home North America, Politics Rethinking Work: service industry labor and the face of SEIU

Rethinking Work: service industry labor and the face of SEIU

When Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union and Barack Obama’s most frequent guest at the White House, announced last week that he was stepping down, it sent ripples across the political media, particularly the progressive side, and through organized labor.

Stern was a controversial leader, forging a split with the AFL-CIO and inspiring such animosity among parts of the labor movement that he joked to Katrina vanden Heuvel: “I would be the only labor leader nominated for Labor Secretary who labor would oppose.”

But I’m not here to write about Andy Stern. Far more interesting to me is the storm brewing over who will succeed him. Stern’s chosen successor, Anna Burger, is serving as interim president, has been secretary-treasurer of the union and Stern’s second in command.

Yet this week it came out that four international executive vice presidents of the union endorsed Mary Kay Henry for the top job, saying in part that “She respects the diversity of talent, opinions, and causes that have made SEIU the most effective champion of social justice in North America.”

Henry is a healthcare organizer, working with nurses, technicians, hospital employees, and even doctors. She is also a founding member of the union’s gay and lesbian Lavender Caucus.

In other words, the face of one of the most visible unions in the U.S. and internationally is almost certain to be a woman, and perhaps even a lesbian. This is not your daddy’s organized labor.

It’s been pointed out many times, especially over the last election season and throughout the economic crisis, that the U.S. has switched from a production-based economy to a service-based economy. Organized labor has fought the outsourcing of jobs, but it was a losing battle. SEIU was able to make itself the fastest-growing union in the country not just because of the work of Stern and his crew but because the country itself was shifting its labor force. 850,000 new organized service workers are only a tiny portion of the service workers in the country.

Service labor is low-wage labor; it’s often immigrant labor. “Building service” workers were janitors. The service economy is made up of the invisible people who clean up after white-collar workers go home for the day and the semi-invisible people who serve their food, shuttle their kids to school, do the unglamorous work of healthcare and child care. Most of them remain unorganized and are hired and fired at will.

Most of the jobs I’ve held in my lifetime have been service jobs. I started out cleaning up trash, graduated to scooping ice cream and waiting tables and bartending. I did a stint as a bike mechanic and a short stretch in a nonprofit, but it was all those service jobs that fired me up and made me angry, sent me reading Barbara Ehrenreich and wondering how on earth an economy that depends on paying as few people as possible as little as possible can ever survive without eating itself.

Yet this is the plan of thousands of giant corporate employers, many of which continue to exist profitably by spending money to fight unions tooth and nail rather than pay a living wage or some benefits, and allow the state to fill in the gaps with Medicaid and food stamps. Ehrenreich documented in Nickel and Dimed excruciating detail how the low-wage jobs she worked never paid her enough to buy the products she sold.

Service jobs are no one’s dream, but then again neither was factory labor until the labor movement made it a respectable middle-class gig, one that was hard, sure, but one that would support your family and pay you a nice pension to let you retire, gave you health benefits so you might last to see that retirement.

Matthew Yglesias noted recently, referring back to the men who he hired to help him move:

In the real world, the reason I earn more than Salvadoran movers is the same as the reason I work less hard—I have more valuable skills, and people with valuable skills can demand both more money and cushier working conditions. But it’s not as if those guys were too lazy to become American political pundits, they were born in El Salvador in the middle of a civil war and never had a chance to obtain the relevant skills.

Without “valuable” skills—a word I’d quibble with, and probably will in more detail in the not-too-distant future—the only hope workers have to demand better pay and conditions is banding together. Yglesias’s example shows exactly the problem with the service economy—finding more people who are capable of carrying boxes in and out of apartments is much easier than finding people educated enough to do good political journalism, or assemble automobiles, or practice medicine, or, apparently, unravel complicated credit default swaps or sell derivatives on Wall Street (that’s the logic behind the obscene bonuses, right?).

Immigrants, women, and people of color make up the service economy; it’s the reason both for the lingering wage gap and the diversity of service-employee unions. Liza Featherstone noted that Andy Stern didn’t fit the macho stereotype of a union leader; either Anna Burger or Mary Kay Henry will subvert that stereotype even further. The first woman in charge of a major labor union? Yet it will only be representative of the labor force, which this past year became majority-female (as did union labor; SEIU is 56% female).

The common refrain for a while as Democrats returned to power and then struggled to maintain it is that we don’t just need more jobs, but we need those jobs to be good jobs. We’ve heard the argument that our economy can’t sustain itself without manufacturing—which is, in some sense, true. But it’s also true that the manufacturing jobs once upon a time weren’t “good jobs” either. The benefits that made them good jobs were fought for and won.

As the shape of the workforce changes, then, the face of labor changes as well. It will take more organizing, more fighting to ensure that service workers are treated well, that we don’t write people off, dismiss their jobs as less valuable, let them slide. Whatever the result of the shift in leadership at SEIU is, it is likely to make some people think a little bit differently about labor and organizing.