The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is one of America’s largest, most controversial, and most politically involved labor unions. The SEIU, which represents building services employees, nurses, other healthcare workers, and public employees, is noted for its close ties to the broader left-of-center movement, perhaps most notably the controversial now-defunct community organizing network ACORN and its successor groups.
The SEIU is one of the totems of the modern institutional left, with deep ties to the Democratic Party, liberal institutions, and the broader labor movement. Under former union president Andy Stern, SEIU was an original “institutional investor” in progressive donor association Democracy Alliance (DA). Stern brought SEIU into close alliance with former President Barack Obama, with SEIU being one of the first major progressive groups to endorse his candidacy in the 2008 Democratic Party presidential primaries.
SEIU is the largest organizational federal political spender. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, SEIU-affiliated people and organizations have spent over $272 million on federal politics through 2016, with over 99 percent of the money going to Democrats and progressives.
In addition to its political activities, SEIU has a reputation for aggressive organizational campaigns and employee representation. The SEIU pioneered the modern “corporate campaign” for labor union organizing, under which labor unions and aligned progressive groups use political pressure and personal attacks on brands and employers to secure representation privileges rather than conventional employee secret ballot votes. Most recently, the SEIU has spent tens of millions of dollars on a public relations campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour alongside a corporate campaign against McDonald’s restaurants.
The union left the AFL-CIO in 2005 with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) to form a rival federation of unions, Change to Win. The breakaway faction has shrunk since then and now considers itself a “strategic organizing center” that operates numerous progressive movement projects.
SEIU’s large budget, high political profile, and prestige in the progressive movement has opened its officers to corruption. Since 2010, two heads of major SEIU local unions have been convicted of felony charges related to corruption in office. Other SEIU employees have been implicated in violent demonstrations.
The SEIU was founded in Chicago as the Building Service Employees International Union in 1921, which grew out of the Chicago Flat Janitors Union. The Chicago-headquartered union later took its current name in 1968, and expanded organizing from janitors and elevator attendants into healthcare services and public employees. SEIU was affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, later the AFL-CIO.
John Sweeney Presidency
In 1980, John J. Sweeney was elected president of the SEIU. Sweeney gained a reputation for aggressive organizing, with approximately 30 percent of the union’s expenditures directed to recruitment of new members.
Under Sweeney the SEIU grew substantially, rising in membership from 625,000 to 1.1 million. Sweeney also expanded SEIU deeply into the public sector, adding the California State Employees Association into the union as Local 1000, SEIU.
During Sweeney’s presidency, the union chartered SEIU Local 100, headed by labor organizer Wade Rathke. This brought SEIU into intimate contact with the Associations for Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) network, which would remain until ACORN folded and Local 100 disaffiliated from SEIU in the late 2000s.
Stern and the Break from the AFL-CIO
Sweeney was briefly replaced as SEIU president by Secretary-Treasurer Richard Cordtz, but Cordtz withdrew from the election for a full term amid controversy surrounding his running mate. That cleared the field for Sweeney protégé Andrew Stern, who won election as SEIU president in 1996.
Stern took office seeking to reform the union’s culture, increase SEIU’s membership, and rebuild the union’s political influence. Over Stern’s fifteen years at the helm, SEIU’s political power surged. Stern was a longtime ally of President Barack Obama from his time in Illinois, and the union and its political action committees spent in excess of $60 million to support his election and those of Democrats to Congress in 2008. Stern was a frequent visitor to the Obama White House and was the most frequent visitor reported in White House visitor logs in the first six months of the Obama presidency.
Membership also increased, but Stern’s disputes with AFL-CIO head Sweeney led to a split in the labor union movement. Stern, along with James P. Hoffa of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, split from the AFL-CIO and formed their own union federation, Change to Win. Change to Win largely failed to live up to the hype surrounding its formation; three of seven breakaway unions left CtW and the organization itself rebranded as a “strategic organizing center.”
Stern’s efforts to reform the union’s culture and root out corruption proved even less successful. The end of his term was marred by scandal surrounding Stern’s former ally, Tyrone Freeman, who was implicated (and later convicted) in a financial scandal after Stern entrusted him with control of a large California local union. A series of scandals also embroiled the SEIU-linked community organizing network ACORN, which lost federal funding and later folded after alleged financial and other malfeasance were exposed. Stern was reportedly investigated by the FBI, but no further action was taken.
Stern abruptly resigned from SEIU’s presidency in April 2010. He was succeeded by Mary Kay Henry, previously the executive vice president of the SEIU. Henry displaced Stern’s heir apparent, Anna Burger, who had served as SEIU Secretary-Treasurer.
Henry’s SEIU has continued Stern’s aggressive political involvement: The union heavily backed President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated 2016 presidential campaign. In addition, the SEIU has launched a national campaign to unionize restaurant workers and double the federal minimum wage, known as Fight for $15. The union has spent tens of millions of dollars on political consultancies (most notably the BerlinRosen firm from New York) and progressive community organizing groups to advance the program, with moderate success in very Democratic cities and states.
The SEIU’s structure emphasizes a national core and large “mega-locals” that organize entire industries within and sometimes across states. The SEIU has locals representing both principally private-sector workers and principally public sector workers.
Three SEIU locals required to file reports to the Department of Labor declared over 100,000 members in 2015, while an additional eight have over 40,000 members. The largest SEIU local unions include:
1199SEIU, United Health Care Workers East
1199SEIU is one of the most powerful unions in union-strong New York and a powerful player in that state’s liberal movement. According to the union’s Department of Labor filings, the union spent $186 million in fiscal year 2015 (of which $41 million was per capita tax paid to national and regional SEIU bodies) and reported 351,149 members.
SEIU Local 2015
Formed in 2015 from three California SEIU home-healthcare worker local unions, SEIU Local 2015 is one of the newest mega-locals and one of the most controversial within the union. The formation of Local 2015 was highly controversial, with rivals of SEIU national president Mary Kay Henry alleging the reorganization was aimed toward consolidating the power of SEIU headquarters over local union officials and ensuring Henry’s reelection.
SEIU Local 32BJ
SEIU Local 2005, United Healthcare Workers-West
A California mega-local representing nurses and other healthcare workers formed under Andy Stern’s union presidency, United Healthcare Workers-West was later split with much of its home-healthcare membership shifted to Local 2015. This led to the spectacle of Local 2005 president Dave Regan denouncing top-down union governance strategies that had elevated Regan to his very position.
The SEIU has branches that are not required to file periodic reports with the U.S. Department of Labor because they exclusively represent state employees. The largest such branch is SEIU Local 1000, which claims a membership of 95,000 public employees in the state of California.
The SEIU’s use of large-scale “mega-locals” has led to criticism. Advocates within the union movement for member control—also known as “union democracy”—have targeted the consolidation actions of SEIU headquarters for opposition. In 2008, the leadership of United Healthcare Workers-West resigned en masse amid a reorganization, forming the National Union of Healthcare Workers independent from SEIU. According to NUHW leader Sal Rosselli, SEIU ousted the president of an Illinois local union for failing to support SEIU-endorsed candidate Hillary Clinton against U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries.
The SEIU has a reputation for aggressive campaigning both in politics and union organizing. Since a 1990 effort to organize janitorial staff in Los Angeles, SEIU has promoted the “corporate campaign” or “comprehensive campaign” method of unionization, putting pressure on third parties (usually customers with branding at stake) and employers to ease the path to organization—often without a secret-ballot vote.
One of SEIU’s most notorious corporate campaigns attacked foodservice provider Sodexo. The union’s tactics proved so aggressive that SEIU ended up settling a case the company brought under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Sodexo had sued to end what the company called “extortionate threats and barrage of unlawful tactics” and alleged SEIU committed “blackmail, vandalism, trespass, harassment, and lobbying law violations.”
As part of the litigation surrounding the Sodexo campaign, SEIU disclosed its “Contract Campaign Manual,” the book of organizing principles behind a comprehensive campaign. The document describes a comprehensive plan of intimidation directed at employers who resisted unionization. Vincent Vernuccio of the Mackinac Institute describes the SEIU’s playbook:
SEIU’s manual details how “outside pressure can involve jeopardizing relationships between the employer and lenders, investors, stockholders, customers, clients, patients, tenants, politicians, or others on whom the employer depends for funds.” The union advises using legal and regulatory pressure to “threaten the employer with costly action by government agencies or the courts.”
It details the use of community groups to “damage an employer’s public image and ties with community leaders and organizations.” SEIU recommends going after company officials personally. Not mincing words, SEIU states, “It may be a violation of blackmail and extortion laws to threaten management officials with release of ‘dirt’ about them if they don’t settle a contract. But there is no law against union members who are angry at their employer deciding to uncover and publicize factual information about individual managers.”
Fight for $15
Also see Fight for $15 (Movement)
The organizing campaign currently attracting much of the SEIU’s focus is its “Fight for $15,” a nationwide effort to unionize fast-food-restaurant employees, organize airport services workers, and double the federal minimum wage. The campaign debuted in 2012 with a series of demonstrations by SEIU supporters and activists that were billed as “fast food worker strikes.” Some within the union and the movement have criticized SEIU leadership for the union’s heavy-handed stage managing through liberal public relations firm BerlinRosen.
SEIU has invested heavily in the campaign, with estimates of campaign spending through the end of 2015 approaching $70 million. The potential payoff for the investment is obvious: The Manhattan Institute’s Diana Furchgott-Roth estimates that unionizing McDonald’s, which has been a prominent corporate target of Fight for $15, could yield $100 million per year in SEIU dues and fees revenue if half its workforce could be organized.
The campaign has had some success in persuading very blue states like California and New York as well as very blue cities like Los Angeles and Seattle to raise their minimum wages to $15. However, the effect of the Fight for $15 on union membership is less clear: former SEIU president Andy Stern has questioned the potential longevity of SEIU’s campaign given its lack of union organizing results. SEIU membership has declined over the period that Fight for $15 has been active.
Home Healthcare “Dues Skim”
SEIU has sought to organize home healthcare aides compensated through state Medicaid programs. Critics object to these programs, which they call a “dues skim,” alleging that the state government does not have a bona-fide employer-employee relationship with caregivers paid from their family members’ Medicaid allowances.
Caregivers objecting to SEIU representation sued the state of Illinois seeking exemption from mandatory dues and fees payments. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in the caregivers’ favor in a case called Harris v. Quinn, finding that the caregivers were not full public employees and therefore exempt from compulsory dues.
Michigan has reversed its program entirely, after Republican Governor Rick Snyder replaced Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm in 2011. During the length of the program in Michigan, SEIU’s Michigan affiliate collected over $34 million in dues. SEIU Healthcare Michigan, the union’s largest Michigan local, lost over 40,000 members after the dues skim repeal and the passage of a right-to-work law in the state.
The SEIU is a major supporter of national, state, and local Democratic Parties; left-wing ballot measure campaigns; and other progressive politicians. SEIU has a major impact on liberal politics through contributions from SEIU political committees to Democratic and progressive campaigns and through dues-funded support of progressive infrastructure groups.
Funding Left-Wing Organizations
The SEIU is a major funder of left-of-center organizations out of its dues-collected revenues. SEIU has been a member of the progressive donor clearinghouse Democracy Alliance since the Alliance first organized in 2006. In 2015, the union provided Democracy Alliance with at least $295,000 in funds.
Notable progressive organizations that received funding from SEIU headquarters in 2015 include the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Center for American Progress Action Fund, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and its associated action fund, Americans United for Change, Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), New Venture Fund, Progressive Congress, Tides Center and Tides Foundation, Alliance for Justice, Demos, Jobs With Justice Education Fund, League of Conservation Voters (LCV), MoveOn.org, National Action Network, and Planned Parenthood.
The SEIU and its local unions additionally fund front organizations on the local level that support SEIU corporate campaigns. New York Communities for Change (NYCC), Action NC, and Good Jobs Now have all received funding from SEIU and have been associated with the Fight for $15. Many of these organizations are successor organizations to the defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) network, which folded in 2010 amid allegations of electoral fraud.
Federal Political Expenditures
At the federal level, political action committees associated with SEIU are the largest electoral spender since the Center for Responsive Politics’ records begin in 1990. In total, SEIU and its associated PACs have spent over $270 million on federal politics, almost exclusively on behalf of Democrats and progressive causes. (Federal law prohibits direct contributions from union dues to candidates and their committees, but elective “check-off” contributions may be collected on behalf of a union PAC.)
The scale of SEIU’s expenditure on behalf of Democratic candidates is massive: In 2012, the union was reportedly the largest spender of all left-of-center groups supporting President Obama’s re-election. The union also provides substantial “in-kind” support to Democratic campaigns, including canvassers and voter transportation services.
State Political Expenditures
In addition to its substantial federal footprint, SEIU is a major player in state-level and local politics. The union and its affiliates have spent over $67 million on state and local partisan political campaigns, with over 94 percent of contributions going to Democrats.
This political capital makes SEIU and its local affiliates major state political players, especially in states aligned with the Democratic Party. In New York, 1199SEIU has been referred to as the “union that rules New York” for its ability to cajole politicians of both major parties to support its agenda at the state and municipal levels.
One of SEIU’s major state-level legislative initiatives concerns state recognition of home healthcare aides, typically paid by family members out of Medicaid subsidies, as unionizable public employees, which critics have called a “dues skim.” The SEIU pushed such schemes in numerous states with support from SEIU-backed governors. Until a Supreme Court ruling in 2014, the SEIU could collect compulsory dues from these home care aides in states that lacked right-to-work protections, though union opponents alleged the SEIU established roadblocks to leaving union membership and dues payments.
In summer 2017, the SEIU announced its plans to fund a new campaign to support liberal and pro-labor union politicians running for office with endorsements and financial support, particularly candidates who support minimum wage hikes and oppose right-to-work legislation. The effort focuses on candidates in states within the “Rust Belt” and the Midwest.
In order to preserve and create new privileges and revenue sources for itself, SEIU is a prolific supporter and sponsor of ballot initiative campaigns. The national union provides substantial funding to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC), an organization supporting liberal ballot measure campaigns. In 2015, SEIU headquarters provided BISC with $180,000 in support. Among the campaigns SEIU has supported are efforts to raise minimum wages and increase taxes.
In addition to supporting broader progressive strategies, SEIU supports ballot campaigns to expand its membership and power. Among the union’s most notable campaigns was an effort to restore the home healthcare Medicaid caregiver “dues skim” in Michigan. SEIU Healthcare Michigan sought to reestablish a program ordered by former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm that forced home-healthcare aides paid by the state’s Medicaid program to pay SEIU dues as “public employees” and had been shut down after Democrats lost control of the Michigan government in 2010. The ballot measure campaign to restore the skim cost SEIU and its local unions over $5 million. The measure failed, and SEIU had to pay nearly $200,000 to the state for attempting to conceal its involvement.
The union is also a substantial spender in opposition to measures that would reform labor laws and reduce union privileges. One of the most notable campaigns in this vein was conducted by SEIU Local 1000 in opposition to several California ballot measures proposed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in 2005. The union’s funding of its effort with a $12 million special fund resulted in a Supreme Court case titled Knox v. SEIU Local 1000 that found the union had violated nonmember agency fee payers’ rights to opt out of funding SEIU’s political operations.
SEIU local unions often serve as a core power base for liberal politicians in major U.S. cities. Perhaps the most notable SEIU client is bold progressive New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who rode over $2 million in support from 1199SEIU to the Democratic nomination and ultimate election in 2013. De Blasio is also close with 1199SEIU-associated nonprofit organizations like New York Communities for Change, a successor organization to the ACORN community organizing network.
De Blasio is not alone in taking SEIU support to control of a City Hall. Houston mayor Sylvester Turner (D) took the support of SEIU Texas during his 2015 campaign. Philadelphia’s James Kenney (D) received the staunch backing of most of the city’s major labor unions in 2015, and he rode that support to the Democratic nomination and victory.
The SEIU additionally advances local ballot measures where they are permitted. The most notable such measure was the “Good Jobs Initiative” in SeaTac, Washington, the first $15 minimum wage to pass. The SEIU, its Washington state affiliate Local 775, other SEIU locals, other labor unions, and SEIU-backed community organization Working Washington spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to pass the wage hike in the city of 28,000. The measure was criticized for creating an apparent loophole for collectively bargained contracts, allowing unionized companies to pay less than the local minimum wage.
Perhaps SEIU’s most interesting form of political involvement is Amalgamated Bank. The SEIU took over the bank, which has been union-owned since 1923, from Unite Here after a brutally divisive split within Unite Here saw a faction of that union move to the SEIU as Workers United, SEIU in 2010. Since SEIU took over Amalgamated, numerous Democratic committees including the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Governors Association, and Ready for Hillary have all conducted business through the bank.
The Democratic Party has used Amalgamated to obtain lines of credit. For the 2012 election, the Democratic National Committee took out loans totaling $15 million from Amalgamated. The DNC had $2 million in outstanding loans with Amalgamated as recently as November 2015.
The most notable financial scandal to roil SEIU in recent years hit in 2008, when Tyrone Freeman, head of a California long-term care workers local and ally of then-SEIU International President Andy Stern, was implicated in numerous financial misdeeds. Investigators found that Freeman directed $600,000 in contracts to his wife, used union dues to pay for his cigar club membership, and put $8,000 in wedding expenses on the union credit card. After a multi-year federal investigation, Freeman was ultimately convicted on 14 counts of embezzlement, tax law violations, and mail fraud.
Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina-SEIU Local 2008, was discovered by a newspaper investigation to have improperly directed funds from the state-employee union’s treasury to a landscaping company he controlled. He would ultimately plead guilty to charges related to over $500,000 in embezzlement and be sentenced to 58 to 82 months in prison.
In February 2017, the national union placed SEIU Healthcare Michigan into trusteeship after allegations about potential financial “malpractice.” It was not reported whether police or federal investigators were involved in reviewing the union’s finances.
Hospital Construction Stalemate
Following a public outcry after a series of patient deaths October 2017 in United Medical Center, a public hospital in southeast Washington, D.C., in August 2018 George Washington University Hospital decided to establish a new hospital in the region. The SEIU opposed any attempt by the Washington city council to expedite the building process of the new hospital because of the risk that 119 SEIU members would not be rehired.
Despite the reputation of poor patient quality by the United Medical Center hospital SEIU unionized staff, on December 4th, 2018 the D.C. council voted to follow United Medical Center union contracts and employ the same healthcare workers. After the vote on December 6th, 2018, George Washington University Hospital suspended its negotiations on the new project, with the likely change that it would withdraw from the project.
Mary Kay Henry
Mary Kay Henry is the International President of the SEIU. A career union official, Henry joined SEIU as an organizer after graduating from university in 1980, rising through the ranks to organizing director and chief healthcare strategist of the union. In 2010, she won an underdog campaign to succeed Andy Stern as SEIU president, defeating Stern protégé Anna Burger.
Henry vowed to expand SEIU’s political activism while continuing the practice of aggressive corporate campaigns and card check. Henry serves on the board of the Democracy Alliance. (Last accessed August 2017.) She additionally serves as Secretary-Treasurer of Change to Win, the SEIU-led federation of labor unions that also includes the Teamsters.
The SEIU paid Henry $256,185 in gross salary in 2015, with total disbursements received of $296,549.
Andy Stern was the immediate past president of SEIU, serving from 1996 to 2010. An aggressive union boss, Stern led SEIU during its tumultuous exit from the AFL-CIO and through a period of substantial membership growth. Stern was a close ally of President Barack Obama and served on the “debt commission,” the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
Since leaving SEIU, Stern has been a senior fellow at the Columbia University Richman Center for Business, Law, and Public Policy. He wrote a book endorsing the universal basic income, a policy to provide a welfare payment to all adults. Stern is also a U.S. Programs advisory board member at the Open Society Foundations, the charitable arm of progressive financier George Soros.