SEIU now North America's largest union

By Jim McKay, Post-Gazette, Monday 22 May 2000

Surprise announcement kicks off convention here

A colorful frenzy of confetti, song and dance erupted yesterday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown, when the Service Employees International Union made an unscripted announcement to 7,000 delegates and guests.

The SEIU, with the addition last year of 155,000 new dues-paying members, is now the largest union in North America, eclipsing in size the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, said union President Andrew Stern.

Today we are the fastest-growing union in the world, said Stern, a former Pennsylvania social service worker who listed the 10 largest unions in ascending order with the Teamsters and AFSCME ranked third and second, respectively.

No. 1. Whoa! Stern said as the delegates jumped to their feet and applauded. This is such an historic moment.

Stern dropped the announcement in the middle of an otherwise prepared keynote speech, saying the membership numbers had been verified with the AFL-CIO's Washington, D.C. headquarters, which was closed yesterday and unavailable for independent confirmation.

The convention, which drew an estimated 2,000 delegates and 5,000 union activists to Pittsburgh from the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, opened with a long processional of flag-waving union members who were involved in either organizing victories or contract fights last year.

The morning was spent on inspirational tales of struggle including victories of 74,000 home-care workers in Los Angeles who joined last year and janitors who fought for higher pay, health coverage and full-time work in California, New York, Chicago and Cleveland.

We were no longer invisible. We belonged, said Verdia Daniels, a home-care worker who was part of the Los Angeles campaign.

Delegates will hear today from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who preceded Stern as SEIU president, and from House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.

Vice President Al Gore will address the convention tomorrow, as will the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, a frequent visitor to SEIU picket lines and founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

Wednesday's events will include a speech from Hillary Rodham Clinton, candidate for the U.S. Senate in New York, and a rally at Allegheny General Hospital on the North Side to support registered nurses who are bargaining for a first contract.

Convention delegates tomorrow will vote on an expansion plan that Stern said should double the pace of attracting new members over the next four years.

So let's decide, Stern said in appealing for support of the program. Decide if we are ready to take the risks necessary to build a union whose members can win every day, not just once in a while. Decide if we are content with eating crumbs off the floor of this booming economy, or whether we want a seat at the table.

The plan includes increased funding, staffing and training for organizing, which may involve a dues increase for some. It would also create a fund that would pool resources by industry sectors—public employees, health care, building services, office workers and industrial and allied workers—to pay for campaigns that would be too expensive for one local alone.

The Justice for Janitors campaign, now centered in metropolitan areas east of the Mississippi River, will move into suburban office parks and into the South and Southwest, where janitors are largely non-union.

The campaign also includes organizing nursing home and health care workers by companies, states or regions, and then coordinating contract bargaining with management.

Other planks of the program include a negotiated minimum wage of $10 an hour and a push to require employers to provide access to affordable computers, following the example of a New York local that bargained computer access and training as part of contract talks concluded last month.

After his speech, Stern told reporters that the union will also sponsor television commercials during both the Republican and Democratic national conventions to push the union's favorite issues, including a new drive for universal health care coverage.

The gist of the health care idea is for the federal government to require coverage for all with benefits equal to that received by members of Congress. The program would be administered individually by the states and continue through job changes, sickness or retirement. Stern said he expected such a bill would be introduced in Congress next month.