‘Occupy Wall Street’ and similar protests around the nation were only the beginning. The Service Employees International Union, as much as anyone, 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 reluctant elected officials feel their wrath. These nonprofit organizations, typically operating under monikers such as “good jobs” and “a fair economy,” may seem spontaneous and benign. Yet they are union stage-managed. And as their leaders become more sophisticated and networked, unions may wind up a good deal more effective in their drive to place the U.S. economy under public control.
Union Corruption Update last October discussed at length how organized labor has been the driving force behind the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement and its manifold offshoots in the U.S. and Europe. To the naked eye, the takeovers of public space were part political protests, part upbeat communal gatherings. Far from being centrally-managed, supporters insisted, the occupiers, especially the young adults, were idealistic populists who found their voice, and in the process, were helping the rest of us find our own. The wealthy, whom the demonstrators redubbed the “1 percent,” too long had been lording it over everyone else; i.e.; the “99 percent.” Those days were numbered, they declared. The great majority would fight back against their oppressors! What started on September 17 in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park not far from the World Trade Center reconstruction site was emerging as 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 to represent the opposition. 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 policy issues and basic finance, their 24/7 campouts were not quite as spontaneous as they looked. Political movements by nature require a tight network of leaders in order to press claims and win concessions. As successful business management 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 moral and logistical support. And quite a few did. In Chicago, Boston and Orange County (Calif.), for example, 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., Oakland 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 in conjunction with a march on City Hall that resulted in massive vandalism to the building.
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 and leaders. Various demonstrators have recognized a career opportunity. Some one day may become national activists of the first rank. It’s happened 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 their wings. One union in particular, the Service Employees International Union, has emerged as a leader. The SEIU, as National Legal and Policy Center has noted more than once, for the past few decades has been a major voice for radicalism, both in the context of labor relations and Democratic Party politics. During the Eighties, 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 middle of that decade, 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 crucial, and shadowy, 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.
Union leadership has been fully supportive of the Occupy Wall Street movement. SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, the successor to the equally radical 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. Reporter Richard Pollock, in separate articles for the March 5 and March 8 editions of The Daily Caller, investigated how the SEIU setting up a national network of nonprofit groups to work in concert 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 open about it. It is thus more than a tad hypocritical that such people are the first to demand more transparency from the financial industry.
The local groups look spontaneous, traveling under names with an appeal to average citizens who merely 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.” Nobody could be “against” good jobs – that’s 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.
A Washington, D.C.-area group, Our DC, takes this disingenuous mode of 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. Its address is the same as SEIU Local 500. And its website, 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 anything but amateurs. Rodich and Myers are well-compensated salaried employees of SEIU Local 500; Rodich, in fact, serves as executive director. Long, meanwhile, is executive vice president of the Service Employees and formerly had headed 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 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, that 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 in labor law to handle the paperwork. The Washington, D.C. law firm of Trister, Ross, Schadler & Gold so far has been the preferred legal shop. The firm has 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 the ACORN-style deception. It is the institutional integrity of organized labor generally. For what we have is a major union pursuing its goals by hiding behind “grass-roots” nonprofit organizations. One highly plausible explanation for this 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 plays this game. 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 certainly have plenty of experience at this. But that doesn’t mean unions should be exempt from scrutiny. Even if undermining corporate self-governance were somehow a noble goal, organized labor, if nothing else, should be transparent about how it proceeds in realizing that goal.