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Savvy Service Employees International Union 'keeps light on'

| Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014, 10:30 p.m.

Donna Hoge walked to the U.S. Steel Tower, letter in hand, side-by-side with union officials.

Hoge is a certified nursing assistant at UPMC's Sherwood Oaks senior care facility in Cranberry and member of Service Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania. Her letter was addressed to the health care giant's CEO, Jeffrey Romoff, protesting the “poverty wages” paid to her and the 150 SEIU members at Sherwood Oaks, almost half of whom the union said made less than $10 per hour while Romoff earned $6.6 million in 2012.

She never made it past the door. A beefy security guard who stopped her took the envelope but made no promises for its delivery.

But this wasn't about getting Romoff to read a letter. It was about drawing public attention to the issue it addressed.

“I kind of figured (Romoff) wasn't going to get the letter,” Hoge said afterward. “He knows what is happening and what UPMC is doing to us.”

Indeed, her union has made sure of that, organizing demonstrations outside UPMC's Downtown headquarters in the past three years in an effort to unionize hospital employees and demand higher wages.

SEIU has brought as many as 1,000 people into the streets of Pittsburgh at times, but its fight extends far beyond Western Pennsylvania and ties into a coordinated national campaign.

At a time of declining union influence, SEIU has added members and battled large employers with uncommon aggression.

Critics have accused SEIU of abandoning the traditional legal framework for unionizing workplaces, while its defenders say it has been a champion of exploited workers and a beacon for a labor movement in decline.

“I think SEIU's success is keeping the light on,” said Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the left-leaning Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg.

In early September, SEIU backed a nationwide campaign called “Fight for $15” in which fast-food workers protested for higher pay. Police arrested dozens of protesters at rallies in 150 cities, including eight people outside the McDonald's restaurant in Wilkinsburg.

The SEIU is not the only union to wage street fights. But the issues it addresses and the breadth of its campaigns — a strategy developed during more than two decades — distinguish SEIU from its peers, said Richard Hurd, professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University.

“They're using protests on more publicly supported issues,” Hurd said. “Things that will highlight inequalities in our society and problems in our society. And other unions perhaps haven't been as assertive in that field because it's expensive to run these campaigns.”

Last year, SEIU's national organization spent $51.6 million on political activities and lobbying, and $108.8 million on “representational activities,” a catch-all category that covers contract negotiations, organizing a workplace and recruiting new members, according to Department of Labor filings. By comparison, United Steelworkers spent $7.6 million on political activities and $89 million on representational activities.

Unions have experienced decades of decline. Thirty years ago, a fifth of wage and salaried workers belonged to a union, totaling 17.7 million. Last year, that had fallen to 14.5 million, or 11 percent.

Meanwhile, SEIU has grown. At 1.9 million members, it has added more than a half-million people since 2001 and is one of the nation's largest labor organizations, according to reports filed with the Labor Department.

SEIU's strength is partly because of the economic clout of the sectors it represents. Its members — health care workers, janitors and government employees — have been stable and growing parts of the economy and have jobs that can't be sent overseas. The service sector accounts for more than 80 percent of private-sector jobs, while traditional union strongholds, like manufacturing, have been decimated by competition in developing nations.

The SEIU has done more than ride a wave of service-sector jobs. It has been savvy, too, organizing large campaigns stretching across entire industries that, while expensive, have been effective, Herzenberg said.

“SEIU learned to take a market-wide approach to figure out who had the power,” Herzenberg said. “And they had to use protests, and they had to highlight disparities between the wealth of the owner and workers.”

These public fights have riled employers.

In 2011, one of the country's largest providers of maintenance and janitorial services, Sodexo Inc., sued SEIU and accused it of using “old-fashioned, strong-arm tactics to get what they want,” including public attacks to “embarrass and intimidate” Sodexo's managers.

The lawsuit was dismissed. However, among the evidence Sodexo submitted was SEIU's “Contract Campaign Manual,” a playbook for pressuring employers.

The manual describes how to organize rallies and strikes, but also how to go after the company's financial backers, use media, regulators and politicians to bring heat from the outside, as well as finding pressure points from within.

“Has anything happened at the worksite that management would not want customers, government agencies, or upper management to know?” a bullet point says.

“What tensions are there between particular managers?” another says.

The public demonstrations against UPMC have had little effect, said Greg Peaslee, UPMC's executive vice president and chief administrative services officer.

“They have their little rallies. It's meaningless to us,” Peaslee said.

SEIU has butted heads within the labor movement. In 2005, SEIU resigned from the AFL-CIO, saying it saw little benefit in being part of a federation that was becoming irrelevant in the modern workplace.

“Within the labor movement, they're not necessarily loved,” Hurd said. “There is a substantial number of leaders of other unions who have some skepticism about SEIU's motives, because here's this union that's been successful and has revenue, and they don't even contribute to the labor movement.”

Union officials outside the SEIU denied there was any bad blood from the split with the AFL-CIO, nor resentment over SEIU's tactics.

SEIU officials declined to be interviewed in person. However, in an emailed statement, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania president Neal Bisno wrote that he was “proud to support workers who are organizing to improve their jobs, support their families and strengthen and grow our middle class.”

Bisno was among those who escorted Hoge, the Sherwood Oaks worker, to the U.S. Steel Tower to deliver her letter. For the most part, he let Hoge do the talking with media.

It was a tactic from the playbook.

“Members should be trained to handle contacts with the media,” it says, “in order to create the correct impression that ‘the union' is its members and not a self-interested institution.”

Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or cfleisher@tribweb.com.

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