Chapter 1 seiu the early years


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Chapter 1 seiu the early years

  1. 1. CHAPTER 1 SEIU: e Early Years Chicago Janitors Organize A UnionY es, they were tired. Yes, they were angry. Yes, they were fed up. ey shouted their answers to questions put to them by An e ort by the Knights of Labor to unionize janitors and elevator operators in New York City had failed in 1891. But Quesse and the others who cleaned and maintained apart-24-year-old William F. Quesse, who was—like them—a jani- ments, or “ ats” as they often were called, succeeded. In Maytor in one of the many apartment buildings on the South Side 1902, the at janitors’ union received a federal charter (for lo-of Chicago. cals una liated with any international union) from the Ameri- Tired because a janitor’s o cial workday began before 5 a.m. can Federation of Labor.1and, with luck, ended about 10 p.m. ere were no days o . Much like today, the media decried the very idea that Angry because their pay often amounted to less than $20 workers needed unions and ridiculed the role of the janitors.a month for all the cleaning, scrubbing, painting, repairing, e New York Times editorialized back then that a janitor wasplumbing, carpentry, and maintenance work required for “nothing more than a servant” and that assertions about his orthe building. her work having value were “laughable.”2 Fed up because a single complaint from a tenant could end Four more at janitors’ locals won federal charters from thewith the janitor being red and ordered from the premises on AFL later in 1902 and 1903. During this period, many of thethe spot. one million members of the AFL worked in skilled trades, such Quesse’s next question to the 200 or so janitors gathered as carpentry and plumbing. Much of the support for accept-that night of April 6, 1902, evoked the biggest “Yes” of all: ing janitors into the AFL came from carpenters’ and plumbers’Should they band together and form a union to ght for a unions that frequently complained that the janitors performedbetter life? work within the apartment buildings that was in their jurisdic- Workers across America, Canada, and Puerto Rico grapple tion. ose unions saw the organizing of the at janitors as atoday with that same question. Many thousands also have vehicle to expand the reach of their own work.shouted “Yes” as the Service Employees International Union e ve at janitors’ unions had together a total member-(SEIU) continues to add new members who, more than a cen- ship of about 2,500 by 1904 and had won “working agree-tury later, still join together to win gains in pay, better working ments” with some Chicago real estate owners. ese early andconditions, and a voice on the job. modest gains led window washers and o ce janitors to orga- e movement to organize service workers in North nize, as well as elevator operators who won an agreement withAmerica into what is now SEIU can be traced back to that April the Chicago O ce Building Managers Association.night in 1902, even though the o cial formation of the union Building workers in other cities also saw unionization asthat became SEIU occurred nearly two decades later in 1921. the answer to their own exploitation. In San Francisco, theater
  2. 2. 2 STRONGER TOGETHER: THE STORY OF SEIUjanitors had organized in 1902 and a cemetery workers’ union means and Sunday School or kid glove methods were probablyhad formed, while in New York City a Janitors’ Society began not used.”4trying to organize. ese tactics secured the at janitors’ union enough in- By 1905, the early gains of the Chicago building service dividual deals with apartment owners that in 1916 the Cookunions led them to launch the “International Union of Build- County Real Estate Board had agreed to broader contracts thating Employees”—a response in part to the interest percolating provided wage scales and a reduced other cities. But shortly after being chartered by the AFL When World War I began the next year, the at janitors’and electing Charles Fieldstack, the leader of o ce building union, like most of American labor, supported the war e ort.janitors, as president, the e ort collapsed in disarray. To maintain war production, a federal disputes board restricted e AFL stepped in and within a year had dissolved the strikes and the janitors agreed to moderate wage demands asInternational Union and both the at janitors’ and o ce jani- part of the patriotic spirit of the times.tors’ unions disbanded. Samuel Gompers, the AFL leader, pro- As WWI ended, the U.S. political leaders rewarded labor’sclaimed the International Union had been “instituted prema- patriotism and restraint with an unprecedented wave of anti-turely and o cered poorly, and its constituent locals [were] so union persecution. Fueled in part by paranoia over the 1917diverse that they were unable to successfully carry on the work Russian Revolution, U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmerof the International Union.”3 set out to break organized labor. His hysterical e orts and Quesse, crushed by the implosion of the janitors’ and those of his employer allies sought to equate unions with com-building service workers’ unions, su ered an emotional col- munism and launched a union-busting theme that continues atlapse. He moved to the Oklahoma Territory and worked asmall farm there with his wife and brother. But by 1912 hewas back in Chicago working as a janitor and holding meetingswith union supporters in South Side saloons—the only venuesthat welcomed labor agitators. Unlike the early at janitors’ relatively easy organizing vic-tories, Quesse found employers pushing back hard in 1914.Janitors may have been “the people that God forgot,” but thereal estate moguls remembered the early union gains and mo-bilized the police and hired thugs in their e ort to thwart newunionization e orts by the service workers. Despite the climate of intimidation, the workers foughtback with their own campaigns. One recalled the e ort to winagreements from the Chicago apartment owners this way: “Lots of things would happen. Tubs wouldn’t work andsomething would happen to the boiler until the fellow gured e rst president of the Building Service Employees International Union was William Quesse, shown here conducting a strike vote of at janitors inhe had better make peace with this crowd. It wasn’t rosy by any Chicago.
  3. 3. SEIU: THE EARLY YEARS 3times even today. ousands of trade unionists were jailed andsome deported. But even in this climate, the building service workersfought back. Quesse threatened to strike in Cook County in1918 and the union won wage increases, a closed shop, andthe end of the system of forcing the janitors’ wives to sharetheir husbands’ workload without pay. e union also won apermanent arbitration system. In the two years that followed,janitors accepted a wage system that linked wage levels to therents charged in a given building.T he early years of what is now SEIU stand as a testament to a union born in struggle. en, as today, organiz-ing took top priority as Quesse and his fellow workers startedwith 200 and grew membership to 2,500 in short order and tothousands more by 1920. en, as today, employers foughtback with harsh anti-union tactics…the media ridiculed work-ers and unions…politicians red-baited labor and used federal,state, and local power to frustrate and forestall union organiz-ing and bargaining e orts. e union that today is SEIU was founded o cially when it received a charter en, as today, SEIU’s forebears sought support from a from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) on April 23, 1921.broader labor federation hobbled by its own internal shortcom-ings. en, as today, the union embraced the diversity of its Gains for service workers resulted from struggle, just asmembers, many of whom were African Americans and rst- they do today. As we have seen, SEIU’s roots trace back togeneration immigrants from Europe. Indeed, unlike most AFL the low-wage workers of the early 1900s, many of them im-unions of the time, the union that became today’s SEIU had migrants, who chose to organize and ght for economic, social,African Americans in top leadership posts as early as 1916. and political justice. en, as today, women played major roles in the union, inpart because until 1918 at janitors’ wives usually were forcedby employers to work side-by-side with their husbands, butreceived no pay or bene ts other than free housing. Union W illiam Quesse continued to press the AFL for an inter- national union charter, which nally won approval at the AFL’s 1920 convention in Montreal. On April 23, 1921,members went on to choose Elizabeth Grady, a longtime orga- the union that today is SEIU was formed by representativesnizer and leader of the Chicago School Janitresses, to be one from seven local building service unions. ey met at AFLof the rst o cers on the Executive Board. She held the post headquarters to form the Building Service Employees Interna-of trustee.5 tional Union (BSEIU).
  4. 4. 4 STRONGER TOGETHER: THE STORY OF SEIU e Illinois Legislature established a commission to probe the building trades in Chicago during this period. Some clear cases of corruption did emerge, but the broad-brush smears against all unions there soon led to widespread beatings, jail- ings, and intimidation of unionists. Quesse and nine members of Local 1 were indicted on charges of conspiracy, extortion, bombing, and “committing malicious mischief.” During this anti-union era, conspiracy charges often were brought against unions. Employers and pol- iticians argued that what in fact were legitimate and legal ac- tions by unions constituted a “conspiracy” against the interests of employers. e building service union leaders indeed had not denied the conspiracy charge, but rather argued that theirPublic employees belonged to the union from the time it a liated with the activities had not been illegal.AFL in 1921. William McFetridge of Local 46 of the School Janitors wrotehere about the union’s organizing campaign for municipal employees. McFe- e jury in the trial, which occurred in January 1922, hadtridge later became president of the entire BSEIU. at one point voted 9-3 for acquittal, but in the end could not Quesse, who helped launch the at janitors’ organizing ef- reach a verdict. A retrial resulted in Quesse and his colleaguesforts nearly 20 years earlier, became the rst president of the being found guilty of “conspiring to extort by threat and byBSEIU, which had seven locals, but ve of them had fewer than boycott” the owners of apartment buildings.8 e 10 received150 members each. e total membership numbered about one-to- ve-year sentences.2,900. 6 Quesse and the other leaders of the building service union But bargaining successes won the union a following and soon realized that their organizing and bargaining victoriesby 1922 the BSEIU had grown to 9,400 members. Chicago could be weakened or negated by the power of elected judgeswas the union’s center of power, and soon the city’s real estate and government o cials. Between his indictment and the trialmoguls had targeted Local 1 there, as well as the International date, Quesse mobilized the union to campaign for circuit courtUnion and William Quesse himself. judge candidates committed to supporting organized labor. Labor’s successes in the post-World War I period had been When the appeal of the janitors’ leaders was denied,met with an incredibly aggressive pushback from employers Quesse expanded the union’s political action e ort to includeand their political allies. a petition drive urging Illinois Governor Lennington Small to It was the era of the “open shop” with employers pushing pardon the 10 who had been convicted. Local 1 mobilizedto weaken unions in construction and manufacturing through politically throughout Chicago and all of Illinois and, with thean end to union shop provisions that required that workers in help of the Chicago Federation of Labor, succeeded in winningorganized shops belong to the union. And the early 1920s saw re-election for Gov. Small in 1924.tough anti-union decisions handed down by the U.S. Supreme is was one of the rst broad mobilizations of the serviceCourt and many lower courts.7 workers on behalf of a political candidate. It paid o . Gov.
  5. 5. SEIU: THE EARLY YEARS 5Small soon pardoned all 10 janitors’ union leaders, including Still, there were problems. Chicago’s at janitors LocalQuesse, on grounds that they had been denied a fair trial before 1, which had pioneered gains others sought to emulate, didan impartial tribunal.9 end up taking pay cuts, while other locals in the service sector e BSEIU soon helped form the Cook County Wage disbanded altogether. Layo s created a ripple e ect, as thoseEarners’ League, which played a crucial role in winning politi- who lost jobs in manufacturing ooded into the building ser-cal elections and remains perhaps the best early example of the vice sector.e ectiveness of service workers forming coalitions with other Local 4 in St. Louis collapsed and Locals 52 in Milwaukeelabor and community groups to elect government o cials. and 20 in Detroit saw sharp declines. e union did show some strength in the West, with gains in San Francisco’s Lo- cal 9 led by Charles Hardy and in Seattle’s Local 6 led byT he harsh attacks on labor by employers and government and the onset of the Great Depression contributed tounion membership in the United States dropping from ve John Rankin. But the real growth potential lay in New York City, whichmillion in 1920 to just over three million by 1932. e Build- continued to have jurisdictional battles among various Service Employees International Union de ed the trend One bright spot was the window cleaners in Local 8, whoand its membership rose above 10,000 in that period. proved real militancy with strikes in 1926. A year later they struck for 11 weeks and won $45 a week with a 44-hour maxi- mum workweek and gained compensation insurance as well. As the depression took hold, though, other New York City lo- cals had to take wage cuts and some, such as Local 14 in Har- lem, even disbanded. Just when things looked bleakest, America elected a new president: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took o ce in March 1933. He appointed pro-labor o cials to key governmental posts and pushed through the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, which for the rst time guaranteed workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. Union organizing and bar- gaining until then had not been illegal, but the new legislation gave those rights legal protection. Service workers in New York City moved quickly to seek gains in this new climate. When FDR took o ce, New York City janitors su ered from conditions the Chicago at janitors endured 20 years earlier: no holidays, vacations, or even days o . Janitors in apartment buildings got only $70 a month forNurses at San Francisco General Hospital joined the union in 1935. Local 250won a historic master agreement with the San Francisco Hospital Conference 84 hours of work per week. Paul Krat, the BSEIU’s easternin 1941. is early healthcare organizing was a building block in what hasmade SEIU the largest healthcare union in North America today. representative, had sought to dampen in ghting among locals
  6. 6. 6 STRONGER TOGETHER: THE STORY OF SEIUas well as factionalism, but even Local 32 had declined to fewer the strike and some 400 buildings between 23rd to 42nd streetsthan 300 members. had to shut down.11 A pivotal moment came in March 1934 when Tom Young, “Flying Squadrons” of about 25 unionists each would en-a West Indian active in an independent elevator union, was ter the buildings and encourage those inside to come out and red by owners of a building at 501 Seventh Avenue because join the union. Within three days, 32B had signed up 6,000he allegedly failed to say: “Down, please.” All 25 building em- new members. Garment manufacturers pressured New Yorkployees struck to protest Young’s ring and an organizer named City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to intervene. Employers agreedJames Bambrick stepped in to help them win a settlement four on the spot to a closed shop, with other issues sent to arbitra- 10days later. tion. Arthur Harckham, a local union leader, called the victory e workers soon joined what was chartered as Local 32B “the cradle of our union.”with Bambrick as president and Young as vice president. Soon Local 32B knew it needed to act fast to take advantage ofthe tiny local made demands on the New York Real Estate the gains in the garment district and the new climate createdBoard for improved wages and working conditions, only to be by President Roosevelt. Soon the local targeted eight areas oftold: “Who ever heard of elevator operators and porters join- the city, and threatened to strike in them one by one. Mayoring a union?” LaGuardia would intervene and the strikes would be put o . Local 32B, with $250 in its treasury, launched a strike of Employers were recruiting large numbers of strikebreakers andits 500 members in New York City’s garment district on Nov. some installed armed guards in the buildings.1, 1934. e workers in the International Ladies’ Garment e time was right for the union and momentum for or-Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and the Teamsters both supported ganizing grew when arbitrators issued the so-called “Curran Award” guaranteeing the garment district janitors a substantial wage hike and a 48-hour week.12 By 1936, Local 32B had grown to 25,000 members and had moved on to target workers in apartment buildings in New York City. A 17-day apartment janitors’ strike led to new gains similar to those won earlier by the workers in the garment district. Local 32B had shown that big organizing and contract gains could be won by strategic targeting and shrewd use of a political climate far more open to labor than the “open shop” era a decade before. T he big organizing gains in New York City helped propel the service employees union to a membership of more than 70,000 in the late 1930s. Some of that growth came out- side the union’s base of janitors and building service workers,Striking elevator operators helped found Local 32B in 1934. e local’s head-quarters in New York City is shown here in 1954. as the BSEIU expanded members among doormen, telephone
  7. 7. SEIU: THE EARLY YEARS 7 unions with the most vicious tactics used by anti-labor employ- ers. But BSEIU countered with a sophisticated outreach cam- paign to the public that developed substantial support. Earlier, healthcare organizing e orts at Cook County Hos- pital in Chicago and at Illinois State Hospital had proven un- successful, but the BSEIU campaign in San Francisco ended in 1941 with the San Francisco Hospital Conference yielding to the union and signing a master agreement. is was the rst such contract of its kind and laid the groundwork for SEIU eventually to become the largest health- care workers’ union in the United States. A leader of Local 144 in New York recalled the broader impact this way: “For almost 20 years, the only union in the United StatesChicago Flat Janitors Local 1 members marched in 1958 with their brooms aspart of Mayor Richard Daley’s annual Clean-Up Campaign. and Canada that attempted to bring the bene ts of decent trade unionism to the long-exploited hospital workers was ouroperators, athletic and public events vendors, ticket sellers, own BSEIU. We were the pioneers. We were trying to do theand others. di cult job back in the days when the [other] unions didn’t BSEIU President William McFetridge took over in 1940 want to bother organizing hospital employees.”after a scandal involving George Scalise, who brie y served as Soon, BSEIU organized healthcare campaigns in Seattlepresident. e union then moved to strengthen its adminis- and Minneapolis. In Canada—which had developed a moretrative structures and tighten internal procedures. It had be- progressive healthcare system and had better labor laws—thecome a loose group of often freewheeling activists and locals, Canadian BSEIU grew substantially during this period, orga-but McFetridge realized a new day had come with the gains of nizing the majority of its members in healthcare facilities inthe Roosevelt presidency and labor’s growing respect nationally. Ontario and Saskatchewan. e expansion of the union’s membership base outside e BSEIU magazine featured a nurse on its cover andbuilding services had McFetridge’s full support. An important new campaigns emerged up and down the West Coast orga-test came on the West Coast during his rst year in o ce, when nized by George Hardy (who would go on to become presidentLocal 250 took on the San Francisco Hospital Conference, a of SEIU) seeking to unionize healthcare workers.citywide employers group. e local had started to organizeat San Francisco General Hospital in 1935, largely througha community campaign emphasizing the need for a union topush for better conditions for patients within the hospital. B y 1960, the Building Service Employees International Union had grown its membership to the 250,000 mark— a re ection of President William McFetridge’s commitment to San Francisco’s nonpro t “voluntary” hospitals were small- both increasing emphasis on broad organizing goals and im-er, paid better wages than San Francisco General, and fought proving the union’s ability to deliver for its members.
  8. 8. 8 STRONGER TOGETHER: THE STORY OF SEIU BSEIU’s post-war progress came as the union not only suc-ceeded in organizing hospital workers in San Francisco in the1940s, but also won new members in airports, public schools, A Republican Congress in 1947 passed the Taft-Hartley Act, over the objections of labor. Once again, as in the early 1920s, there was a rising anti-union climate. is timebowling alleys, shoe repair shops, and nurseries. ere also had the National Labor Relations Act, enacted in 1935 as part ofbeen growth among cemetery workers and even the atomic en- Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, was amended to limit manyergy sta at the Argonne and Oak Ridge atomic laboratories. rights workers had enjoyed. For example, Taft-Hartley prohib- e organizing gains occurred at a time when the union ited solidarity and political strikes, closed shops, and second-also su ered some erosion of membership as technological ad- ary boycotts. It also allowed states to enact so-called “right tovances resulted in some members losing jobs. Some elevator work” laws that outlawed union shops.operators, for example, who were a major force in New York’s Still, BSEIU remained militantly committed to organiz-Local 32B, were displaced as automated self-service elevators ing and to winning gains at the bargaining table. Apartmentcame on the scene in the early 1950s. At bowling alleys where workers in New York City achieved a 40-hour workweek after aBSEIU began organizing in the 1940s (gaining some 10,000 four-day strike, for example. In addition, the union had broad-new members), “pin boys” lost jobs to automatic pinsetting ened its negotiating approach to bene ts—building on McFe-machines. Ticket sellers and pari-mutuel clerks at sports events tridge’s achievement in 1943 of a “death bene t plan” that paidand racetracks fell victim to the advent of television, as some $100 to the families of members in good standing when theypeople began to stay home from events and, from their couch- died. e money came from the union treasury and by thees, watch them on TV. And even what appeared to be growth late 1940s was the biggest expense the union had. e unionsectors, such as atomic energy, proved less than successful for program ended the old days when low-paid janitors and otherMcFetridge. BSEIU remained strong in the traditional build- service workers had to pass the hat to come up with money toing service sector where it added some 130,000 in the 1940s, help families bury their dead.mainly in large cities such as New York, San Francisco, Chi- By 1951, Local 32B, led by David Sullivan, had achievedcago, and Seattle. pension and welfare programs for members that paid out $2.5
  9. 9. SEIU: THE EARLY YEARS 9million annually. e local opened a “rest home” on 21 acres 1958 in Pennsylvania, where the governor signed an executiveoutside New York City that was available free to its mem- order providing state workers with the right to union recog-bers. Local 1’s at janitors in Chicago o ered members free nition. BSEIU played a vital role in getting that order andlegal advice as well as a credit union, scholarships, and its own promptly, under Vice President Charles Levey, had organizeddeath gratuity on top of the International’s. More than 70,000 six locals of Pennsylvania state employees. In California, whereBSEIU members had union-provided life insurance. BSEIU membership rose to 50,000 by 1959, there were 11,600 In the mid-1950s, BSEIU President McFetridge had public employee members.served on the AFL’s “no raiding” committee during merger dis- As the union entered the decade of the 1960s with thecussions with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). achievement of 250,000 members, President McFetridge an-But this period saw numerous jurisdictional con icts, often nounced he would not seek re-election at the union’s conven-with the American Federation of State, County and Munici- tion. Business Week magazine, often at odds then with unions,pal Employees (AFSCME) union. Going all the way back to paid tribute to him as “the model U.S. labor leader.” It noted:1937, BSEIU leader Paul David wrote that “this organization “BSEIU has achieved a record of peaceful bargaining, contract(AFSCME) has given us continual trouble all over the country.” observance, and wage progress that not many other unions Despite problems with AFSCME, the union won big in can equal.”