As president of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW), Dave Regan is well aware that over the past several decades, the number of American workers who are part of a labor union has declined fairly steadily — and the scales of power have continued to tip from workers to corporations.
“For most Americans we’re looked at as, at best, a mystery,” he acknowledges, “and, at worst, a problem and completely irrelevant.” To change that, he is calling for a major shift in the labor movement.
Regan’s new plan to help unions “regain their relevance” is a reversal of what he argues has been happening for years: Unions have played defense, as politicians and business have worked to weaken them — and focused heavily on policies and rules that help their own members. Instead, he believes, it is time for the labor movement to “play offense” and focus on large scale action to help not just union members but working people across the country. And he proposes to do this by using the ballot initiative process available in 24 states.
In an audacious maneuver, Regan’s union successfully used the threat of a direct appeal to the voters to force industry to make some key concessions and to change the entire dynamic of the business-labor relationship. Now, he is aiming to build on that success by taking his approach national.
Since the mid-1950s, the percentage of employed workers who belong to a union has dropped from more than 28 percent to less than 12 percent. Just 6.7 percent of private sector workers are union members — and with Republican-controlled state legislatures eager to restrict collective bargaining and weaken unions, those numbers continue to drop. Additionally, as more and more workers become classified as independent contractors or supervisors, a growing percentage of American workers are not eligible to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act.
Popular opinion of unions has fallen from 75 percent in the 1950s to about 54 percent today. More terrifying to unions is the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a case that could significantly erode the already declining power of public sector unions.
Regan told ThinkProgress that a “new model of unionism” is essential. “We gotta do something different, do it very quickly, and do it on scale. If we’re not willing to be something qualitatively different as unions, will be extinct in 10 years.” He says that in the 24 states with ballot initiative opportunities (with a combined population of 145 million), where “regular people can put anything they want on the ballot,” it is time to go “directly to people.”
“We know that there are dozens of ideas that are supported by more than 70 percent of voters, but have no chance of getting through legislatures because of the power of money of corporate and anti-progressive interests in America,” he said, and “the Koch brothers have an enormous advantage if you just rely on legislature.” By going straight to the ballot, he adds, it becomes possible to enact progressive change.
His “Live Better Together” proposal would enlist his colleagues within the SEIU and allies to go above the heads of the increasingly corporate-controlled state legislatures, directly to the voters to push populist proposals to address problems like low wages, student debt, and retirement security. He envisions a union-created non-profit organization which would oversee these efforts, boosting the public image of the labor movement and improving the lot for members and non-members. While the non-profit wouldn’t directly recruit more members, better public perception could attract more workers to consider union membership in the future. And while collecting the $25 million he estimates will be necessary every two years to gather the necessary signatures in all of those states — and the $250 million he thinks would ensure their success — will be an uphill battle, he can point to some recent successes with the approach.
The carrot and the stick
Late last year, Regan’s union (which represents more than 150,000 healthcare workers in the western United States) launched a signature-collecting effort in California to put two proposals not specific to unions on the ballot. The ideas were sure to be popular among voters but were anathema to the hospital industry. The Charitable Hospital Executive Compensation Act of 2014 would have limited executive pay at non-profit hospitals to no more than “the annual salary and expense allowance of the President of the United States” (currently $450,000), while the “Fair Hospital Price Act of 2014” would have capped hospital costs at 25 percent of above the actual cost to provide the care. A similar effort was also launched in Oregon.
“Everyone has had the experience of opening a medical bill and being totally confused and mystified,” Regan argued. “How does a couple of aspirin cost $40?”
On the surface, both measures were simple steps aimed at controlling healthcare costs. But they were also part of a larger gambit. SEIU-UHW went to the California Hospital Association and proposed a deal: in exchange for the union dropping the ballot initiative effort, the trade association would agree to join forces to create a $100 million joint advocacy fund to advocate for improvements to the healthcare delivery system and an increase in reimbursement rates for Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid system). Additionally, both sides would pledge to avoid disparaging the other side, especially when hospital employees consider whether to unionize or not. Last month, the two groups jointly announced that they had struck such a deal and hoped it would “serve as a new national model for how employers and unions interact,” working toward a shared strategic vision.
Jan Emerson-Shea, spokeswoman for the California Hospital Association, told ThinkProgress that while it was “way too early to know” how the agreement would play out, the hospitals “entered into it with a good faith, hopeful belief that this will result in some positive opportunities to work together, rather than against each other.” Regan said the union wants it to be a “genuine industry-level relationship,” where both sides “think about the world from the perspective of hospital industry, not just unionized hospital workers.” Though both sides praised the deal, the Orange County Register lambasted SEIU-UHW for “ballot box blackmail against hospitals,” lamenting that the union’s “recent efforts to use the initiative process to gain an upper hand in labor negotiations spit in the eye of the democratic process” seem to be have worked.
The threat of ballot action similarly spurred the Michigan legislature to raise the state minimum wage last month. Facing a ballot initiative to set a $10.10 minimum wage, the Republican-controlled legislature agreed to raise the state minimum to $9.25 per hour by 2018 and to then link it to the rate of inflation in Midwestern states. As they did so, they made other changes to the law aimed at blocking the November referendum. Some who would otherwise have opposed any increase backed it, fearing the larger increase that might come otherwise.
“I’m going to support this with a heavy heart. I don’t believe the government has a place in adjusting wages in our society,” state Rep. Pete Pettalia (R) complained, “but the alternative is terrible. Proposals before us would lose many more jobs in northern Michigan.”
While these compromises mean Californians and Michiganders will not vote on those two particular ballot initiatives, other recent efforts have won at the ballot box. Last November, the Washington town of SeaTac (home to the Seattle-Tacoma airport) voted to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour.
These victories, Regan believes, are the way of the future for the labor movement.
A new model of unionism
Regan proposes that in 2016, a $15 an hour minimum wage proposal be placed on the ballot in all 24 states where it is possible. Then, every two years, he would like to see standing organizations push “populist, kitchen table economics,” for people to improve their standard of living. “Maybe in 2016 it’s minimum wage, in 2018 it’s doing something about student debt, in 2020 it’s limiting what credit card companies can extract from people, in terms of interest payments,” he suggests. This would “give unions and regular people an opportunity to act in their own interests, around incredibly important things.” And, if these 24 states act, he reasons, “hopefully, the legislatures in the other 26 states will follow along.”
Andy Stern, the president emeritus and former national president of SEIU, told ThinkProgress that Regan and SEIU-UHW are doing “what any smart institution would do: try to reinvent themselves when not being successful.” While he called the ballot initiative approach “incredibly important and viable,” he said his one concern is financial. “We’re facing the dilemma of moving to a new model, but still lacking a [sustainable source of] revenue.”
“What separates a union from a non-profit or NGO: permanent legal recognition which allows for collective bargaining, which produces revenue for membership dues,” Stern continued. “That’s sustainable, that’s democratic, and produces the necessary funds that other non-profits and NGOs spend time begging foundations, high net-worth individuals, and unions.” The real issue for Live Better Together, therefore, would be “how are they gonna be resourced on a scale in perpetuity?” Still, he believes, “we need Labor 2.0.”
Regan’s group believes the financial questions are solvable, using the small-donor model that President Obama created in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns: “We do believe SEIU has a role to play in launching such an effort, but over time we believe such an organization can be self-sustaining through small donor contributions of supporters (for example 1 million people giving $10 month would obviously produce $120 million a year – we absolutely believe there is an appetite and audience for this.)”
“There is currently no organization in America dedicated to directly raising the standard of living for ordinary people through coordinated political action,” Regan noted, suggesting that leaves room for this sort of “multi-state, direct-action, populist economic organization [which] explicitly does not depend on ‘collective bargaining’ resources.”
Dr. Dan Clawson, a labor movement expert in the University of Massachusetts Amherst Department of Sociology and a reform activist in the Massachusetts Teachers Association, told ThinkProgress that he believes Regan’s approach is on the right track. “Sometimes you have to be careful what you get and how it operates. But in a nonfunctional political system, going around the political elites of both parties and winning things is probably a good way of winning not only that, but making them sit up and say ‘we’d better do better on other things.’” Pointing out that the Massachusetts Nurses Association is currently using a similar approach to enact through popular referendum a safe staffing requirement that had long stalled in the state legislature, Clawson said, “I think it’s a strategy worth doing.”
Clawson observed that while these changes are important, he is hopeful that the bottom-up nature of building a labor movement doesn’t fall by the wayside: “The strength is ordinary people get involved and can develop their capacities. Every union has a set of officers, people who learn how to run a meeting, work on key issues, make a budget, speak up for themselves.”
Not everyone in the labor movement wants to move from labor’s traditional strengths toward a Labor 2.0. But one former union strategist, who has written about the need for unions to focus more on their core strengths, said Regan’s strategy is exactly the kind of fight labor should mount.
In a 2013 article in Democracy Journal called “Fortress Unionism,” Rich Yeselson suggested that the labor movement should continue to build progressive coalitions, but focus on its remaining strengths: “Unions, however, should not undertake long, expensive comprehensive campaigns outside their core areas of strength. Today, less would be more.” In an email, Yeselson told ThinkProgress that labor should be fighting for working people generally, writing, “By definition, union members do not benefit from minimum wage increases. But workers generally do, especially low wage workers.” And efforts like this puts labor “on the side of a popular and populist political/policy issue.”
It is even possible that this strategy could pay long-term dividends, as far as union membership. While enacting higher minimum wage laws and similar policies will not immediately solve the problem of declining union membership, David Madland, director of the American Worker project at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress that they “clearly put unions on the side of the public interest — and to have growth, they have to have the public see them as on their side.”
Regan hopes that this strategy, and other innovative approaches, will at least help start to set the labor movement on a path back toward relevance: “For unions in Americas, what’s left of the bottom is about to fall out. We’re gonna be representing less than 5 percent of the private sector workforce in the next two years or so. The end is in sight if we don’t’ do something different.”
Graphic by Adam Peck, using image from AP Photo/Nick Ut.