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Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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June 3, 2008 9:19 AM

SEIU's new political plan

Posted by David Postman

One of the nation’s largest unions revamped its constitution at a convention in Puerto Rico yesterday. Among the changes at SEIU is system that will send more money from locals to union headquarters in D.C. SEIU Leaders say will use that to launch an unprecedented campaign to help elect Barack Obama president and send pro-union lawmakers to Congress.

In Washington state, the Service Employees International Union is the largest active unions. But the new union rules will see more dues money from members here going to finance campaign activities in states more likely to decide the presidential election. David Rolf, president of SEIU Healthcare 775NW, said:

I think there’ll be an exporting of resources and talents to some of the swing states to mobilize union members.

Rolf says SEIU will still be active in campaigns here. But, he said, “We aren’t seeing competitive races emerging all over the state.” That means money and resources can be sent elsewhere.

Rolf is a strong backer of SEIU International President Andy Stern. Stern pushed through an agenda at the quadrennial convention, called Justice for All. The Wall Street Journal reports that "will further consolidate bargaining and organizing efforts across industry lines, a move that could limit the power of local unions but give the union greater leverage with big employers."

There was an organized, but small, group opposing Stern’s plan. That opposition grows out of what The Nation calls “ The biggest union feud since the AFL-CIO split three years ago.”

As the Washington Post wrote last week:

According to his critics, Stern has made deals behind closed doors with corporations, keeping members in the dark about the trade-offs he has agreed to.

One of the first news stories that revealed details of those deals was done by the Times’ Ralph Thomas last year. Stern said yesterday in a speech that his plan will decentralize union power. That was challenged by SEIU member Anita Wiltz, writing at, where opponents are tracking the convention.

That's ridiculous! This plan might possibly be the biggest centralization of power in a labor union in recent history. It moves millions of dollars in dues money from local unions to SEIU headquarters in Washington, D.C. It removes local presidents from key leadership positions in the International's leadership infrastructure, replacing them with the SEIU president's inner circle.

But Rolf says that moving money to D.C. or to election battleground states is not about consolidating power.

It’s more of an understanding that we have to be a national union, to really reaffirm that justice for all doesn’t mean justice just for workers on the bright blue cities on the coasts or just justice for workers in a union job.

It will mean, though, an unprecedented shift in the union’s finances. Half of all SEIU budgets will go to the new national effort, which Stern is calling the “Accountability Project.”

The union will work to elect pro-labor members of Congress, but then spend an additional $10 million “to take on elected officials who fail to live up to their promises.” And that payback will happen in the first 100 days of Congress next year.

At least 50 percent of the union’s organizing budget and at least half its staff - at the national and local levels - will be used for the “Accountability Project.”

Here, Rolf says half his staff will be assigned to the task. That could mean going to D.C. to lobby Congress or elsewhere in the country to organize members. He acknowledges there are union members opposed to Stern’s grand plan.

There are those who think that these resources all ought to stay at home; that even in a global economy, decisions have to be made locally.

But as a strong Stern backer, Rolf is convinced the shift of money and power is the right move.

This is a chance to actually do something transformative for American workers and create a new middle class for the 21st Century. And if someone campaigns on a promise to help us do that then they have to be held accountable.

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