Organizing Like Crazy
By Reg Gomez
May 16th, 2002 marked the kick-off of negotiations between the University of Washington and CSA/SEIU Local 925 to bargain a new contract for thousands of classified staff workers employed in the school. CSA—the Classified Staff Association—is the university chapter of workers represented by Local 925 of the Service Employees International Union. The promise of dignity and welfare for workers spurs the optimism of the CSA Bargaining Committee on this otherwise unassuming workday. And in the midst of an unseasonably cold and wet spring, the participants are rewarded for their optimism with a surprise visit from the sun, insuring the preferred conditions for a rally. Early on, CSA and Local 925 leaders confer for a training session to reinforce the union’s stance before management, reflecting the spirit of contract negotiations. The session later resolves to the lighter task of organizing a rally at midday to help generate momentum going into negotiations. Shop stewards and work-site leaders from across the chapter don their own purple and gold, portraying a willingness to cooperate with the university in spite of the inherent strain of labor relations. Armed with kazoos, a healthy dose of enthusiasm and a message, the group weighs in with a sizable crowd in attendance at South Campus Center.
How often do people who are normally affiliated with the university (students included) consider the roles of classified staff workers? If you have trouble picturing their identities, then you can at least grasp the fundamental difficulty they face in their ordinary work lives—that is, few are aware of their responsibilities, or even their existence. The university’s classified staff toils behind the scenes—in offices, labs, parking garages or other areas of seemingly inconsequential utility—which facilitate the university’s larger commercial concerns. In the early Seventies, a group of University of Washington office workers responded to the indifference of their superiors by establishing the Classified Staff Association. Later, under the jurisdiction of SEIU’s District 925 branch (itself founded under the aegis of primarily female office workers), CSA garnered the support of their compatriots across the nation. The emboldened stance of a formerly marginal segment of the workforce signified a return to Union values. The Union is an organism composed of diverse individuals, joined in solidarity to mobilize a singular ambition—to ensure the fulfillment of their lives in all fairness.
Thus, unions and rallies go together. On May 16th, CSA members joined with the public to celebrate this message. Unattached to the emotional swell (as a student and a worker with absolutely zero experience with grass-roots collective action), I had just spied a case of unionism in action. CSA had previously bargained for stewards’ leave to attend meetings similar to the training session earlier that day, enabling a measure of the union’s internal organizing mechanism. Shop stewards occupy the front lines of the organization, providing rank-and-file workers with immediate access to the information that best serves their needs. Outside of the organization, CSA actively communicates with the public in order to maximize solidarity across an ever-diversified constituency. The day’s proceedings successfully merged the twinned purposes of internal and political organizing: to promote communication and education among workers, and to instill a pro-worker consensus across the public.
As union members and supporters took their message to the street, I happened upon an acquaintance (whom I barely know) who followed the event with passing interest. Striking up a conversation, I learned that she is an office worker in an adjacent building, a full-member of CSA with all her faith in the appropriation of her dues. What does she know of the day’s events? Does she know the issues that her bargaining committee is pursuing, I asked? She received notice from the union urging vocal support but her presence at the rally happened to coincide with her work hours. Quite incidentally, she followed the marchers as she returned to work from lunch. Were it not for her work hours, would she have joined with the kazoo marching band? With a hint of regret, she suggested that her personal obligations limited the extent of her involvement with the union. There is no getting around the first order of business for a lot of rank-and-file members, and for that she rightfully expressed little regret. After all, she contributes full dues not out of coercion (she joined the union before workers voted to implement agency shop measures) but for her own conviction surrounding one’s inalienable right to dignity and respect; that in some measure she helps to secure the prestige of an honest and hard-fought position in society. There simply is not enough time for people to take up yet another occupation, one that promises no immediate gratification--to personally preserve and/or advance their social statuses.
Shaking workers out of their indifference and ambivalence towards the actions of the union demands an on-going commitment to kinetic pro-activism. Some folks may wonder what all the hype means to the average worker. As long as (s)he pays dues, with someone else in charge of handling the resources, why must the worker bother otherwise? Ideally, worker participation entails much more than forking over some money. When CSA members who comprised a majority in their respective worksites voted for an agency shop in 1993, the dissenting minority (those who were not a part of the union) came under the jurisdiction of the union. In an agency shop, an incoming employee agrees to pay, 1) a full membership fee (CSA requires 1.4% of gross income, up to $45/month) that insures the rights to vote and to run for office or, 2) an agency (or “fair-share”) fee, which in this case runs at 90% of the full membership rate but excludes full membership rights. Thus, solidarity suffers from the impression that the leadership ungraciously extracts dues in order to pursue indeterminate goals. Under collective bargaining all workers, in spite of their respective views, receive benefits that the union fights for. How does this justify what is in essence a coercive measure? Some might feel that collective bargaining is not worth the trouble, that the decision to pay dues should reside with the individual even if non-membership means exclusion from the contract. Workers often fail to recognize the full extent of solidarity. One cannot really turn off his/her effect upon other workers. The union must bargain on behalf of all workers. The relative statuses of each worker are crucial to the legitimacy of any claim for equality. In the course of bargaining, management may insist, “Group X doesn’t get as much. Why should you?” If even one worker successfully negotiates for greater concessions, it is because everyone shall receive the same deal—including dissenters. One’s mere presence in the workplace demands solidarity.
Aside from a handful of CSA leaders, I have spoken with few union members—mostly university office workers who stop into the store I work in. Outside of courteous inquiries about their workday (the weekend couldn’t arrive sooner for most), I never bothered to ask about the nature of their jobs before I realized the gravity of their union engagements. Inspired by the leaders I had already spoken with, I began to ask some of them what they thought of the union. All admit to full membership. When I ask about their willingness to participate in union business, responses vary from a curt “I only know that they take out some of my wages” to grand appeals for democracy and labor activism. Though the union suffers its share of detractors, the people I talked with are supportive. Those with little knowledge of the union seem petrified to admit ignorance, fearing the impression that their contributions to the struggle are inadequate. Others incline to chat away about an exclusive other-world that only they know about, particular to the university’s treatment of an “invisible” work force. None of them have extensive experience with contract negotiations, periodic chapter meetings, and few have read the articles of the current contract. By no means do they represent an accurate sample (I’m talking about no more than five people), but their experiences illustrate the challenges facing CSA’s leadership, namely to involve as many people as possible in a bit of world-shaking. Rene DeVine, the current President of CSA, describes the situation: “Many stewards, many work-site leaders will tell you, ‘The people I contact just don’t care.’ The on-going challenge of the organizing model is to help people see why they should care.”
The Organizing Model of Unionism
CSA—along with joint Local 925 chapters, as well as numerous sub-divisions of the parent Service Employees International Union—expressly strive to uphold the organizing model of unionism. The organizing model is not a hard and fast hierarchy of decision-making that functions solely as a representative democracy. Rather, it is an ideology one step removed from direct democracy, demanding not only the Individual’s right to be heard but that each individual must have the stomach to speak up. Without maximum participation, the union will likely live on thanks to a talented minority, but at a limited capacity. One might suspect that, with their livelihoods on the line, workers will jump at the chance of self-government. Constant antagonism between management and workers, however, adds up to the massive task of collective bargaining, a rational tug-of-war over resources that end up eating too much time and energy. Thus even a grass roots democratic union begs the specialization of labor relations. Workers free themselves of this task in lieu of their responsibility to vote for the experts that fight for their collective interests.
Too much concentration of decision-making, however, belies the original concept of democratic unionism. With idle time comes complacency for some members; and without their vigilance, the union may cease to act as a cohesive unit. The division of labor—within the industry and within the union—increases rank-and-file anonymity. Thus, the service (or business) model of unionism, in contrast to the organizing model, encourages a top-heavy orientation of control that, in the face of rank-and-file complacency, efficiently conducts union business. Management poses a tough enough foe for union leaders, never mind the burden of soothing the cognitive strain upon their constituents. Dornie MacKenzie, former President of CSA who currently works as an Organizing Representative with the Local 925 body, distinguishes the two models:
A lot of organizing reps [who join Local 925] have a difficult time transitioning to the organizing model, because they’re used to going in there and being the person in charge. It’s hard for them to teach the members to [become involved]. Under the service model, the union [leadership] becomes a third party. Members forget that they are the union. If they’re not in charge of the situation—if they are not empowering their co-worker—then it is no longer a union, in my opinion.
Though CSA leadership maintains a healthy appetite for social activism, the union’s organizational facility—via education and communication—actively seeks to involve members in the fray. Rene and Dornie continue to occupy the front lines of union activism as they have in most of their dealings with the university. Aside from their many duties responding to and shaping the collective interests of classified staff workers, the two continue to engage members in face-to-face conversation. Their efforts coincide with the union’s professed outreach objective, to enable internal organizing among classified staff workers.
Rene DeVine joined the University of Washington Medical Center staff in 1993 as an X-Ray Technologist. She continues to work in the same department where she helped initiate CSA organizing drives among technical workers, introducing her role as a union leader. The impetus to seek union representation in her workplace occurred four years ago, when “a particularly bad boss [who]…selectively targeted employees” motivated Rene and her co-workers to alleviate the situation.
She would focus on you with a laser beam and there was nothing you could do right until she moved on to the next person. For a period of about two years, there were about twelve of us that were intent on making sure that we weren’t the focus of that laser beam. We didn’t really feel like we had anywhere to go or anyone to talk to. All we wanted to do was get out of the spotlight…We didn’t talk with one another.
An occasion by one of Rene’s co-workers to seek help within the department by contacting the offending supervisor’s superior backfired. The next day, the worker who voiced her concern was immediately removed to another department. She retained her job, but lost the contact and support of her long time associates. The ease of her dismissal over a simple inquiry, and the relative powerlessness of her friends to stop it, spurred their search for alternative actions. At a meeting to discuss the situation, a friend of the departed colleague who was involved with CSA notified Rene about CSA’s intent to organize more technical workers. Assuming the organizing role, Rene initiated communications with the union. The coordination of both parties enabled Rene and her co-workers voted unanimously to join CSA. The presence of union solidarity immediately impacted their status before management (“We did eventually succeed in getting rid of that bad boss,” exclaims Rene). After four months of displacement, the aforementioned worker returned to her original position after filing her own grievance for the discipline she received. Rene describes how the union affected her job: “Becoming part of the union caused us to come together, coalesce as a group, start working together as a team…[e]ven in the lab, there was a lot more teamwork than had been evident before.”
Her efforts drew the attention of the Local staff. Within a week, she accepted an appointment from her Organizing Rep to become the shop steward in her department. More success came with her first grievance meeting:
It was an ongoing issue that we had before we became a part of the union. Becoming part of the union allowed us to be heard, on equal footing with management. At the time, our grievance was with regard to premium pay. We had been eligible for a shift differential when we were on call, and we didn’t receive the requisite pay. That was my first grievance [meeting], and it was a very successful one. Not only did we get the back pay, we received [retroactive pay] going back [to the period] before the university implemented the policy.
Last year, after serving a term as CSA Vice President, Rene was elected President. Aside from her duties overseeing the expenditure of monies (presiding over the Executive Council), the organizational direction of the union (as a member of the Organizing Council, to convey the strategies aimed at mobilizing member involvement); monitoring the feasibility of contract enforcement on a case-per-case basis (as a member of the Grievance Committee); as spokesperson at each membership business meeting; and as an elected member of the current bargaining team, Rene continues to keep in touch with as many members as her schedule will allow. Her position as an officer with CSA is voluntary; she is still a full-time worker at the Medical Center.
Needless to say, Dornie MacKenzie knows the feeling. Dornie occupied the CSA Presidency in the previous term before accepting her position as an Organizing Representative with the Local a year-and-a-half ago. She joined the University of Washington, School of Medicine in 1994, working as a program director for the Physicians Assistant Training Program. At the time, CSA had already secured support in that area, to which Dornie immediately complied. She grew up in a family that harbored impressive union loyalty, and her newly acquired job suited her inclinations very well. Soon after, she took up the added responsibility of representing her co-workers before management. A degree of naiveté accompanies the supreme optimism that characterizes Dornie’s entrance into union life; like Rene, she wanted to actively participate in labor relations but jumped in with both fingers crossed: “As far as being a steward, I had no idea. Your mentor is the [Organizing] Rep, who is with you through everything—on the phone or at meetings, to teach you.” Having navigated her initial trials as a steward, Dornie has emerged into the mentor’s role. As a member of the current Bargaining Committee, her presence at the first contract meeting on May 16th proved to stabilize the emotions of her less experienced compatriots.
Dornie and Rene have directly engaged their fellow members without relying too heavily on the structural allotment of power. That is, the steward emphasizes the power of one’s own participation in the grievance process. If a worker believes that management overreaches the contractual provisions of his/her job, the worker may grieve the situation. “What we want to happen is to resolve grievances at the lowest level possible,” Rene explains. “So when I meet with somebody, I will ask them, ‘Have you spoken with your manager, do they know about this situation?’” If management insists on stonewalling, the steward will step in with the advice from higher up. The Organizing Representative—a full-time union staffer—maintains communication with the steward throughout the grievance procedure. But the expressed responsibility of dealing with an uncooperative boss ultimately lies with the individual, with immediate guidance provided by the steward. The steward enforces the bargaining agreement with administration, assuming the role of a hyperactive, encyclopedic referee.
A significant number of grievances derive from what may be considered unfair disciplinary measures enacted by management. Like grievances, disciplines take on a formal process. Both sides assemble a short committee to discuss the conflict, systematically convening at appropriate intervals. Should the average rank-and-file member ever have an excuse to communicate with his/her superiors, now is the time that the union has fought for to bring the sides together. Stewards are involved in more disciplinary actions than grievances, but their responsibility to maintain a fair shake for the worker remains the same. At this immediate level, the channels for educating the worker actively flow between the Organizing Rep (given the position’s full-time emphasis, the Rep maintains the highest level of experience in the matter), the steward and the worker who, as the locus of antagonism, endures the roughest transition to empowerment. No rules apply to the preservation of decorum in the proceedings outside of the agreement to meet; thus, the worker may retain the services of any that (s)he wishes to attend if it enables equal footing with management. “When you see a member go into a meeting,” explains Dornie, “stand up to the boss, and come out of there feeling stronger, more empowered—that is worth all the hardship.”
As a Rep, Dornie spends endless hours talking with anyone who will listen. The Rep professes to demystify complex labor concerns that might seem too far removed from the average worker. While Local 925 harbors public-sector workers throughout Western Washington, Dornie’s turf includes the University of Washington campus, the Medical Center, and part of the Health Sciences Building. Her main job boils down to leadership development—finding and appointing stewards and other work-site leaders in underrepresented areas. This entails another obstacle to the union’s internal organizing approach. CSA maintains in the contract that the university shall pay for the steward’s time away from work in order to attend grievance and disciplinary meetings. In turn, the university consistently bargains for a ceiling upon the number of stewards the union may appoint, thus limiting their commitment to service other workers. The university ostensibly enacts these measures to minimize its own financial burden. In the end, the union must contend with a number of “holes,” where workers have little or no contact with knowledgeable leaders. In the absence of stewards, Dornie aims at nurturing the leadership capacities of every worker, particularly in isolated areas. Upon finding a “hole” where she does not know anybody in the department, Dornie typically finds her work cut out for her: “It’s not always comfortable going in there, but it can be extremely rewarding.”
Ideally, the membership will include a work-site leader for every ten members, though many areas lack a sufficient number of these information specialists. Periodic union business meetings draw CCN’ers to engage workers who do not have the time to attend such meetings. “We acknowledge that we’re not going to have a meeting where all five thousand members show up,” Rene explains. “But can we have a meeting where a hundred leaders show up? Yes, certainly.” The CSA Communications Network (CCN) formally embodies the union’s internal outreach mechanism. Work-site leaders who take up her message form a network of CCN’ers across the chapter. Though appointees carry out the title’s formal duties, many fulfill the role simply for their enthusiasm to learn and to inform fellow workers. Leadership development, along with an emphasis upon progressive communications technologies (including video conferencing and a new web-site), continues to evolve at a rate that will benefit a growing membership.
©2002 Reg Gomez
These articles were written in Spring 2002. For problems or questions contact James Gregory.