‘Occupy Wall Street’ and dozens of similar protests around the nation were only the beginning. The Service Employees International Union, as much as any organization in or outside the ranks of organized labor, is making sure of it.
The SEIU these past several months has been playing a crucial behind-the-scenes role in transforming these rallies into the raw material for a new generation of activists. Through varied front groups, the union is taking its fight against banks, energy companies and other corporations to a new level, making sure elected officials not in its corner feel the SEIU’s wrath. These nonprofit organizations typically operate under benign-sounding tags such as “good jobs” and “a fair economy.” And they seem spontaneous to the naked eye. Yet they bear the hallmarks of SEIU stage management. And as their youthful leaders become more sophisticated and better networked, the union – and organized labor generally – may wind up a good deal more effective in the drive to place the U.S. economy under public control.
From almost the beginning, unions have been a driving force behind the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement and its manifold offshoots in the U.S. and Europe. Of course it didn’t seem that way. Those 24/7 campout appropriations of public space were part political protests, part upbeat communal gatherings. Far from being centrally-managed, the occupiers, especially the young adults, appeared as idealistic populists who found their voice. And in the process, they were helping the rest of us find our own. The wealthy, now redubbed the “1 percent,” too long had been lording everyone else – “the 99 percent.” Now their days were numbered. What started on September 17 in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park not far from the World Trade Center reconstruction site was now Ground Zero for a peaceful worldwide revolution against capitalist excess. The Democratic Party, in the pockets of Big Business almost as much as the Republicans, were too compromised. The real party of opposition could be found in the streets. So went the story.
Yet aside from the demonstrators’ appalling lack of grasp of financial markets and policy issues, their occupations were not as spontaneous as they looked. Political movements, by their very nature, require a tight network of leaders in order to press claims and win concessions. As a successful business requires organization, so does successful opposition to it. No doubt the occupiers were having fun. But some of them also were forging ties with seasoned activists on the Left to develop a long-range political program.
Labor organizations were ideally positioned to provide support. Quite a few did. In Chicago, Boston and Orange County (Calif.), area affiliates of the AFL-CIO organized protests. In New York City, the national leadership of the Amalgamated Transit Union, the Communications Workers of America, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) each voiced support for Occupy Wall Street demonstrators. So did the New York State United Teachers, another AFL-CIO affiliate.
The encampments of last fall that stood as symbols of mass resistance have been dismantled. In most cases, demonstrators/campers, facing cold weather and growing weary of moral theater, left on their own accord. In other cases, such as Washington, D.C. and Portland (Oregon), not to mention Ground Zero at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, they didn’t. Authorities belatedly removed makeshift shelters, arresting those who refused to leave. Resistance at times got ugly. In Oakland, California about 400 protestors were arrested during a late-January riot; many had broken into and severely vandalized City Hall. Activists in several cities have promised another round of occupations this spring.
With or without a rerun, however, there is a more significant story. More than simply make headlines, the occupations provided the cause of progressivism with fresh cadres of organizers. Various demonstrators have recognized a career opportunity. Some one day may become national activists of the first rank. It’s happened many times before. In October 1969, for instance, a young radical activist, Wade Rathke, underwent a baptism of fire when he was arrested for leading a violent demonstration at a local welfare office in Springfield, Massachusetts. The following year, on assignment for the National Welfare Rights Organization, he moved to Little Rock, Arkansas to set up what would become the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, for which he served as chief organizer until 2008. From such battlefields, union and political leaders are born.
Organized labor, with decades of experience in political activism, is taking the most committed of the ‘Occupy’ radicals under its wings. One union in particular, the Service Employees International Union, has emerged as a leader. The SEIU since the Eighties has been a major voice for radicalism, in the context of both labor relations and Democratic Party politics. Some 30 years ago, Wade Rathke established SEIU Local 100 to represent service employees in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas; the union and ACORN (now disbanded) were barely distinguishable. And in the mid-Eighties the union created its “Justice for Janitors” campaign, which over the ensuing years has inflicted its highly disruptive style upon cities across the nation. One of the chief architects of Justice for Janitors, Stephen Lerner, remains a major SEIU organizer and political strategist. He was a shadowy key figure in last fall’s urban occupations, especially in Chicago. A half-year earlier, Lerner was caught on tape speaking to a New York audience, describing the rudiments of a program to undermine the U.S. economy.
The union’s leadership has been fully supportive of the Occupy Wall Street movement. SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, successor to Andrew Stern, last October called the protestors an “incredible inspiration” for highlighting social and economic injustice. “We have been talking about the increasing inequality in this country for a long time,” she said. “I think what’s wonderful about the Occupy movement is that they captured this with…‘We are the 99 percent.’ I feel like what we are doing is echoing a very smart thing that the occupiers began with.” She would amplify this endorsement in a guest editorial for the October 8-9, 2011 weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal:
The Occupy Wall Street actions are a potent example of what is happening across our country as the anger and frustration of ordinary Americans builds. While the media and pundits obsess over what the Occupy Wall Street protestors want, the protestors have already succeeded in shaking our conscience as a nation and forcing a national conversation about everything that is wrong with our economy…
The anger of the American people has been brewing for quite some time, and now that it’s boiled over there’s no bottling it up. The importance of Occupy Wall Street can’t be measured by any set of demands. What’s more important to understand are the values that unite the protestors and their authentic understanding of what has gone wrong in our economy.
Her union, which has more than two million members and an annual budget of more than $200 million, is partnering with many of the occupiers. Richard Pollock, in separate articles for the March 5 and March 8 editions of The Daily Caller, revealed how the SEIU is setting up a network of nonprofit groups to work with “Occupy” groups to pressure businesses and elected officials. These operations, designed to create the illusion of mass public support, advance the interests of the SEIU without being too open about it – ironic, since such people are the first to demand transparency from the financial industry.
The local groups travel under names that potentially appeal to average citizens who want to make a positive difference in their communities. Examples: “Good Jobs, Great Houston”; “Good Jobs, Better Baltimore”; “One Pittsburgh”; “Fight for Philly”; and “Minnesotans for a Fair Economy.” Who, after all, could be “against” good jobs or a fair economy? This is precisely why they are such useful fronts. Pollock cited a Seattle group, “Working Washington” as an example. This group is registered with the State of Washington as a corporation, with one Secky Fascione as its agent. Fascione’s LinkedIn profile lists her as an “Organizing Coordinator at SEIU.” Then there is cited the case of the Los Angeles-based “Good Jobs LA.” Its legal name is “Good Jobs, Safe Communities LA.” The California state registry lists its address as the same as the SEIU’s state headquarters – remarkable coincidence!
A Washington, D.C.-area group, “Our DC,” takes this disingenuous behavior to an extreme. Incorporation papers reveal its legal address to be not in the District of Columbia, as its name suggests, but in suburban Gaithersburg, Md. And it is the same as SEIU Local 500. The website for Our DC, while not providing the names of directors or officers, does provide the street address of SEIU national headquarters. Pollock went ahead and obtained documents pertaining to the group’s April 2011 incorporation, discovering that its three-member board of David Rodich, Valarie Long and Beth Myers were hardly amateurs off the street. Rodich and Myers are well-compensated salaried employees of SEIU Local 500; Rodich, in fact, serves as executive director. Long is executive vice president of the Service Employees and formerly head of the New York City-based SEIU 32BJ, which represents more than 120,000 janitors, doormen, security guards and other building service workers along the East Coast. The executive director for Our DC, Kendall Fells, is also an SEIU employee. The dots have a way of connecting.
Website registrations for the groups as a whole provide further evidence of SEIU sleight of hand. Many domain names for group websites originally were registered through an anonymous proxy service. Yet it is hardly a coincidence, notes website integrity consultant RobTex.com, their Internet Protocol (IP) addresses link back to the main SEIU Web server. The principal IP location of the server reveals nearly 70 domains representing union and allied advocacy groups. All sites corresponding to city-specific SEIU front groups are on the server; many of them use similar designs and an identical template.
Another strong clue that these nonprofits are Service Employees hobby horses is how they obtained their legal status. These groups tend to incorporate under Section 501(c)(4) of the IRS tax code. That is, they don’t pay taxes, but donations to them are not tax-deductible. It helps to hire a trusted name to draw up the paperwork. The Washington, D.C. law firm of Trister, Ross, Schadler & Gold has been the preferred legal shop, having set up groups in Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Principal partner Michael Trister is a longtime labor lawyer; nearly a decade and a half ago he wrote a federal election law manual for union lawyers. He’s listed in Our DC’s papers as one of three incorporators, with the two others being employees of the firm. A co-principal, Laurence Gold, submitted an amicus brief last October on behalf of SEIU Local 32BJ in a case pertaining to New York State’s campaign finance law.
The SEIU also coordinates activities of its front organizations with those of “Occupy” groups where it counts most of all – on the ground level where the action is. Last October, members of the SEIU-sponsored nonprofit group One Pittsburgh joined forced with members of Occupy Pittsburgh outside the home office of Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. Though touted as an anti-Wall Street event, the rally morphed into a protest against the senator’s recent “no” vote on President Obama’s (not passed) American Jobs Act stimulus proposal. The two groups “go hand-in-hand” admitted Corey Buckner, a member of One Pittsburgh. The following month, Good Jobs LA and Occupy LA demonstrated together outside various branches of Bank of America. And on two occasions last December, some 30 “Our DC” protestors descended on the legislative office of Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, part of organized labor’s “Take Back the Capital” campaign and timed to coincide with an Occupy DC rally. On the weekend following the initial visit to McConnell’s office, members of Our DC and Occupy DC marched together in an “Occupy K Street” rally. Even the rhetoric can be identical. The website of SEIU-sponsored Fight for Philly put it this way a few months ago: “Join thousands of 99-percenters who are coming to Washington, D.C. December 5-9 to take back the Capitol from corporate control.” Take a guess where the expression, “99-percenters,” originated. Hint: Think of the people who came up with “the 1 percent.”
All this leads to the conclusion that the newly-formed nonprofit anti-business groups and the ‘Occupy’ groups are playing for the same team, the Service Employees International Union. Richard Pollock and The Daily Caller should be commended for first-rate investigative reporting. But there is an issue here beyond ACORN-style deception. It is the institutional integrity of organized labor. For what we have is a major union pursuing its goals by hiding behind “grass-roots” nonprofit organizations. One highly plausible explanation is that 501(c)(4) nonprofit income is tax-exempt, whereas union income is taxable. Another is that the union can recruit foot soldiers cheaply without having to organize workplaces or negotiate contracts. Many of these soldiers, with growing sophistication and experience, may well become union organizers or allied progressive activists.
It isn’t just the SEIU that is involved. The website for One Pittsburgh, for example, lists locals of the United Food & Commercial Workers and the Ironworkers as “coalition partners.” And this past February the United Auto Workers listed itself as one participant among many in a “99 percent spring” campaign, even though all Web documents came from an unprotected portion of a UAW server.
Launching and running ad hoc nonprofit groups to minimize one’s political footprints isn’t a practice limited to unions. Corporations play this game as well. But that doesn’t mean unions should be exempt from scrutiny. Even if undermining corporate self-governance were somehow a noble goal – it isn’t – unions should be transparent about how they seek to realize it.