Last night, in the Natural State of Arkansas, something somewhat unnatural happened.
Incumbent U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln, against all odds and overwhelming political prognostication, defeated Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a run-off election in the Democrat Primary.
In spite of being lambasted by millions of dollars worth of negative TV ads, mailers, and phone calls paid for by SEIU and the AFL-CIO, as well a tidal surge of anti-incumbency, she won with 52% of the vote.
Why is this race important to me, an Ohioan, you ask?
Well, I was on the staff of SEIU for nearly five years. More specifically, on the staff of SEIUDistrict 1199 W/K/O, which represents some 14,000 workers in West By God Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio.
I left my last position with them, which was that of Political Director in 2002, but I continued to follow news about SEIU.
When I left SEIU in 2002, it was because I noticed a profound change seeping into the organization. Led by Andy Stern and Dave Regan both of whom I worked for and with, SEIU was becoming “different”.
When I started, organizing new workers was the focus, because it was important that overworked and underpaid health care workers, nursing home aides, and public sector employees made a decent wage and felt a modicum of respect.
Certainly any political pressure that can be applied, aids in meeting that goal, but the penultimate ideal remained achieving dignity for under-appreciated and under-compensated workers.
SEIU in general and my local specifically, were different from other unions. The members actually did run the business of the union.
It was not a top down, monolithic union run by sweaty union kingpins wearing seven gold chains around their necks, sporting pinky rings, and smoking cheap cigars.
Things began to change a couple of years into my stint with SEIU. Votes on proposed by-laws, dues increases, and political activities by the members were no longer quite as open in a sense.
Sure, votes were still cast as always, but those of us on the staff were “encouraged” to make certain that our particular group of members voted in the way the “union” deemed best.
At this point SEIU was growing, and growing quickly. It was the only union actually adding thousands of members a year. SEIU was in a word, successful.
And maybe, that was what constituted the change in philosophy.
SEIU was becoming a victim of its own success.
As SEIU grew to 2 million members, decisions had to be made more and more, from the top down. This was especially true in the area of politics, and last night it showed.
SEIU and the AFL-CIO poured 10 million dollars into a race in Arkansas, a state that has very few unionized workers, to defeat a candidate with whom they disagree.
It is yet another example of them backing a loser…
Howard Dean (whom I greatly respect), Rod Blogojevich, and former Detroit Mayor and now inmate Number Whatever, Kwame Kilpatrick, for whom I walked many an hour for in the hoods of Detroit.
Well folks, here’s the irony…
SEIU has quitely, and effectively for years, improved the life of workers, cast light on workplace violations, and more recently raised hell over corporate bailouts, but…
After pouring in millions of dollars to defeat Blanche Lincoln...Lincoln said last night in her victory speech, “This Senator’s vote cannot be bought…”
She was, at the same time, expressing something else.
SEIU has become what it never intended to be, and something for which it holds great disdain…