, there is a better division of labor on the Local 1 staff and, with help from the MRC, “contracts are more enforced now than under the old system.” In one major Chicago hospital, the McCormick Place convention center, Navy Pier and several nuclear power plants, there are a sufficient number of Local 1 members working in one place (with fewer language barriers) to permit a traditional representation structure, in which stewards and chief stewards handle grievances themselves with less reliance on the MRC. But Bowen said the challenge of steward recruitment in the local’s property services jurisdiction—covering 300 buildings in downtown Chicago alone—made MRC servicing a necessity and an improvement.
Since the MRC was introduced, the function of both stewards and field reps has been redefined. According to Bowen, the stewards still “police the contract” but “they are brought into the grievance procedure more as a witness,” in any meeting held with management over a grievance is filed by the local. The rest of the time they are encouraged to help Field Reps with COPE sign-ups and turn-out for rallies and so on. For their part, the Field Reps are now charged with what Balanoff calls “building the union, identifying leaders, moving program, and organizing fight backs.” Bowen does not believe there is a tension between this new emphasis on member mobilization around union-defined contract and political goals and the higher priority that workers might place on dealing with their day-to-day problems. “I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback from most stewards,” Bowen said, except for a few “who don’t want to change.”
This claim was strongly disputed by a former Local 1 staffer and one-time co-worker of Bowen’s, who was also hired from the ranks and has many relatives and friends who are still Local 1 members. This source now works for another Chicago-area union and asked to remain anonymous. When the MRC was first introduced in 2003, he said, staff members loyally tried to adapt to their new roles as call center-bound Grievance Reps. Instead of working with an assigned constituency of stewards and members they knew well and had developed long-term relationships with, these reps were now sitting at a desk eight-hours a day, waiting for local-wide calls from workers they didn’t know and whose contracts were sometimes unfamiliar to them. Their previous mix of duties—workplace visits, signing up new members, enforcing and negotiating contracts—had certainly been challenging and, at times, quite stressful. But, at least then, reps had on-going face-to-face contact with the rank-and-file.
One experienced Local 1 rep was fired when he tried to propose changes in the new system during several meetings with Balanoff where the objections of fellow staffers and members were aired. Management claimed he was guilty of “disloyalty and insubordination.” Two years later, a three-member NLRB panel (that included the Board’s current chairperson, Wilma Liebman, and her Bush-appointed predecessor, Robert Battista) disagreed. They ordered the rep’s reinstatement” because his right to engage in “protected concerted activity” had been violated. [xvi]
The former Local 1 employee I interviewed believes that “the 800 number has made members less engaged” than before and definitely more resentful of workplace visits by the new Field Reps, who are seen as “the guys coming to get your COPE money who don’t know shit about your building.” On balance, and while still a fan of SEIU in other respects, this former staffer believes that Balanoff’s MRC “is bad on many levels and does more harm than good.” He notes that SEIU has invested heavily in a new Detroit-based regional call center and worries that more mid-western locals will be forced to utilize its services in a manner similar to Local 1’s operation. An immigrant himself, this source dismissed the idea that Local 1’s multi-lingual workforce required MRC servicing. Instead, he theorized that the new system had more to do with insuring that “Tom would remain president for life.” In his view, the MRC system was designed, in part, to insure that all membership loyalty, such as it was, would flow directly to the top. No Local 1 steward or full-time rep would ever again be able to develop enough of a political base to challenge the leadership, given the restructuring of those two union roles and the huge geographical scope of the local.[xvii]
Local 1 says it hasn’t done a survey of membership satisfaction with the MRC (although a systematic study of its functioning is now being conducted by Bob Bruno, a University of Illinois labor relations professor.) For Tom Balanoff, the deciding factors in favor of call center servicing are being able to “free up half the resources previously devoted to grievance-handling” and finding “ways to put more resources into building a bigger movement,” that can raise contract standards. The Local 1 president acknowledged that call center servicing might work better where a local is administering a limited number of master contracts. If Local 1 was “a big amalgamated local, with a hundred different contracts, the [new] system wouldn’t work as well,” Balanoff said. Rozwadowski noted likewise that, “based on our membership and structure, it works for us. That doesn’t mean it will work for other unions.”
Some California Complaining
If the past, present, and future of call center servicing seemed bright (to some) in the Windy City, there was much discontent with it in sunny California, the epicenter of SEIU’s call center experiment. At a statewide gathering of SEIU reformers—held in Berkeley in the Spring of 2008—the MRC in Pasadena (which refused my request for a tour) was much reviled. Among its critics at that time were state, county, and municipal workers whose already large locals had, in four instances, been restructured and consolidated into new SEIU affiliates with appointed leaders and expanded membership of up to 80,000. Mike Donaldson, who works at Laney College in Oakland, explained that his 35,000-member Local 790 had a Bay Area focus, a “relatively democratic structure,” and a history of rank-and-file involvement. Despite being promised new “communication tools” like the MRC, he was concerned that workers in his new 55,000-member Local 1021, which covers all of northern California, wouldn’t have the same ‘connection to the union” as before. “It’s not just the aspect of losing local control,” he said. “We’re becoming spectators in our own union, passive consumers of the union product—and that’s a serious problem.”
Catherine Alexander, a Santa Clara County librarian shifted from Local 715 to 521, was first briefed on SEIU’s call center project well before the merger, but not told what it might cost. But then, in the summer of 2007, she and other members learned that the MRC was being introduced at great expense to their new local. In fact, money had to be diverted from 521’s already depleted strike fund to pay for its initial contribution to the MRC in Pasadena. By 2008, the local’s annual budget indicated that it was costing 521 members $1.2 million at a time when the local faced a deficit of nearly $2.8 million. “I felt the whole thing was a slap in the face, “ Alexander said. “As stewards, we’ve taken classes, learned to empower ourselves and helped our co-workers exercise their rights in the workplace.”[xviii]
According to state corrections department worker Joyce Thomas-Villaronga, a member of Local 1000, “SEIU doesn’t have a good history of day-to-day representation, of handling the problems that we, as stewards and local officers, have to deal with . . . A lot of our longtime leaders have gotten frustrated and walked away.” She reported that the labor reps working fulltime for her local would no longer handle grievances when that work was shifted to the MRC. Instead, the reps were going to focus on internal organizing—ie trying to sign up more of the non-members in state government units. She questioned the effectiveness of this redeployment, arguing that working members, like herself, would be more effective signing up their co-workers than paid staffers. “Members need to be more engaged and they should be the ones organizing other state workers while the staff should be doing professional representation work and mentoring stewards on how to write effective grievances, “ she said. “We’re not teaching enough of them how to write grievances.”
Another call center critic, who came to the meeting from southern California, was Arturo Diaz, who voted against Resolution 204 in San Juan, as a convention delegate from Local 721. Diaz works as a computer programmer for Los Angeles County and was a rank-and-file executive board member of Local 660 before it was dissolved and merged into a new seven-county entity. After that consolidation, 721 was run by an “interim president,” MRC booster Annelle Grajeda, the former staff director of 660 who had never been a working member of any component part of 721. As of March, 2008, unhappy members estimated that their local had already spent $360,000 on the Pasadena MRC. Like Catherine Alexander in 521, Diaz doubted that the MRC would be an adequate substitute for trained stewards and some of the experienced 660 staffers who lost their jobs when that local was merged into 721. [xix]
One such lay-off victim was Paul Krehbiel. As a Local 660 field rep and organizer, Krehbiel had focused on building large steward committees and promoting member activism on the job—goals that Grajeda cared little about, in his view. [xx] So Krehbiel and other “popular, effective and active staff members were let go,” Diaz complained. Now, members were being told to pick up the phone and talk to newly hired staffers at the MRC who “never had a real job and don’t know anything about labor.” Diaz assured me he didn’t “have anything against young people, but a lot of them are getting a big check now so their attitude [toward Grajeda] is ‘Whatever you want me to do, boss’ . . . . . . When you’re speaking with someone on the telephone, it’s just too easy for them to say, ’You don’t have a grievance.’ And that’s the end of the story.”[xxi]
SMART member Dan Mariscal works for the city of Los Angeles and has been a shop steward for 18 years. Like Diaz, Mariscal doubted whether call center personnel would ever be as responsive to fellow members as an elected (or even an appointed) steward who is their co-worker. But he had tried to keep an open mind about the idea. In early 2007, he was part of “transitional representation committee” that brought together stewards from his Local 347 and several others that were being merged into 721. The stewards were assured that the MRC would streamline communications between members and their new local, plus “free up” its 50 to 60 field reps (who would now be called “Worksite Organizers”). “On its face, this sounded like a pretty good idea” to Mariscal, until he sought assurances that the Worksite Organizers would still be “helping us assist members with their grievances?” Mariscal was worried that any city employee who invoked the right, under L.A.’s labor relations ordinance, to have a “representative of his/her choice” in grievances and disciplinary actions might end up with less, rather than more, access to union representation.
Mariscal and other stewards raised these concerns during several visits to the Pasadena MRC in the summer of 2008. By then it was operating with about 23 Member Resource Organizers (MROs) and its director, Rodney Bullock, boasted of his ability to track how many calls were coming in per hour, how long the callers were on hold, the duration of the calls, the average time it takes to “handle” a call, etc. Within the MRC itself, Mariscal discovered that calls were being routed to the “right people,” in terms of their second language skills, but, “not necessarily anyone knowledgeable about your particular contract.” The newly minted MROs had never worked as members or staffers in any of the bargaining units they were fielding calls from. They only received three weeks of training and were employed by the SEIU International union, not any of the four locals funding the center. For Mariscal, this arrangement raised obvious questions about their accountability:
“In the former Local 347, the staff was accountable to the member- elected executive board. If a staff member wasn’t ‘cutting it,’ the board could fire him/her and also approve his/her replacement. That was obviously not the case now…”
The six-local merger that created 80,000-member Local 721 had been touted by SEIU as the pathway to a “bigger, better, and stronger union.” But Mariscal and other stewards expressed mounting frustration over 721’s apparent “disconnect” from the realities of life in the hundreds of far-flung worksites, now included the merged local. In their view, the transfer of traditional field staff functions from “Worksite Organizers” still in the field to call-center based “Member Resource Organizers” had not provided any additional staff support for shop stewards. Supervisors now “regarded SEIU stewards as a mere nuisance,” Mariscal reported, and “members were losing confidence in the union at an alarming rate.”
The Membership Backlash Against MRCs
In 2009–10, election results, in several major locals, indicated that membership discontent with MRCs was not limited to SMART and like-minded reformers. Several local presidents, sensing that a membership backlash was brewing, were forced to distance themselves from the call center concept for their own political survival. Those who didn’t—in Massachusetts Local 888 and California Local 1021—were voted out of office.[xxii] In 888, there were multiple reasons for membership dissatisfaction with Susana Segat, an incumbent originally installed by Stern and Burger. But, on their Change888 website, her opponents highlighted one major rank-and-file gripe: “Segat’s ‘Member Resource Center’ is just a computerized voicemail system.” In his campaign against Segat, Boston City Hall worker Bruce Boccardy charged that widespread steward demoralization, combined with high staff turnover, had created a representation void affecting many of the local’s 10,000 members. According to Boccardy, the old leadership:
“[D]ecided to do away with as many [field] staff as possible by implementing the call-in MRC. But that only made the problem worse. How can a few staff people, stuck in a statewide union office, with a pile of 200 different contracts possibly figure out what is going on in workplaces that they’ve never visited? They can’t. It is a ludicrous system.”
Boccardy pledged to scrap this system and replace it with “the traditional model of representation: individual staff who are assigned to units and are responsible for, and to, the membership of those units.” Yet Segat’s opponent was no union traditionalist himself. Boccardy is a former Sixties’ radical whose 7-point program to “bring the union back to the members” was actually red-baited by a few members because it opened with a quote from Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day and ended with one from socialist Eugene V. Debs (neither of whom are much cited in union campaign literature these days). [xxiii] Boccardy won by a two-to-one margin, in his second bid for the presidency.
Ten months after Segat’s defeat, another MRC defender fell on her purple sword in early 2010. Damita Davis-Howard, the Stern-appointed “interim president” of Local 1021 and, like Segat, a member of the SEIU executive board, had glowingly introduced the call center servicing video at the San Juan convention. As noted above, Local 1021 extends all the way from San Francisco to the Oregon border. During three years of de facto trusteeship, its dues-payers discovered that bigger does not necessarily mean better. “Philosophically, politically, I think the merger [of seven locals into one] was a good decision,” said Roxanne Sanchez, president of Local 790, whose members are now part of 1021. “But the way they handled it was atrocious. . . . the International was so unreceptive to anything we, as rank-and-file people, brought to the table.”[xxiv] By early 2010, some workers were so estranged from their dysfunctional and ineffective “mega-local” that they were petitioning for a decertification vote (just as smaller groups of disgruntled 888 members did during the waning days of the Segat regime). Other dissidents decided to stay and fight. Their “Change1021” team challenged Davis-Howard and defeated her whole incumbent slate by a substantial margin, winning 26 out of 28 elected positions in the local.
Like Bruce Boccardy in 888, the San Francisco reformers—including Sanchez, Sin Yee Poon, Larry Bradshaw, and Harry Baker—argued that ‘a strong, democratic, and effective union is built on a solid foundation of stewards and local chapters,” not a faraway call center. “To the degree we lose focus on representation and workplace issues, the members feel the union is working off its own agenda,” Poon said, citing her own neglected disciplinary case as an example. Prior to her election as 1021’s new “CEO” or chief elected officer, Poon was the chairperson of a 1,700 member chapter of 1021 in San Francisco. When Poon’s agency tried to suspend her for seven days for alleged misuse of the city’s internal e-mail system, no one from the local union came to her workplace or even made a phone call to management about the suspension grievance, which she ended up handling herself. The Change1021 slate promised to improve on that sorry performance. It’s platform promised:
“We will ensure member representation is the first priority . . . Local 1021 has seen a revolving door of union staff with no consistency . . . Staff’s first responsibility will be to train and mentor chapter officers and stewards. We will foster increased communication between chapters, industries, and bargaining units. The most effective means of communication is face-to-face. We will require staff and officers to regularly visit work sites.”
In two other California locals, incumbents who were once equally enthusiastic about MRC servicing changed their tune in time to avoid the fate of Davis-Howard. In early 2008, Kristy Sermersheim, the Stern-appointed leader of Local 521 in San Jose, issued an upbeat report to her executive board about the initial roll-out of MRC coverage for her 55,000-member local. The Pasadena facility was “fully staffed,” “fully trained,” and “capable of communicating in four languages,” she promised.[xxv] Two years later—shortly before Sermersheim faced, for the first time, the expanded electorate of 521 as a candidate for president—she announced a pull out from the MRC that had cost her local an estimated $1.5 million. In membership meetings held prior to the February, 2010 election, “complaints about the MRC came up over and over again,” recalls Wren Bradley, who ran on an opposition slate called “Voices of the Members.”
Like Paul Krehbiel, Bradley had been fired when her smaller local was merged in 2007 with four others to create Local 521. At the time, she predicted the consolidation would lead to “a reduction in services” and “the participatory democracy that existed in Local 535.” She returned to her old job as a social worker and began to organize her co-workers against what she called “the Wal-Martization of SEIU.”[xxvi] When Bradley’s slate challenged the Local 521 leadership, they heard many complaints from members about grievances not being filed in timely fashion. “Workers would tell their story to the person at the MRC who would tell them, ‘I’ll call your worksite organizer.’ “ Bradley said. “Then, they’d never hear back from anyone. People at the MRC couldn’t figure out the right contract someone was covered by when they called and had no understanding of concepts like ‘past practice.’ Kristy knew it was a disaster. She saw the hand-writing on the wall.”[xxvii]
In San Diego Local 221, interim president Sharon-Frances Moore had a similar revelation of the eve of an election later overturned by the U.S. Department of Labor. Faced with a challenge by county worker and SMART member Monty Kroopkin, she announced plans to withdrew from the Pasadena MRC, citing the cost. Kroopkin and his Reform221 slate ran on a 12-point platform, that included a pledge to: “Abolish the “Call Center” because “workers with grievances or contract questions should be able to talk to a steward or union staffer, IN PERSON, not at some distant call center.” Kroopkin believes the MRC just “undermines the steward system” in 221, which has already been weakened because Moore refused to post a directory of all stewards on the local’s website. While campaigning, he “heard people say the same thing everywhere: it just wastes time getting in touch your steward through the Resource Center, which doesn’t have good answers to members’ questions anyway.” Meanwhile, among stewards themselves, Kroopkin contends the system has been “totally debilitating,” leading to a “huge amount of discontent” and “a lot of stewards just quitting because of lack of communication or call-backs from the local, and the fact that staff don’t show up enough at our worksites.”[xxviii]
If one MRC goal was to boost membership involvement in the union, one area where it did not succeed was rank-and-file participation in local union elections. Voter turn-out in 221, 521, and even 1021 and 888, where reformers won, was extremely low. According to MRC critics, this reflected deepening rank-and-file alienation from locals that had become too big and/or disconnected from the membership. In Local 888, twenty-two percent of its 10,000 members voted in the Boccardy vs Segat contest in 2009—less than half the regular turn-out in CWA Local 1400 elections. In 7,500-member 221, only 9% of the eligible members voted—a number at least larger than the 56 who voted for convention delegates the year before. In 521, less than 3,000 voted out of 55,000. In what, by trade union standards, was a hotly contested election in 1021—taking place in the middle of a public sector fiscal crisis with wages, benefits, and thousands of jobs on the line—only 5,360 valid ballots were returned out of more than 42,000 workers eligible to vote and a claimed membership of 54,000.”[xxix]
When 721, the huge southern California public service employees local, finally held its first election in March, 2010, the Members for a Democratic Union (MDU) slate included call center critics Arturo Diaz and Dan Mariscal. They assembled a team of 40 campaign volunteers, who worked hard, in their spare time, to publicize MDU’s call for “member empowerment” and “actual worksite representation.” During his workplace visits, Mariscal “heard a lot of member complaints about the MRC.” The challengers were limited in their ability to reach many of the local’s 67,000 members to discuss this or any other issue. No candidate forums were held and the local refused to include candidate statements with the mail ballots sent out to members (as several predecessor locals, 347 and 660, had always done so voters would have biographical and platform information). The incumbents used their resource advantage to do three expensive mailings of their campaign literature to the entire membership; they were also had the active or tacit support of the entire local staff. Only 9 percent of eligible workers bothered to return their ballots and just one MDU candidate was elected. (As of the Fall of 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor was still investigating MDU’s post-election appeal of the results.)
Five months after defeating MDU, even president Bob Schoonover acknowledged that Local 1021 had a problem with members being disengaged, In August, 2010, Schoonover held an invitation-only weekend brainstorming session for 100 newly elected officers, board members, rank-and-filers, and staff. Called “Imagine 721,” the stated purpose of the gathering (and related “scientific polling”) was to figure out “why some people participate in the union, but many do not” at a time when union-negotiated wages and benefits are under attack. ”It is hard to protect these gains if more people on our side are not involved, “ Schoonover noted. “One of the things I’ve heard some of our most active members say many times is that we don’t pay don’t pay enough attention to members already in the union. We spend a lot of time on organizing campaigns, but the perception is that once someone becomes a member they don’t get as much attention.”[xxx]
Up in the Bay Area, the reformers who won in Local 1021 were also searching for ways to reconnect members to the union—and address long ignored workplace problems. Weeks after his election, new 1021 vice-president Larry Bradshaw was still dismayed at how few workers turned out to vote in the election that the Change 1021 slate had, nevertheless, won overwhelmingly. “Our union was mired in inertia and inactivity,” he observed. ”It just shows the sad state of these mega-locals, where members have become so disengaged and demobilized.” Upon taking office, the new 1021 officers had hoped to unplug from the Pasadena MRC and use the money they saved for union rebuilding programs. They did arrange for the MRC to make out-bound calls to aid their emergency mobilization of members in San Francisco to fight budget cuts, furloughs, and lay-offs But, as soon as possible, they wanted to restore MRC functions to a Bay Area facility, “staffed with our own people, who know our contracts,” Bradshaw said. Unfortunately, after being sworn in by Andy Stern himself, the new leadership found that the Pasadena MRC was a bit like “Hotel California” in the famous song by the Eagles; once you checked in, it was very hard to leave. Local 1021 members were locked into a contract, requiring them to pay $54,000 a month for MRC services. For another whole year, they were prisoners of Andy Stern and Anna Burger’s call center dream, whether they wanted to be or not.
A Service Center Closing?
But Local 1021 is not alone in feeling saddled with someone else’s costly experiment, that hasn’t quite worked out as planned. In late 2010, a five-person internal committee, mainly composed of SEIU board members and chaired by the union’s new secretary-treasurer, Eliseo Medina, sounded the alarm about the rising cost and less than predicted organizational returns from call center servicing. The Medina-led “Member Strength Review Committee” (MSRC) found that more than 835,000 SEIU members are now covered by some kind of Member Resource Center-type arrangement. More than half have their calls funneled to an MRC operated by their own local. Five locals in California are still plugged into the MRC in Pasadena (referred to within SEIU as a “MAC”—Member Action Center”), while two, including a janitors local in Boston, now contract with a new Member Action Service Center (MASC) near Detroit to handle their grievance intake calls there. In addition to grievance processing, the MASC was supposed to be a full-service “mega-center,” providing participating SEIU locals with centralized dues processing, financial accounting, and other administrative help.
The problem, identified by the MSRC, is that not many locals have bought into the MASC, for either purpose. After getting a five-year, $2 million tax credit from a Michigan economic development agency (based on a promise to create several hundred new jobs), local tax abatements, and spending “nearly $14 million in setting up and operating the MASC in its first year,” SEIU was still far from achieving its “highly optimistic enrollment of 402,000 members by December, 2011.” Medina and his committee found there was no scenario in which “SEIU’s investment would be recovered in the foreseeable future.” Even with a staff of only 30 (far from the original projected employment level), the lack of local union participants meant the MASC “would require an additional allocation of $900,000 through 2011 and by December, 2011, a monthly subsidy of approximately $130,000.” According to the report authors, “Even a good idea can’t be underwritten indefinitely when there is little apparent interest among the intended “customers.” After running through various options for keeping the MASC afloat, the MSRC members urged SEIU’s new president, Mary Kay Henry, “to develop a contingency plan for shutting the operation down, if necessary.”[xxxi]
Adding insult to the financial injury of this “good idea” gone bad was some of the feedback that Member Strength Review Committee members picked up from “local leaders and staff” around the country. (Per usual, members were apparently not surveyed or consulted in any fashion.) Gingerly reported in their document was the following grassroots complaint:
“Great to share models and learn from one another; troubling when only one model for member engagement programs is resourced. Focus of the member strength program on the creation and marketing of the MASC might be a distraction of attention and resources from urgency to engage our members.”
The MSRC apparently agreed, concluding that: “[C]reating the MASC has been all consuming at the expense of a well-developed and executed member engagement program. Even if all local unions had enrolled in the MASC, we believe we would be no further along on actually achieving our member engagement goals.” Even the local Member Resource Centers still in use, which have been “widely adopted as a tool for representation in SEIU,” have not lived up to expectations. At the SEIU convention in 2008, delegates were told that “participating in MRCs…would free up money spent on representation and administrative tasks that could be redirected to member engagement programs in the locals.” Two years later, “None of the locals spoken to or surveyed said that creating the MRC in their local has freed up any resources. Several locals with longer experience report spending more—not less—on operating their MRC. Similarly, locals in California who are participating in a collective MRC (the Pasadena MAC) don’t report savings.”
In Up In The Air, management quickly learned from its mistake of trying to make call center servicing (of corporate down-sizers) a one-size-fits all out-sourcing solution. In SEIU, course corrections apparently take longer because the union is far less sensitive to “customer” concerns. And, as described above, the mega-local obstacles to real member “engagement” will remain a serious problem in SEIU—even if its call center spending spree is brought under control. [xxxii]
[i] Steven Greenhouse, “A Union President Presses for Growth Amid a New Round of Criticisms,” The New York Times, June 1, 2008.
[ii] Andy Stern, as quoted in interview with Kris Maher, “Are Unions Relevant?” Wall Street Journal, January 22, 2007, p. R5.
[iii] Stephen Franklin, “Democracy Dream Still Eludes Unions,” The Chicago Tribune, April 7, 1997.
[iv] SEIU Officer “Recommendations to the SEIU 2008 Convention,” pp. 12–14. Document in possession of the author.
[v] For a positive report on call center servicing, involving a Canadian public sector union, see Harvard Trade Union Program case study entitled, “What Do Members Want? The MGEU Resource Centre,” August, 2008. Available, upon request, from HTUP Director Elaine Bernard.
[vi] See UHW document entitled “ ‘Justice for All’ or ‘Control for Just Us’—A First Look at SEIU’s Plan to Centralize Decision-Making Power and Financial Resources at the Expense of Union Democracy and Strong Organization Among Members,” May, 2008, posted on http://www.seiuvoice.org.
[vii] In 2007, Rosselli was part of a delegation from SEIU that met with the Queensland Public Sector Union (QPSU) and the Health Services Union (HSU) in Australia. He concluded that their “member service center and data base application innovations”—if coupled together and used appropriately—would help his own local become “more efficient and effective,” “achieve a more consistent level of representation,” and “create permanent and comprehensive membership and employer files.”
[viii] Delegates voting against the Stern administration proposal for expanded MRC’s (and other “Justice For All” platform resolutions) numbered about 233. Of those, approximately 150 were from UHW and the remaining ones were mainly dissident members of other California and Nevada locals, including 99, 521,721,1000, 1021, and 1107.
[ix] For a longer discussion of this problem, see Tom Juravich’s chapter on Verizon customer service center work in At the Altar of the Bottom Line: The Degradation of Work in the 21st Century, (Boston: University of Massachusetts, 2010), pp. 15–53.
[x] For more on Local 1400’s membership recruitment at Verizon, see Steve Early, “Membership-Based Organizing,” pp. 82–103, in A New Labor Movement For The New Century, Gregory Mantsios, ed. (New York: Monthly Review, 1998).
[xi] “Mobilizing For Power,” a publication of Communications Workers of America Education and Mobilization Department.
[xii] For a Labor Notes published account of how Trementozzi and his slate got elected originally, see Aaron Brenner, “Reformers Take Over CWA Local 1400, Troublemaker’s Website, at http://www.troublemakershandbook.org
[xiii] Steve Early, “Broadband Redlining Targets Rural America,” The Nation, on-line edition, May 14, 2007 and “Fairpoint Mess Puts Three States in Jeopardy,” The Rutland Herald, April 9, 2009.
[xiv] Kate Davidson, “Unions, FairPoint Reach Deal,” The Concord Monitor, March 25, 2008.
[xv] Stephen Lerner, “Justice For All Unionism vs. Neo-Business Unionism,” a response to David Bacon and Warren Mar, “SEIU: Debating Labor’s Strategy,” posted on MRzine, July 15, 2008.
[xvi] See Decision and Order in Service Employees International Union, Local 1, AFL-CIO, and Remzi Jaos, NLRB Case 13-CA-41636.
[xvii] All quotes are from interview with the author, conducted by phone, May 14, 2010.
[xviii] Alexander started her own website to keep fellow SEIU dues-payers informed about developments in the union and their rights as members. Her information-sharing site can be accessed at: http://www.democracy4seiu.org/
[xix] For an account of the broader impact of these merger-related staff lay-offs, see William Johnson, “Staffers Get Squeezed In New SEIU Locals,” Labor Notes, September, 2007, p. 6.
[xx] See Paul Krehbiel, “Reform Movement Forms in SEIU,” Labor Notes, April, 2008, p. 1,4.
[xxi] In 2008, a Yahoo discussion group, called “Fightfor347” was created to air the complaints about the transfer of Local 347 members to Local 721. Some staffers—unhappily reassigned to MRC work—joined the discussion as well. One posting complained that “the sheer size and poor planning of the Local 721 merger” produced a backlog of 600 pending grievances, with “not nearly enough staff to handle them.” According to this anonymous blogger, staffers at the “Advocacy Center” in Pasadena responded by staging a ‘sick-out’ in protest. Unfortunately, another work-load reduction technique “is to simply tell the rank-and-file: “You don’t have a grievance, we can’t help you.” See”Fight for 347” group at
[xxii] As early as July of 2007, based on interviews with a number of “committed SEIU staff members,” The Nation reported that Stern’s “emphasis on consolidating small locals into larger organizations” is making it “harder for workers to find their union rep or file a simple grievance. If union members don’t feel the union is serving them, organizers say, they begin to ask why they are paying dues.” See Liza Featherstone, “Andy Stern: Savior or Sell-Out?” The Nation, July 16, 2007, p. 9.
[xxiii] Ferd Wulkan, “Massachusetts Service Employees Reformers Beat Appointed Leadership,” Labor Notes, June 2009, pp. 5–6, and Bruce Boccardy, “Members of a Massachusetts SEIU Local Dislodge an Incumbent,” Labor Notes, August, 2009, p. 6.
[xxiv] As quoted by Esther Kaplan, “Labor’s Growing Pains,” The Nation, May 29, 2008.
[xxv] SEIU Local 521 Member Resource Center, Contract Enforcement Team, Executive Board Report, February 28, 2008, page 1, attached to minutes of executive board meeting held on same date. Document in possession of the author.
[xxvi] As quoted by Jessica Lyons in “Union Shakeup,” Monterey County Weekly, March 8, 2007, p. 1.
[xxvii] Interview with the author, February 23, 2010.
[xxviii] Interview with the author, March 7, 2010.
[xxix] Steve Early, “SEIU’s MegaLocal Meltdown,” Working In These Times, March 1, 2010.
[xxx] “Dear SEIU Local 721 Brother/Sister” letter from Bob Schoonover, dated June 23, 2010, about “Imagine 721” conference in Riverside, California on July 30-August 1, 2010. Schoonover’s MDU critics noted that the meeting was not open to all members and probably cost as much as $150,000 to hold. Kaiser Permanente, one of the major medical care providers for members of the local, was listed as a sponsor of the event.
[xxxi] In late 2010, a New York City call center, costing SEIU $800,000 or more a year in headquarters subsidies, was closed. It had previously served members of 1199/United Healthcare East until its “steady volume of business” began to suffer from competition from centers outside of NYC with lower operating costs.”
[xxxii] All quotes in this section are from an undated internal SEIU report entitled, “Report and Recommendations from the Member Strength Review Committee.” Its members included Eliseo Medina, Local 32BJ President Mike Fishman, Local 775 President David Rolf, Local 1 President Sharleen Stewart, and John Tanner, a top staff member of Local 721 in Los Angeles. Document in possession of the author.