Student activists on several college campuses are speaking out against one of the nation’s largest labor groups, claiming they were deceived and used as “pawns” by the Service Employees International Union.
The students’ grievances, outlined in an open letter to SEIU leadership, allege a “disturbing pattern” wherein SEIU undercut students’ efforts to help organize service workers on at least four campuses.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that SEIU leaders often see students and campus workers as little more than pawns to use as they see fit,” the letter states. “SEIU has sought to maneuver these pawns in a way that brings new members and dues into the union in the short term but keeps workers in poverty and actually hurts our collective efforts to help unions grow at a massive scale.”
SEIU, the nation’s fastest growing union, has about 1.7 million members, many of whom work in cafeterias and dining halls on college campuses. On some of these campuses, students have organized rallies and even hunger strikes in support of workers' rights.
The letter alleges that SEIU officials encouraged students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to help organize food services workers, while at the same time entering into a deal with the workers’ employer that would insure there would never be a union at North Carolina.
The SEIU agreement, first reported upon in May by the Wall Street Journal, grants the so-called “Big 3” service employers the right to determine where SEIU will organize workers. Aramark Corp., which provides food services to North Carolina’s campus, was among those included in the agreement, the Journal reported.
“The deal ensured UNC workers could not join SEIU by letting Aramark decide which workers could join the union,” the letter states. “Not surprisingly, UNC workers didn’t make Aramark’s list.”
SEIU officials refused to comment for this story. Asked about the letter, Aramark officials issued a statement, dismissing the allegations as part of a campaign against Andy Stern, the president of SEIU, who has been praised as a reformer by some and criticized by others for his methods.
"The information in the letter from the student organizations to Andy Stern is simply not true," Aramark's statement reads. "We would never even attempt to respond to such a document, which seems to be part of an anti-Stern campaign."
Secret Deal Promises 'Labor Peace'
A summary of the “Big 3” agreement, which was provided to Inside Higher Ed, details how SEIU allowed employers – not workers – to dictate where unionization would take place. The agreement, forged by SEIU and another union known as Unite Here, cedes the power to declare union sites to two major food service providers, Compass Group USA and Sodexho Inc. Along with Aramark, which had a similar agreement according to the Journal, Compass and Sodexho are the major food service providers on college campuses across the country.
In addition to empowering the companies to determine where workers can organize, the agreement insures that unionized workers won’t strike or even make derogatory remarks about the companies.
Union members were not informed of the deal, which specifically stipulates that secrecy is “critical to the success” of the agreement.
So what do the unions get from this deal? In the words of the agreement, the unions get “labor peace.” In short, the companies agree not to interfere with unionization efforts, as long as workers only organize on the sites the companies have approved.
The SEIU agreement may be unusual in that it so overtly empowers employers, but unions have been increasingly inclined to make painful compromises given the eroding strength of labor laws in the U.S., according to Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
“It does have a bad odor to it, absolutely,” said Lichtenstein, who directs UC-Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy. “But I want to make the point that it’s just an extension of what unions have been forced to do.”
The controversy that’s accompanied news of SEIU’s agreement is part of a much larger philosophical battle within the labor movement, Lichtenstein notes. Andy Stern, the president of SEIU, has promoted labor “density” – driving up the percentage of unionized workers in a given sector – as the key to success in the fight for greater workers' rights. But the union has pursued density at the expense of progress for workers, according to some students and critics within SEIU.
Chapel Hill Students Allege Betrayal
Student activists have proven reliable allies to labor groups in recent history, and SEIU eagerly solicited their support at Chapel Hill. But, according to the letter, students did SEIU’s bidding on campus only to be left in the lurch.
According to the letter, North Carolina students began organizing workers – at the behest of SEIU – in 2005. They were joined in these efforts by workers from the Service Workers United, a joint labor venture of SEIU and Unite Here. But after working side-by-side with the students, who said they were subjected to Aramark executives’ intimidation, the union leaders abandoned the cause, the letter states.
“When summer break came, the SWU organizers left, promising to return the following year,” according to the letter. “After weeks of unreturned phone calls, students and workers learned that SEIU leaders had cut a deal with Aramark.”
Students who were involved in organizing workers at Chapel Hill did not respond to multiple e-mails sent to addresses listed in the university’s directory. An anonymous student, however, called the whole affair at North Carolina “a spectacular failure” in a recent article published by The Nation.
Aramark's statement disputed claims that executives had engaged in acts of intimidation.
"Our employees have the right to choose whether or not to join a union in a process that is free from coercion or intimidation," the statement says.
Labor Risks its Future
Lichtenstein, a longtime labor scholar, said SEIU risks alienating the future of the labor movement – even if compromises prove an effective long-term strategy for bolstering membership.
“The students are motivated by this kind of ideological, emotional and political vision of unionism -- and correctly so -- and I think SEIU is in danger of pushing that aside,” Lichtenstein said.
It should also come as little surprise that, given the choice, Aramark would not want unionization on a campus like Chapel Hill – a bastion of pro-labor sentiment with a history of grassroots organization and student activism, Lichtenstein added. But it would be in SEIU’s interest to have such campuses organized, he said.
“They should have insisted: We insist on North Carolina or Berkeley, one of the hotspots,” Lichtenstein said.
Chapel Hill’s chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops was particularly active in trying to organize Aramark workers on campus, and several members of the student group were among 15 signatories to the SEIU letter. But the national offices of Students Against Sweatshops did not endorse the letter’s criticism of SEIU, opting instead to quickly issue a statement of neutrality on the issue.
“We respect the right of each of our affiliates to act autonomously,” the letter states. “However, we as a national organization are committed to remaining neutral in SEIU’s internal conflicts and those of all our union allies.
SEIU and Students Against Sweatshops have close ties and have worked together on campaigns, and the student group gets most of its funding from unions. But Students Against Sweatshops and SEIU officials did not respond to inquiries about whether SEIU specifically provides money to the student group.
'Appalling' Actions in California
Student criticism of SEIU is not limited to the events that unfolded in North Carolina. As the letter notes, University of California at Irvine students had their own frustrations about SEIU’s interference.
According to the letter, SEIU nearly stymied an effort by the local union to have Aramark employees hired by the university, thereby granting the workers the same benefits as Irvine staff. At the height of the local union’s campaign in 2006, SEIU organizers – in apparent collusion with Aramark – tried to get the workers to join SEIU and abandon their local union, students said.
“We already had a relationship [with the workers],” recalled Carla Osorio, a former student who aided the local union. “We already had our campaign going on, and then this other union comes in that was shady.”
Despite SEIU’s attempts to woo workers, the employees ultimately stuck with their local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. They were hired by UC-Irvine in September of 2006.
“This blatant effort by Aramark to undermine the workers [sic] efforts is not surprising, but SEIU’s complicity is appalling,” the letter states.
Elsewhere in California, students have also complained about SEIU’s treatment of union members at Stanford University and Santa Clara University. Since unionized workers on those campuses were transferred into Service Workers United – part of SEIU and Unite Here -- they’ve “received little to no support,” according to the letter.
The unionized workers at Santa Clara and Stanford were employees of Bon Appétit, a company owned by Compass Group. Compass Group is one of the “Big 3” employers covered under SEIU’s controversial agreement.
Zev Kvitky, the former president of a local union that represents 1,500 workers at Stanford and Santa Clara, said SEIU is alienating young people at its own peril.
“I don’t want to see the union behave in a way that engenders distrust,” said Kvitky, who works with a group seeking SEIU reform. “I think it actually could result in long-term harm in the labor movement.”
Kvitky, who backs a group called SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today (S.M.A.R.T.), said students are right to have the impression that they have been used.
“I think there probably are clearly times where the union has kind of used students as leverage,” he said. “I don’t want to say as pawns, but certainly as leverage in order to win these agreements or win these campaigns. And I think that creates a lot of resentment on the part of students.”
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