SEIU’s FFFE: a lot of expensive nothing, apparently

In my recent posts on the Wisconsin results and the dire crisis of organized labor, I argued among other things that unions must fight for the broad working class and not just their shrinking memberships if they’re ever going to turn things around. Some people who disagreed with me claimed that unions were already doing that. Example offered were the AFL-CIO’s Working America program the SEIU’s Fight for a Fair Economy. [Ed. note: I’d originally said that Working America was one word, a la high-tech branding, but it’s two. Sorry.]

So what are these things about? Veteran labor journalist Steve Early told me that the AFL-CIO’s WA scheme is a whole lot of nothing. Canvassers take down names and then—nothing. No organization, no meetings, no agenda, no consequences for anyone.

And a source (who must remain anonymous) with excellent intelligence on SEIU tells me that FFFE—which critics like to mock by calling it Fifi, much to the annoyance of its sponsors—is a “massively expensive boondoggle.” The union is spending scores of millions of dollars on a campaign with no agenda, no organization building, no “metrics” of success. Remember, this is a union that former president Andy Stern left a wreck—in debt, torn by internal conflict, its reputation severely damaged (see Early’s The Cost of Labor Civil War for details). And they’re spending big on a program that apparently has no imaginable payoff at all.

It would be nice if these folks used their considerable resources to organize and fight for stuff that matters. But they’re not.

26 Comments on “SEIU’s FFFE: a lot of expensive nothing, apparently

  1. My understanding is that Working America is a mobilization machine that works on discrete short term issues and is used for voer file and GOTV. You may not like those things as much as intense organizing and leadership development but they do exist. They are not the same as “doing nothing.”

  2. My understanding is that Working America is a mobilization machine that works on discrete short term issues and is used for voter file and GOTV. You may not like those things as much as intense organizing and leadership development but they do exist. They are not the same as “doing nothing.”

  3. This may be a slight tangent but I recently learned of SEIU’s (of which I was a member for a short time) financial support in defense of Vermont’s movement toward single-payer health care. I initially was a bit perplexed as SEIU has no locals in Vermont ( ) but happy that someone was stepping up to counter the increasing FUD on Vermont health care reform. According to this article, SEIU does plan to try to organize in Vermont but also claim that they are supporting the exciting policy goals:

  4. Working America is just a spreadsheet with 2.5 million email addresses. There isn’t a tactical purpose beyond the PR effort, which is mainly a Potemkin website. I mean no disrespect to folks working at 16th and I Street, NW DC; for most of ’em, the rot starts well above their pay grade.

    The SEIU/Change to Win split from the AFL-CIO was an enormous opportunity for the handful of democratic and principled of the AFL-CIO affiliated unions to reconsider the role of Labor. Those unions mouthed the words and early on fired shots across the bow [regarding the limp political/legislative shop, for instance], but settled for third-way approaches to manage their membership and their turf inside the AFL-CIO Executive Council.

    So it goes.

  5. The radical liberals who have supported and continue to support ‘boring from within’ will apparently never learn that all they’re doing is boring the working class with self-serving bureaucrats and polytricksters.

    You can’t pursue a class conscious approach to unionism without a membership informed on the question of how wage labour is inherently a system of exploitation. The borers will never accept this and the membership will continue to sacrifice to the last militant while waiting for the union to do something for them.

  6. As an Registered Nurse represented by SEIU, I do see fault with my union. I’m not one to blindly cheer for my union, but it has made a significant difference at my hospital. In a sea of non union hospitals, we have it better than most because of our union contract. That said, I do see waste and foolishness with our resources.

    Still, after being involved in the labor movement for more than 10 years, I see our union (even with its problems) doing more than any other union, and trying to build a better labor movement. While we are not always successful, and sometimes make things more difficult, who else is there? SEIU is really the only game in town, literally sometimes! SEIU is always the group that turns out the most members and staff, and shows up to more events than any union, hands down.

    Honestly, I’m not sure if Doug has something personal against SEIU, I actually sort of do (which is a completely different matter), but the rest of the labor movement is utterly pathetic compared to SEIU. There are still many local presidents who make well into the 6 figures, commit no effort to organizing, participate in zero broader working class issues, and settle for terrible contracts to stay alive. If your want to know what unions I’m talking about, I’m talking about every other union other than SEIU.

    SEIU is trying, and do have many talented people, sacrificing their personal lives to try and make a difference.

    I just find it irritating that other unions, like Mr. Early’s, which is not doing much for the broader working class, get no criticism from the left.

    I never respond to things like this, sorry if I sound angry. There’s enough things to be depressed about, and after working a 12 hour shift in the ICU it’s depressing to hear more bad things, particularly about my union, but I guess that’s your thing Doug, you are the ultimate defeatist, negative nancy, type. I guess that’s why I sometimes read you, and listen to your podcast. I hope when I’m your age (I’m 31), I’m not as negative and cynical as you, but maybe that’s just the logical result of being on the losing side all the time.

    Wish us luck on our current organizing drive at the neighboring hospitals and our up coming contract fight with my hospital.

    And as sarcastic as this sounds (I really do mean it), keep up the good work, just be a little easier on SEIU.


    Pittsburgh, PA

  7. Pingback: Links 6/28/12 « naked capitalism

  8. to address stuff that matters would require severance from the wage-and-debt-slaving, family slaughtering, imperial power component that is the d party.

  9. SEIU has been doing this for years, one astroturf “campaign” after another.

  10. Perhaps it’s the fetish with labor that has outlived its usefulness:

    Such a labor metaphysic, I think, is a legacy from Victorian Marxism that is now quite unrealistic.

  11. Doug, In case you haven’t seen it, check out Mike Elk’s nice piece on opinionnation. The ironies abound. It is interesting that AFCSME had the audacity to accuse the person who leaked the story to the WSJ about the insane salary and charter flights of the union’s president of the same thing you have been accused of in this whole Wisconsin discussion–giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

  12. It’s not very debatable that the AFL-CIO continues to act as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the DP, if one examines the actual behavior. I belong to AFT, and >95% of the “Political Activism” done by it at the national and state levels is simple water-carrying for the DP, on the DP’s agenda, no questions asked. This is not hyperbole. (The local level is much different, of course, but locals are hardly the seat of policy making in the AFL-CIO.)

    The people accusing you of being anti-labor _simply don’t know what they’re talking about_. They have no idea what’s happening inside the unions. It is fully as bad and self-defeating as you say.

  13. You guys sound like Scott Walker. Bash OWS, bash the unions, then go out and have a latte in Greenwich Village.

  14. No criticism allowed, eh, Doyler? You’re either with us or against us, right?

  15. Good one, dummy Doyler. No doubt leftists Henwood and Yates run with the billionaire Eurotrash who slum in the Village these days, you fucking idiot. Oh yeah, I forgot — Marxism is a psyop fully funded by Soros and his ilk.

  16. That’s a cheap and evasive retort, Todd. The problem is that Henwood lately is never missing Never misses an opportunity to take cheap armchair shots at the left, whether it’s the unions or OWS. He sounds like an old fart from the 60s who can’t get over himself. He does like the militias though for some reason. It’s the usual petty bourgeois pseudo radicalism. Criticize away, but try and recognize how difficult the objective conditions we operate under are, and try and direct at least 10% of your fire at the right wing.

  17. Spot on Jeff D. As a leftist registered nurse and member of SEIU I’m highly critical of my union. And while I absolutely LOVE Doug’s analysis of financial capital, his critique of the labor movement is not helpful. I absolutely want my union to be better, buy should’t the critiques be helpful. They always seem to come from a visceral hatred of the labor movement, which albeit is pathetic, but it is trying and the Ruling Class shares more to blame than union leaders.

  18. Hey Doug. Go fuck yourself. Have a shitty day.

  19. Doug,

    I want to first say, I love your insight and analysis into the financial sector and the overall economy. You know this to the core, I want more people to listen to your podcast and read your bulletin. That said, your criticism of the labor movement is lazy, unhelpful, demoralizing, and turns people off from reading you. While I’m not a Maoist, I plead with you to hold to Mao’s adage, “No investigation, no right to speak.”

    You start out by accusing SEIU of running a “massively expensive boondoggle” in FFFE. Yet you don’t back that accusation up. I too am very critical of FFFE. However, FFFE has done good things. While my friends may find this surprising (because I’m sort of a cynical Doug Henwood-type amongst us) I’m going to point out the positives of SEIUs FFFE.

    As a full time nurse, I’m not as involved as I used to be, but some examples of the FFFE campaigns I know are: working to get cable giant Comcast to pay more taxes in Philadelphia and PA, going after Bank of NYMellon in Pittsburgh, disrupting corporate shareholder meetings of Comcast (in Philly) and GE (in Detroit), going after the PA Governor’s terrible budget. These campaigns have been very visible and public. They have also engaged members and the public at large about the the economy and how class power work. How is this this a bad thing? Asking corporations to pay more taxes to support public services is an example of fighting for the broader working class and not just SEIU union membership.

    I don’t work for SEIU, and am only involved in my hospital chapter, but I do know from my friends that work for the union that there are measurable goals some sort of metrics for success. I do believe for the most part they are coming up short. But honestly it’s a very ambitious campaign and idea, and I don’t see any other union (including my wife’s CWA union) doing any sort of thing but narrowing focusing on their members.

    But again, let’s not resort to name calling and silliness. I want to point my fellow nurses to your website, but the attacks on our union and the sectarian style squabbling make this very confusing and unhelpful.

    You are a great intellectual of the left, Doug, and can be very helpful of the working class movement by sticking to what you know, don’t detract from your awesome insight into the economy by making easy criticisms about the pathetic-ness of the US labor movement.

    [One more point: I guess I wouldn’t be so irritated by this if I saw some balance. There is never credit given where credit is due. Do you guys want me to spell out the gains SEIU has gotten in my contract at my hospital? It really is better than the other local hospitals. Additionally the work SEIU in Pittsburgh did around OWS was pretty great. A handful of committed SEIU staff and members did a lot of work to amplify the message with resources (money) and professional organizing.]

  20. I don’t know what Jeff Doyler is talking about – Doug hasn’t said much about the militias (by that I’m assuming you mean radicals like the Zapitistas?), and Doug supported OWS and was even part of the Working Demands Group.

    Thee United States doesn’t really have “unions” at all, in the sense of the word used by most people on planet earth. America’s “unions” are usually private labor contracting companies, who supply people for jobs when capitalists need them. That’s the way a closed shop union works. These private labor supply companies are institutionally, legally, and financially unsuited to actually “represent” the trade they operate in, let alone the working class as a whole. That’s why they virtually never talk to each other, and that’s why there’s so much corruption. Yes, there have been exceptions here and there with organizations much closer to what the rest of the world means when they use the word “union” (the UAW, a few of NYC’s local unions) – but those are tiny, tiny exceptions to the AFL-CIO style private labor contracting companies.

    Maybe we should stop talking about improving unions, or resurrecting the movement and instead talk about actually starting a real union movement. Union density is so low that we’re essentially forced to start from scratch anyway.

  21. I don’t know whether the hypersensitivity to criticism is a cause or a symptom of labor’s decline – or maybe it’s both – but whichever it is, unless unions get over it, they’re going to continue to rot into insignificance.

  22. Doyler wrote:

    “The problem is that Henwood lately is never missing Never misses an opportunity to take cheap armchair shots at the left”

    If it’s so damn cheap, why aren’t more people doing it?

    “He sounds like an old fart from the 60s who can’t get over himself.”

    Oh, yes: God forbid anyone after the 60s should learn something from that time. After all: We Know Everything Now.

    “He does like the militias though for some reason.”


    What on Earth are you talking about?

    “It’s the usual petty bourgeois pseudo radicalism.”

    Phrase-mongering. Just don’t.

    “Criticize away, but try and recognize how difficult the objective conditions we operate under are, and try and direct at least 10% of your fire at the right wing.”

    So you really didn’t bother reading the stuff over at Corey Robin’s blog or The Nation, did you? You’re just howling, “NO CRITICISM!” because . . . ?

  23. As I live in Australia I am not really qualified to comment on the organisational and ideological wreck that the US union movement appears to have become.

    But as someone interested in trying to ‘theorise’ the weakness of organised labour in many capitalist countries I think it is worth re-reading ‘Two Logics of Collective Action’ by Claus Offe and Helmut Wiesenthal. They seek to explain the rise of ‘opportunism’ within many labour movements as a rational response to a set of structural and historical developments in ‘late capitalism’.

    This does not mean such opportunism should not be criticised and alternatives developed. But it does mean that if we understand its material and logical basis we can perhaps move the debate on a little from expressions of exasperation and allegations of ‘sell out’, ‘traitor’ and ‘splitter’.

  24. My understanding is that Working America is a mobilization machine that works on discrete short term issues and is used for voter file and GOTV. You may not like those things as much as intense organizing and leadership development but they do exist. They are not the same as “doing nothing.”

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