By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 2009; A08
As it helps push for legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize, the country's fastest-growing union is engaged in its own labor dispute with employees it is seeking to lay off.
The Service Employees International Union, considered the most influential union in the nation, has notified the union that represents about 220 of the SEIU's national field staff members and organizers that it is laying off 75 of the employees.
In return, the workers union, which goes by the somewhat postmodern name of the Union of Union Representatives, has filed charges of unfair labor practices against the SEIU with the National Labor Relations Board. The workers union's leaders say that the SEIU is engaging in the same kind of practices that some businesses use: laying off workers without proper notice, contracting out work to temporary-staffing firms, banning union activities and reclassifying workers to reduce union numbers.
"It's completely hypocritical," said Malcolm Harris, president of the workers union. "This is the union that's been at the forefront of progressive issues, around ensuring that working people and working families are taken care of, but when it comes to the people that work for SEIU, they haven't set the same standards."
SEIU officials say the layoffs are part of a long-running plan to reallocate resources. Its national office will devote more of its resources to lobbying and communications in Washington to take advantage of Democrats' ascendance. Most organizing would be left to local chapters, where officials say they have identified dozens of openings for the laid-off staff.
"This is not a financial issue," said SEIU President Andy Stern. "We need to respond to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity our members created by helping elect President Obama."
The dispute comes at an awkward moment for the SEIU, which is helping lead the push for the pro-labor Employee Free Choice Act, also known as "card check." Under Stern's leadership, the union has grown to 1.7 million members as most other unions are shrinking. Stern further elevated his profile as a possible savior of labor in 2005 by arguing that the AFL-CIO had become too complacent, and breaking off the SEIU from the AFL-CIO to form a coalition with several other unions.
But Stern has more recently emerged as a lightning rod. His coalition, Change to Win, has foundered, as several unions have moved back to the AFL-CIO or are considering doing so. He is also engaged in a costly power struggle with the former elected leaders of one of the SEIU's largest chapters, in Northern California, who were ousted by the SEIU two months ago and are vying with it for the loyalty of the chapter's members.
Harris said his union's understanding is that the layoffs are the result of budget troubles faced by the SEIU, which, on top of the California dispute, spent $80 million during the 2008 election and is planning to spend tens of millions more to advocate on behalf of Obama's health-care plan and card check.
Harris said SEIU leaders have made clear that the laid-off employees will not be guaranteed jobs at local chapters. In the case of organizers who are rehired by local chapters, he said the SEIU national office would still subsidize their salaries and help supervise them, but by classifying them as working for local chapters, they would no longer be covered by Harris's union. Fewer than half of the workers at SEIU chapters are unionized, and Harris's union's contract with SEIU forbids it from trying to help organize SEIU employees in local chapters.
The SEIU's national office has been contracting out more and more work to a staffing agency, Harris said, including advocacy for card check. He said it looks as though SEIU is trying to phase his union out of existence.
SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette said the contracting is limited and denied that SEIU is trying to undermine the workers union. "That would be the cynical way of looking at it," she said.