Questionable Practices

Here’s a question retailers should ponder: Is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) doing anyone any good?

In Houston, at least, the answer does not look promising.

The city’s unionized janitors aren’t happy with the union’s sluggish progress in fulfilling its own promises since the blitzkrieg organizing of building cleaners last year.

The labor contract’s fine print calls for very little compared to what the union promised up front. The new SEIU agreement gives employees a 25¢ raise on top of the new minimum wage, should it supersede the union wage. Since a national wage hike is a foregone conclusion, the gain from striking (at a cost of several weeks’ worth of lost wages) is $260 a year for the typical janitor.

And despite all the publicity and hoopla the union mustered by breaking into the South, there are a few things the union hasn’t publicized. In 2005, SEIU Local 1 leaders spent $12,000 from their members’ dues to hold a banquet at an Illinois resort. Money from dues that year—to the tune of $40,000—also went to the activist group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) for its union-friendly advocacy in the Houston organizing effort (despite ACORN’s own record of busting unionization among its own employees).

Nor is SEIU publicizing the dues funneled to those organized labor bosses in Washington who promote a political agenda having nothing to do with the cultural and religious mores of most janitors. Labor’s history of corruption and embezzlement did not get much publicity from the union, either.

Organizing five of the six major cleaning companies in Houston has given SEIU major leverage to go after the lone holdout, Professional Janitorial Services, even as the union eyes San Antonio, Dallas and any other city it considers ripe. Should SEIU organize the entire industry, clients will have no choice but to hire from the union’s labor monopoly. As one Texas labor expert put it, SEIU can’t afford to let non-union companies exist, or the union won’t be able to demand unprecedented wages.

Above all, however, SEIU can’t afford to let workplace democracy exist. Employees of the five newly unionized cleaning companies in Houston were all organized through a process called “card check.” Instead of a secret-ballot election in which employees can vote their consciences (choosing to unionize or not in the privacy of the voting booth), under “card check” employees sign union cards as union organizers look over their shoulders. Predictably, the process is rife with intimidation and misrepresentation.

Right now the card-check process is optional, meaning unions can’t require it unless an employer agrees (usually after the union has threatened to ruin a firm’s business—hence the Houston cave-in). But SEIU has already started pushing the Democratic Congress to pass the misnamed Employee Free Choice Act, which would require employers to recognize unions under card check, even though employees might decide against unionizing if given the chance to vote in private.

A strike that generates more publicity than wages for janitors. Dues money from thousands of new union members to spend on causes members don’t support. A labor cartel that drives up prices for everybody. A scheme to end secret-ballot elections. Who is SEIU really good for?

SEIU’s drive to hijack elections nationwide underscores a sad fact about today’s labor movement: “Prounion” is not the same thing as “proworker.” Not any more.

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