The Purple Bureacracy thugs it up at Labor Notes Conference

My heart goes out to all the Labor Notes folks who had to put up with the thuggery of SEIU members this past weekend at their annual conference. It must have been ugly. I did not attend, but I have a number of friends who did (it crossed my mind, but I have to prioritize financially and time wise what I can attend and the IWW Organizing Summit far outweighed Labor Notes).

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.Below is a eye witness account of the mob of several hundred SEIU staff, officials and members who attempted to disrupt the Saturday night dinner. Their target was an official of the CNA (California Nurse’s Union, which has launched a national organizing effort in direct competition to SEIU’s efforts in the healthcare industry) whom was scheduled to speak that night, but had cancelled after receiving threats. From reading several articles and accounts, as well as the comments of friends (and even a blog reader below!) the piece below is accurate. Though there are lots of conflicting information and even dis-information (PR spin) still floating around about what happened at this point- so be careful with what you find out there. What I especially enjoyed in the account below is the comparision with actions by the Teamsters in the 1980s to disrupt reform efforts within their union- historical context and comparative analysis always helps us understand current events better. The writer is a leader in Teamsters for a Democratic Union, so I’m sure he’s seen his fair share of union thuggery, but he also has no particular stake in the running SEIU vs. CNA battle.   

 

 Here are the questions this raises for me: SEIU has attempted to position itself as the progressive, organizing wing of the labor movement, wrapping itself in the cloak of social movement unionism and receiving lavish praises from academics such as Kim Voss (UC Berkeley Chair of Sociology, see her discussion of this with Rick Fantasia in Hard at Work). Critical analysis should cut right through the smoke and mirrors of Stern et al though. What he gives is a regurgitation, though a much more savvy and marketable version, of John Sweeny’s corporate unionism (See this book review comparing and showing the similarity between Stern’s An America That Works and Sweeny’s America Needs a Raise). In practice it means top-down control, a belief in compatible interests of capital and labor (Stern called the “class struggle unionism” of the CIO passé- as if), maintaining their role as the popular mobilization wing of the Democratic Party (not to mention committed donor as well) and their reliance on non-worker organizing methods to bring in new members- neutrality agreements, sweetheart deals, political lobbying and corporate campaigns that have not managed to raise wages substantially for most of the low-wage workers brought under their tutelage- let alone worked to build the independant, self-organized leadership and power of workers that is needed to make substantial change.

 

Will this action break the illusions promoted by Voss and held to by others on the progressive left and even a few on the revolutionary left? How will SEIU and their defenders relate to these actions? Will they defend them? And as Stern’s Change to Win coalition effort seems to flounder, internal reform efforts or inter-bureacratic rivalry (depending on how you want to see it) emerge within SEIU to challenge Stern and rival unions such as the CNA step to SEIU, do these tactics represent a sense of desperation?

 
From: Ken Paff  <kenapp [at] gmail [dot] com>
Sent: Monday, April 14, 2008 8:45 AM
Subject: SEIU break-in
A few people have asked for the real deal on the disruption at the
Labor Notes conference by a group of SEIU officials and members.  Here
it is, for those interested…
SEIU Officials Have a Blast


It was a weird scene: busloads of SEIU officials and members trying
to bust into a conference of labor progressives –bullying, punching
and chanting in a scene that gave me flashbacks to the Teamster
officialdom of yesteryear.


I had heard that SEIU officials would storm the Labor Notes
conference at its Saturday evening banquet, which would be packed,
long sold-out. It was also the big fundraising event for Labor Notes,
something that the organizers were no doubt quite concerned about. The
SEIU picked that time because Rose Ann DeMoro, head of C.N.A. had been
slated to speak at the banquet.
I told a few friends, including a Labor Notes staffer, that the
reports were probably exaggerated. But the Labor Notes staff took it
seriously, and made a statement at the Saturday morning session,
before Anita Chan and Baldemar Velásquez spoke, that there could be
problems, and appealed to all to debate and discuss contentious
issues, but that no disruptions would be tolerated.
I knew there were about 13 SEIU officials who arrived as a group on
Friday and registered. Two friends of mine had experienced in
workshops the obnoxious participation of these folks. One co-worker
told me they were rude disrespectful, but not at the level of real
disruption. I figured if they disrupted the banquet, the crowd would
spontaneously holler ‘respect’ or ‘let her speak’ and they would be
embarrassed and subdued. Was I wrong.
When the invasion occurred, I was far from the action. I was
peacefully eating my salad with 900 others (there were 1100 at the
conference but the banquet hall couldn’t hold all of them so they
didn’t sell banquets past the limit.) I was near the podium and far
from the doors where the confrontation took place.
My reports below are based on hearing from careful observers on the
spot; where they conflict with press releases, consider the source. At
least 3 buses of SEIU officials and members arrived, either all or
mostly from 1199 Ohio. Some SEIU reps and organizers were recognized
by participants. A few in the advance line, at the point of
confrontation, wore bandana masks to avoid ID or pictures, but in at
least one case, an LN participant pulled the mask off the SEIU
official. There were 200 at most. The C.N.A press release said 500,
and the SEIU press release said 800; so the C N A exaggerated, and the
SEIU (they surely knew the number) simply multiplied by four.
They arrived at exterior glass hotel doors near the banquet hall.
They beat on the glass and chanted while hotel staff eyed them from
inside, a bit removed from Labor Notes participants, who were in the
banquet room or still streaming into it.
One of their inside people slipped past the hotel staff and opened
the door from the inside, and they flooded in.
The delay there gave some participants time to organize a thin line
of defense across the three sets of double doors leading into the
banquet hall. The doors were closed and volunteer participants stood
guard at them, some with locked arms. The Labor Notes staff had
recruited a number of these people, including several long time
Teamsters who have seen duty with Teamster thugs.
The advance line of SEIU staffers led the chanting group forward and
pushed and punched and tried to break in, and almost did. My friend
Dan Campbell had his glasses broken from a glancing punch.
Several Teamsters and others who remember “BLAST,” the “Brotherhood
of Loyal Americans and Strong Teamsters” of the mid-1980s, inevitably
discussed the scene by way of compare-and-contrast with that Teamster
goon squad.
Campbell told me that they were a light-weight version of BLAST. The
conference volunteers managed to hold their ground, although they were
vastly outnumbered.
Jim West, now a professional photographer and formerly a Labor Notes
editor, said they were determined to break in and disrupt, and almost
succeeded.
Several Labor Notes participants were assaulted or injured. One was
Dianne Feeley, a retired Detroit auto worker. She was assaulted and
knocked down, leaving her face covered in blood. She was taken to the
ER, but was able to come back to the conference the next day.
She seems an unlikely target for SEIU officials chanting about union
busters, since Dianne had helped organize a couple hundred
participants to go to the American Axle strike line earlier that day.
She retired from American Axle a few years ago and has been on their
picket line regularly over the past 7 weeks.
Another BLAST parallel was the composition of the SEIU force. It was
led by officials, but many behind them were rank and file members who
had been “mobilized.” A friend talked to some of them and found out
they didn’t know that they were brought to invade a national (and
international) labor event. One said they were told it was a meeting
of union busters. A few had children with them, so they were hardly
prepared for a confrontation. Minus the children, this was generally
the BLAST composition: the well-organized union staff up front, and
behind were rank and filers who may or may not know who or why they
were attacking.
I became aware of what was happening when I saw the from across the
hall the doors closed, but one came open and SEIU signs and a loud
commotion were at the opening. Simultaneously one of their insiders
sneaked on the podium and grabbed the mike and started yelling about
union busters. A retired Teamster, Gary Brooks, who films for Labor
Beat, was up front and I heard him startle her by saying put down his
personal mike “before you break it.” Two Labor Notes staffers escorted
her off the stage. The hotel wait staff passed the “assemble” signal
and abruptly left the hall, retreating to the kitchen area to avoid
any potential violence.
It was clear that they intended to muscle their way into the crowded
room and disrupt by marching, chanting, encircling, taking over the
podium, etc. In that, they failed. Within minutes they left, chanting
“We’ll be back”
The SEIU press release on this disgraceful disruption was
other-worldly. Has Leebove gone back to work for them? It states that
“Open debate serves an important role as we work to strengthen our
movement. The Labor Notes Conference is the right time and place to
discuss our differences.” Say what?
Were they bussing in confused (a.k.a. “mobilized”) members led by
staffers to bust into a full banquet, to “discuss and debate?”
They easily could have “discussed and debated,” and their inside
group did just that, though apparently not in a way designed to
convince, more to show how verbally tough they are. The SEIU
International could have asked to lead a workshop or send a speaker.
The Teamster BLAST squad, which in 1983 did break into a TDU
convention and disrupt and delay it, also issued a press release from
Leebove saying they were there to debate.
Here’s who they were going to disrupt and silence, had they succeeded:
First, De Moro wasn’t there. She didn’t show, apparently anticipating
some kind of problem. The Labor Notes staff showed a 4-5 minute video
of her giving greetings to the event. The SEIU officials knew this
long in advance, as it was announced in the morning session,
presumably with their inside force listening.
The speakers that evening were assembled next to the podium at the
time of the disruption. They were
*       A disabled (due to lung disease) building trades unionist, a
9-11 rescue volunteer, who has devoted himself to winning benefits and
recognition for the 9-11 rescue workers and those in other disasters.
*       The Local 235 American Axle & Manufacturing strikers. Three
strike leaders and activists took the stage for a short and rousing
speech.
*       The workers at the Baltimore Camden Yards who are part of
United Workers of Baltimore. who won a living wage for the stadium
cleaners.
*       Three members of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.
If only those “mobilized” SEIU rank and filers could have heard these
folks, they might have found they had a whole lot in common with the
speakers and the conference attendees.
I thought the conference was terrific. I wasn’t there most of Friday,
but attended all three main sessions and three excellent workshop
sessions and was able to meet and make contacts with some impressive
people.
I know almost nothing of the flash point of the C.N.A – SEIU dispute
in Ohio. I certainly know the unions have been at odds off and on for
years. Whatever the merits of the SEIU International’s viewpoint,
sending a squad to disrupt a labor conference for the “crime” of
having the head of C.N.A speak there was a disgusting move, and a
dangerous one if it continues to happen.
I can’t help but think there was something about the gathering itself
that seemed threatening to the SEIU International. I think De Moro is
on the AFLCIO Executive Council, but I doubt the SEIU will be
disrupting there chanting that John Sweeney is a union buster for
sitting with De Moro. The C.N.A. is on good terms with the Teamster
leadership in Northern California. Will the SEIU International be
busting up any meetings they may hold with De Moro present?
Their press release was headed “SEIU Members Stand Up for the Future
of the Labor Movement.” Doesn’t seem like a future that I’m interested
in. I saw it in the past, and would like to keep it there.

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9 Responses

  1. Ken Paff’s report seems totally accurate to my experience at the Labor Notes Conference.

  2. Look who’s got a blog!

  3. Since posting this story this afternoon hits to this blog have gone through the roof at over 100 in less than 12 hours. Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts, especially if you were present.

  4. I was there. You got the story right. I talked to the gentleman who got his glasses knocked off as well. SEIU is saying that it was Labor Notes or CNA using violence. Nothing could be future from the truth. If they came for a peaceful protest, why did there front line wear bandanas over their faces? Some people on the bus had no idea what they were coming for and, unfortunately, got caught in SEIU’s attack. Labor Notes is a place for progressive minded unionist to come together, brainstorm, grow, and learn. It is NOT the place for violence against women and out right union thuggery. Go to http://www.calnurses.org for a video interview about the conference.

  5. A few updates that I did not want to add into the body of this—

    -In various forums SEIU staff have been posting a number of stock comments which include accounts by some of their members that they were trampled and roughed up and came committed to non-violence. While it is believable that some of their group was roughed up in the fracas, clearly they initiated the conflict and this should not excuse their behavior. Most accounts agree that SEIU staff were in the front lines leading the way and initiated the physical altercations. Some accounts also mention that some of these staffers wore face coverings of some type- if this is true, clearly what happened was intentional and not a situation that went of control.

    -Next is that SEIU staff have been asserting that their main issue with CNA and the particular official they were targeting, whose cancellation was already announced early that morning and they should have been aware of, was that CNA engaged in union busting against an SEIU campaign of several thousand workers. First, CNA and SEIU have a long standing dispute over hospital organizing that began in CA and has now spread nationally. SEIU is no stranger to raids and aggressive tactics either. They have also signed a number of deals with large healthcare corporations that amount to company unionism. But the charge that CNA is a craft union which leaves out non-nursing hospital staff from their bargaining units does have merit. Given the ongoing dispute, accepting Labor Notes invitation to debate (which SEIU refused) or perhaps circulating an open letter with criticism on the floor of the conference would be in order, not what took place. Second, is that the charge of ‘union busting’ is unclear. From blog accounts, CNA did not disrupt an NLRB election, but the employer reneged on a neutrality agreement in place after CNA began aggressive counter organizing to a joint SEIU/employer vote that was to be held. More facts are needed, but the charge that CNA conducted ‘union busting’ does not seem cut and dry, nor well explained by SEIU staff’s internet talking points they have been posting.

  6. I’m not very well informed about this SEIU vs CNA stuff but from what I have read I’m sympathetic to SEIU on this one. That said, I think the hit on Labor Notes was wrong and even more that it was dumb – poorly planned and executed. See you this weekend.

  7. ps – what internet forums are you referring to where people have been defending the action at LN?

  8. Hi Nate, This might not be all the links, but these are the main ones that have been feeding hits to this blog. Scroll down for the comments for some interesting back and forth debate. Worthwhile reading to get a sense of what each side is saying. If you read all of them you’ll also notice each side posting the same comments in each forum.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deborah-burger/seius-latest-disgrace_b_96399.html?view=screen

    http://openleft.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=5124

    http://www.mydd.com/story/2008/4/12/191428/212

  9. I was there and right in the middle of it — I’m the guy in the photo trying to hold back the SEIU stormtroopers. Ken Paff got it right. Period.

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