Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union is the largest local union in the U.S. Representing more than 275,000 active and retired health care and hospital workers in New York, Maryland, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, it collects about $500 per member in annual dues. That added up to about $110 million last year. And while most of that money went into organizing, education and lobbying, a not too shabby portion was routed toward entertainment. An investigative report by Douglas Feiden, published in the September 24 edition of the New York Daily News, revealed that the local spent more than $2 million on parties and out-of-town conferences in 2005. Given that the powerful New York City-based local represents some of the lowest-paid employees in the Northeast, one has to wonder about its priorities.
Nobody will deny this union knows how to have a good time. Dennis Rivera, Local 1199’s president since 1989, happily admits as much. “To be very honest,” he says, “not only are we good at politics, but nobody throws a party like we do.” It’s hard to argue with that point. Reviewing all last year’s expenditures in amounts of at least $5,000, Feiden uncovered a lot of large living. Slices of the good life included: $300,000 for a five-day getaway at a Westchester County, N.Y. resort; $465,000 for a summer retreat at Lake Placid for 700 staffers; and $280,000 for a Christmas party at the Cocacabana Club on West 34th St. in Manhattan (a figure that did not include the roughly $200,000 to defray transportation and lodging costs of Boston, Baltimore and Buffalo delegates). Victory celebrations figure heavily here. When Local 1199 strong-armed the New York legislature into restoring more than $1 billion in Medicaid cuts proposed by Governor George Pataki, it marked the win by spending $44,857 on a dinner party at New York City’s Pier 60 restaurant. And after the union picked up 12,000 new members in the Boston area through a merger of two locals, it shelled out $183,038 for a shindig at the Boston Convention Center, with $73,150 of that going for food.
It’s easy to rationalize living in the lap of luxury like this. First, and most obviously, living well isn’t illegal. Second, as the union bosses note, rank-and-file members are eligible to attend such events as a reward for good performance. “We have a point system, like an airline frequent-flier program, and you don’t attend unless you’re involved in at least 20 union activities over the year,” remarked George Gresham, Local 1199’s number-two man. Third, the union’s party tab is likely modest compared to other unions. “I’ve seen a lot more extravagances in other unions,” said veteran union negotiator Bruce McIver, “and I’ve been negotiating with them for 15 years.” (The Daily News’ Feiden might have a lot more investigative reports ahead of him, come to think of it). And fourth, it’s only natural to celebrate during good times, budgets be damned. “It’s a way to thank our activists who sacrifice and give their time to build the union,” said President Rivera. “What price do you put on that?”
On the surface, these explanations sound attractive, especially given the many corporate leaders with lavish spending habits of their own. But it’s worth remembering that the union represents low-wage workers who might want some of that fun money going for collective bargaining – or onto their paychecks. “Partying at the Copa while your members clean bedpans and foot a bill they can’t afford is outrageous,” observed Rick Berman, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based organized labor watchdog group, the Center for Union Facts. It’s also worth remembering that all of the union’s members are in non-Right to Work states, which means the few nonunion workers among them have to pay union “agency fees” to keep their jobs. Such workers, reluctantly or not, will join to get the full range of benefits. It’s true that the U.S. Supreme Court several times during the last 30 years has ruled that dissatisfied union members may withhold the portion of their dues not going for collective bargaining, contract administration or grievance settlement. But in practice would-be dissenters are too intimidated by their union to make a go of it. Besides, why would anyone want to sit home knowing their friends are attending the ultimate Christmas party?
SEIU Local 1199 chieftains readily admit they need to get control over hotel spending, which ran well over a combined $1 million in 2005 for events at Midtown Manhattan’s Hilton and Crowne Plaza hotels. They note that their current headquarters nearby on West 43rd Street lacks the space to hold mass meetings. To avoid having to spend the big bucks renting ballrooms, the union plans to raze the 16-story structure and replace it with an ultra-modern facility, replete with a 3,000-seat auditorium and a 5,000-square-foot conference center. The project, to be developed by Cushman & Wakefield, also would include a mixed-use retail, commercial and condo complex. The project could wind up costing a fortune, even with the sale of existing headquarters reaping a windfall. But this is a union with a long history of success, overcoming any number of ethical challenges that may stand in the way. (New York Daily News, 9/24/06).