By La Voz San Jose
In this text, we present a critical reflection of union organizer Mike García’s political work with SEIU-USWW. García recently passed away on March 26, 2017. With a view on how Mike García’s work both strengthened and enhanced workers’ struggles and mobilizations, we undertake a review of his 26-year career as the union’s president. Rather than focus on scattered details of his life, we focus on his contributions to the labor movement. Thus, this critical assessment includes a reflection on how his life as a union leader has served to advance the interests of the working class.
The following principles help us to shed light on Mike García’s work with the union. The foundational principles of all revolutionary or working class fighters are:
- Encouraging working class mobilizations to win our demands.
- Practicing union democracy— that is to say letting the workers make their own decisions.
- Workers’ organizations should be independent from the government and employers.
- Encouraging and practicing solidarity among the working class.
SEIU International, García, and working class mobilizations
At the national level, SEIU is known as one of the largest workers’ unions, which brings together almost 2 million people, as well as the fastest growing one. Unlike most unions in the country which seem to be stagnant -only 11% of U.S. public labor is unionized and within the private sector the percentage is only 6%- SEIU has undergone a very dynamic rising.
During the last four decades, the US economy has experienced severe transformations that have to do with the decrease of unionized labor. The passivity and conservative stances of union leaders have also hindered working class organizing. During the 1980s, seeking low-cost labor and raw materials as well as tax benefits, US companies -transformed into multinational corporations- moved their manufacturing plants to third world countries such as China, Mexico, and India. This process led to a weakening of union organizations, mainly composed of white workers. The unionization rate was at 30% in those years. During this time, there was also a parallel immigration shift to the United States allowing for cheap labor to feed the emergent service economy.
Meanwhile, due to the dismantling of the industrial working class sector, union organizations, and labor rights, a new working class emerged with much more precarious living conditions. This new working class, which was very diverse, but lacked a tradition of organized struggle, was mostly concentrated in the expanded public sector institutions. It was within this context that a new process of union organization came to life led by SEIU and other unions such as Unite HERE.
Comparing the growth of SEIUin the 1980s and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s, helps us understand the historical context that informed the development of both of these organizations. The rise of SEIU was very different from the CIO’s development during the 1930s. The CIO emerged almost as an insurrection of the industrial working class against the effects of the 1930s economic depression, and it was also deeply influenced by the victory of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Over the years, workers’ struggles were impacted by the US attempt to become the largest political, economic, and military power in the world. SEIU came into being when both US imperialism was widespread around the planet and during the most profound crisis of leadership of workers’ social movements due to stalinism and the fall of the Soviet Union. SEIU’s emergence shows the rising discontent over the increasing precariousness of the working class and its attempts to organize and fight back. The leadership that drove a large part of SEIU’s growth, since the 1980s and beyond, has been bureaucratic with the objective of adjusting to the new conditions of the workers’ movement to win leadership and to put into place the new model of unionism based on a conciliatory relationship with employers.
SEIU’s innovative campaigns are based on a combination of mobilization tactics and conciliatory practices with employers, which were especially beneficial for big corporations. SEIU’s union bureaucracy focused on the union growing and that is why they accepted wage improvements and limited benefits in exchange for expanding the union social base. Even though union enrollment rose, the working class’s foundational achievements of the 1940s were disappearing.
García’s Union Legacy in SEIU
Mike García’s early years as an union organizer were very progressive and under his direction janitorial workers moved forward in their unity and organizing processes. It was during the 1980s that García’s involvement with union activities started. At this time,large corporations (tech companies) which owned large commercial buildings refused to to take responsibility for cleaning their buildings and hired private companies. By outsourcing those services, corporations got rid of their obligations to the unions. Janitorial companies hired low-cost labor —undocumented latino migrants— who did not have any benefits. Rapidly, those workers, who suffered all kinds of injustices and exploitation, got involved in struggles and mobilizations. It was within this context that Mike García began to organize janitors in San Jose, California and Denver, Colorado. In 1996, García brought together janitors’ organizations from northern and southern California; thus, prompting the creation of SEIU Local 1877. A pivotal historical referent of janitors’ struggles was the 2000 janitors’ strike in Los Angeles, which was organized by García himself. This strike was key for janitors to win improvements in their wages and working conditions.
Over the following years up until his retirement in 2015, however, Mike García became the most powerful obstacle for workers within the union. We can even argue that the achievements janitors had won by 2000 started to vanish and their working conditions increasingly got worse.
Mike García became the most noticeable expression of bureaucratic US unionism. Despite all the advances janitors achieved with his early work, over the years he began to teach deceptiveness, a common trait of union bureaucrats. All the counter-bureaucratic attempts to redirect workers’ struggles, and thus revitalize working class mobilizations, have faced repression by SEIU-USWW’s direction. However, neither Mike García nor his successors have killed workers’ revolutionary spirit which inspires workers to fight for a better future: a future with a real union where workers make their own decisions and are the ones who lead the US labor movement.
The following are a few examples of Mike García’s actions which hindered janitors’ struggles:
During 2004 and 2005, SEIU Local 1877 suffered a deep financial crisis. Expenditures were larger than revenues even though union members were paying high membership dues. Before this crisis, the union owned several buildings in northern and southern California and they had a healthy budget. However, suddenly, union leaders stated the organization was going through a budget crisis. Buildings were sold and there was an attempt to increase membership dues, which was broadly rejected by janitors. Meanwhile, the union president and leaders’ wages greatly increased. Later, it came to be known that the union president earned nearly $150,000 annually whereas the average janitors’ wages were barely $25,000. It is important to highlight that all the measures taken to cope with the financial crisis were decided by union leaders, Mike being the most notorious one. Workers did not have any opportunity to express their opinions and they were not consulted on these actions.
Another example is the 2008 strike at Northern California buildings. A former contract established a one dollar increase of wages during five years as compensation for better insurance. However, in 2008, workers were reluctant to accept these precarious conditions and started to mobilize. During a general assembly that brought together 1,000 janitors to the general office of SEIU Local 1877 in San Jose, janitors made the decision to do a general strike which went on for 12 days. However, both Mike García and the employers wanted to prevent the strike from happening and tried to conduct negotiations which did not include janitors’ opinions. Turning his back on the janitors, Mike García signed a “Letter of Understanding” which only increased wages for workers who were not participating in the strike. Most of the workers knew that a strong and consistent strike may lead to better benefits, which is why janitors, especially those working in Cisco, kept going with the mobilization. A few days passed and Mike García announced that employers agreed to a 2.00 dollar increase for the next four years. Several assemblies were held in San Jose and Oakland. Workers voted for a continuation of the strike. However, García organized new assemblies with the aim of undermining that decision. Through these efforts, Mike García put the brakes on the janitors’ struggle.
A last example has to do with Mike García’s involvement in the union’s internal elections in October of 2008. Many janitors who were furious about García ending the 2008 strike formed a strong independent opposition caucus in the union elections to challenge García’s leadership. However, taking advantage of the union’s resources, García prevented these sectors from participating during the elections, thus eroding democratic participation within the union. Moreover, Mike García set in motion a campaign to destroy the opposition, in alliance with the employers. After the elections, the employers then went on to fire, one by one, the best strike leaders.
There are more examples, but we consider the above mentioned ones enough to exemplify how Mike García acted as an obstacle for workers’ political work.
The Opposition’s Struggle Continues
Janitors have been simultaneously fighting in two areas. On the one hand against the employers’ voracity, and on the other, against union leaders who undermine working class organizations by enacting bureaucratic and top-down practices within the unions. This situation has encouraged activists to look for alternative ways of strengthening workers’ political work. That is to say, novel platforms from which to make claims on the bosses: wage increases, health insurance for the worker and her family, the right to a job, and the right to a pension plan. Furthermore, activists are seeking ways of democratizing the union and fighting against union leaders’ special privileges. That means, the same wages and benefits that the janitors receive for the president, vice president, and all of the union staff.
This is the fight of our true union leaders.