Log in Subscribe

A few of our stories and columns are now in front of the paywall. We at The Chief-Leader remain committed to independent reporting on labor and civil service. It's been our mission since 1897. You can have a hand in ensuring that our reporting remains relevant in the decades to come. Consider supporting The Chief, which you can do for as little as $3.20 a month.

When union staff strike against their own union


Last October 31, one of the largest nonprofit organization staff in the country began a two-week long unfair labor practices strike. Their employer was accused of unilaterally declaring impasse after it refused to bargain in good faith. Workers wanted more staff hired, more staff training, an end to being churned and burned by long hours, and better health insurance. In response, managers fired organizers, recruited strike breakers and drove their cars into strikers on the picket line.

On November 14, the ULP strike ended when the employer returned to the bargaining table.

Their employer wasn’t the anti-union Amazon, Starbucks or Trader Joe’s — it was a union, SEIU 2015, one of the largest unions in the country. SEIU 2015 represents about half a million workers throughout California in the in-home and nursing home industry.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the union had previously filed two ULP charges against management in 2020 and 2021. They aren’t the only ones to threaten to or actually strike SEIU. In 2019 the staff at its national office authorized a strike but settled before striking. This was followed by SEIU staff in Colorado who threatened to strike and staff in Southern Oregon who went on a wildcat strike in 2022. All three actions have gone virtually unreported even among the labor and left media.

Affiliated with the Pacific Northwest Staff Union, a union of union staff, the 142 SEIU 2015 staff formed their own union after years of abuse, exploitation, and what they see as the failure of management to adequately represent their nearly 180,000 members.

The strike was not about health care or wages alone but the refusal of the leadership to redirect its vast resources away from ineffective lobbying and campaign donations to organizing their membership. According to union representative Jeff Armstrong in an interview, SEIU 2015 members are mostly female, over 50, majority Black and Latina, and earn an average of just above minimum wage. Their poor working conditions and low pay is the result of years of cutting backdoor deals with employers.

Staff organized against poor working conditions alongside their members. According to PNWSU Chapter 2015 union representative Jeff Armstrong in an interview with Work Week Radio, the staff formed their union and affiliated with PNWSU because “there is a culture within the labor movement that staff are supposed to be martyrs for the cause but they churn and burn people out constantly.”

According to Armstrong, staff last an average of two years because “you’re in a constant churn of people coming in and out of here and it’s not sustainable.”   

SEIU 2015 leaders retaliated with the very same anti-union strategies used by management against its own members. Management attempted to hire 49 strike breakers, hired private security guards to monitor organizers, and even attempted to pit the members against the union staff. A few managers even drove their cars into picket lines on several occasions, hitting one striker.

Two union members were fired for their union activity, including the staffer hit by a car on the picket line. The LA Progressive, one of the few media outlets to report on the strike, described this as “an open and shut case of someone being fired illegally for union activity while employed by a union.”

According to PNWSU Chapter 2015 member Manuel Lares in the Work Week Radio interview, “to have a union as an employer use that tactic is morally bankrupt because we’re on the same team and we’re supposed to be united.” As Lares warned, this anti-union behavior by a union gives the perception that “the union does it so maybe corporate America can do it too.”

SEIU 2015’s strikebreaking is imperiling the staff’s ability to organize new members. Speaking at the April UC Berkeley Labor Conference I attended, staff reported being spurned by members who have seen how the union treats its own workers and prefer to self-organize or affiliate with another union.

While unionization of union staff is growing, these strikes are a new development. The working conditions of union staff helping members organize to improve their working conditions should not be characterized by the same exploitation.

As our unions abandon organizing and fighting the boss to funnel our dues revenue into advocacy and lobbying, our unions are looking more and more like nonprofit and even for-profit employers. Like non-profits, union management exploit staff by driving them to work exceptionally long hours “for the cause” and shame them when they ask for sick leave to recuperate.

New SEIU staff “organizers in training” aren’t trained to organize, as one of my former students learned when he was hired as one. Instead, they are tasked with “chasing cards” by signing up new members who will ultimately not be organized. Too many unions exploit staff this way to raise more membership dues to support the management and its political allies rather than organize the rank and file to organize to take on the boss and fight to democratize work, improve pay and benefits and even reduce the workday and workweek.

As I wrote about in a previous op-ed on these pages, unions cut about 20,000 staff and squirreled away about $29 billion of unspent membership dues between 2010 and 2020. Rather than use these resources to turn the labor movement around, unions are instead investing the money in property, treasury bills and other investments.

PNWSU Chapter 2015’s strike is a sign of more to come and rightly so. We will not inspire the 91 percent of workers who do not belong to unions to join one if union staff are treated just as badly as they are.

If we are going to turn the workers movement around, we also need to take action in solidarity with the union’s workers who are also beginning to organize against the exploitation of their own labor.

Robert Ovetz is editor of “Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle,” and the author of “When Workers Shot Back,” and the new book “We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few.” He trains workers to organize credible strike threats. Follow him at @OvetzRobert


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here