Monday, December 14, 2009

Ganz, Hillel, and the SEIU

As a child of the '60s, I grew up with heroes like Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Then in college, we all learned about and were inspired by their precursors, ranging from Thoreau to Gandhi. We studied, too, recent practitioners of the art of community organizing from Saul Alinksy to Cesar Chavez.

I hadn't met Marshall Ganz until I was preparing to introduce him at the IHI National Forum. It was marvelous to meet someone who had been through a parallel journey. While our paths have been different -- his in community organizing and mine in public service -- we have employed many of the same strategies and techniques. More important, I found that we have been motivated by a similar set of values.

Marshall ended his presentation with the famous quote from Hillel, also one of my favorites:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?

This followed his impressive speech about the nature of community organizing and, in particular, the importance of having an underlying set of values to serve as the moral basis for a movement.

Having now watched the SEIU for several years, I was struck by the contrast between Marshall's prescriptions and this union's mode of operation. As I listened to his talk, I realized that the union has, in many ways, lost its soul as it has gained power and influence. It has become part of the "they" that is the target of community organizing. Instead of drawing on the resources available to it -- the courage, passion, creativity, and commitment of workers -- it relies on money and power to gain more money and power.

What do I mean, and who, after all, am I to say anything about this? First the latter. I am just someone who cares deeply about the personal and professional development of workers, as well as their economic well-being. I am particularly interested in providing an environment in which those at the lower end of the economic spectrum can succeed in American life. I like to think that my actions and those of our hospital reflect this desire. We have tried to demonstrate it through process improvement approaches that empower all workers, through job training and development programs that give people a step up, and by adopting personnel policies that especially support lower wage workers. We are not perfect at doing all of this, but we do try.

SEIU materials indicate that the union believes in similar things. But the execution of its strategy does not reflect an underlying respect for its constituents that Marshall Ganz makes clear is at the heart of community organizing.

When I watch the SEIU at work, I see an approach more akin to that used by large, powerful corporations. I see union organizing based on trying to stifle debate. I see large amounts of dues-derived dollars being spent on corporate campaigns that denigrate the very work being carried out by the workers. When I talk with SEIU workers from other hospitals, they tell me that they do not feel a close personal connection with the union or the local stewards. When I talk with politicians, they tell me that they feel they have to publicly support the SEIU because of dollars and election-day logistical help; but they say that their support is only skin-deep because they fundamentally do not trust the union. They fear that it will quickly and viciously turn against them if there is a policy disagreement.

Marshall used the story of David and Goliath as an example of how the underdog in a social battle volunteered when no one else would take the charge and used courage and ingenuity to win -- throwing off the constraints and approaches of the old way (Saul's armor) and using the resources available to him (the sling) to surprise a ponderous and overly confident enemy with a small but deadly stone to the forehead. Compare that to the SEIU, which has diverged from those methods and become reliant on the trappings of power to acquire still more trappings of power. The union may or may not be successful in following this path, but in the meantime it will not be able to answer Hillel's three questions in a manner consistent with an underlying set of values that will motivate workers and that is respectful of them.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

None of this makes any sense if you actually look at what Ganz and the Farmworkers did.

The Farmworkers won victories through the conscious application creative tactics and moral power, but they certainly didn't eschew the use of political and economic power.

The growers opposing the United Farmworkers bitterly complained that the union was exploiting consumer sentiment and emotion through the grape boycott instead of trying to organize workers. The language the growers used to denounce the boycott then is nearly identical to the language that you use to today to denounce so-called "corporate campaigns."

The growers denounced the UFW as an artificial, outside interest propped up by clueless politicians. They claimed that the workers either didn't want unions at all or wanted a "responsible" union of a some other kind.

The UFW didn't care. They knew that workers needed allies of all kinds to build an organization.

It's striking how similar the UFW's landmark victory -- the Agricultural Labor Relations Act -- is to the fair election proposals that SEIU healthcare workers in Boston are advocating today.

Did you ask Ganz about any of the specifics of Boston hospital workers, or are you just making big assumptions about what he "must" believe based on your own thinking about this issue?

Paul Levy said...

Of course, I am not making assumptions about what Marshall "must" believe. I am providing my interpetation and sentiments after having heard his inspirational talk.

Alyn Ford said...

Paul,

I read your latest post with great interest. I have been part of the working population of of a healthcare union in the past and I echo your sentiments for the well being and reward for employees and sit dismayed when I observe the behavior many of the large unions are exhibiting.

Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the larger the organization the more it fights to sustain itself and the its view of the status quo... I imagine you know this better than many.

SEIU appears to have moved to pursue growth and self preservation at the expense of the idealistic paradigm professed in its credo.

Thanks for an interesting posting today...

Paul Levy said...

Transferred from Facebook:

Shonda: Very well stated. After working in a clinical enviroment for 5 yrs under SEIU before coming to BIDMC, I agree the people should be questioning the union's action and motivations.

Paul Levy said...

Transferred from Facebook:

Shonda: Very well stated. After working in a clinical enviroment for 5 yrs under SEIU before coming to BIDMC, I agree the people should be questioning the union's action and motivations.

76 Degrees in San Diego said...

The implied answers to the three quoted questions are no one, nothing, and never. But, is the presumption true?

Paul Levy said...

Delayed response to Anon Dec 14.

I don't know much about the ALRB act. Just looked it up and found The California State Legislature enacted the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) in 1975 to ". . . ensure peace in the agricultural fields by guaranteeing justice for all agricultural workers and stability in labor relations." Provisions of the Act were designed to protect rights of farm workers to act together to help themselves, to engage in union organizational activity, and to select their own representatives to bargain with employers. They prohibit employers and unions from interfering with these rights. These rights and prohibitions are similar to those that the NLRA had provided 40 years earlier to most private sector employees, explicitly not including farm workers. http://are.berkeley.edu/APMP/alra/alrabase.html

It sounds like the act quite properly gave to agricultural workers the rights that other workers had had for decades.

You cleverly skew and overstate what I have said about corporate campaigns when you assert: 'The language the growers used to denounce the boycott then is nearly identical to the language that you use today to denounce so-called "corporate campaigns." The growers denounced the UFW as an artificial, outside interest propped up by clueless politicians. They claimed that the workers either didn't want unions at all or wanted a "responsible" union of a some other kind."'

First of all, it is not a "so-called" corporate campaign. It is a corporate campaign. What's this "so-called?" Its design and purpose is quite clear. I think you just admitted that.

I don't think SEIU is artificial or the politicians are clueless. Both have made explicit choices about their behavior.

I also have not said that the workers don't want the union. It remains to be seen whether they want it or not. That is not for either of us to say. I think it is best determined in an election in which all parties have a right to debate the issues.