Service Employees International Union

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Seiu logo.png
Full name Service Employees International Union
Founded 1921 (1921) as BSEIU
Members 1,893,775 (2014)[1]
Affiliation CtW, CLC
Key people Mary Kay Henry, International President
Office location Washington, D.C.
Country United States, Canada

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is a labor union representing almost 1.9 million workers[2] in over 100 occupations in the United States and Canada.[1] SEIU is focused on organizing workers in three sectors: health care (over half of members work in the health care field), including hospital, home care and nursing home workers; public services (local and state government employees); and property services (including janitors, security officers and food service workers).

SEIU has over 150 local branches. It is affiliated with the Change to Win Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress. SEIU's international headquarters is located in Washington, D.C.

The union is known for its strong support for Democratic candidates. It spent $28 million supporting Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. In 2012, SEIU was the top outside spender on Democratic campaigns, reporting almost $70 million of campaign donations, television ads and get-out-the-vote efforts in support of President Obama and other Democrats.[3] SEIU is a major supporter of the Affordable Care Act[4] and of increased minimum wage laws, including wage increases for fast food workers.[5][6]


The SEIU was founded in 1921 in Chicago as the Building Services Employees Union (BSEU); its first members were janitors, elevator operators, and window washers.[7] The union's membership increased significantly with a 1934 strike in New York City's Garment District.[8] In order to reflect its increasingly diversified membership, in 1968 the union renamed itself Service Employees International Union.[9] In 1980 through 1984, most of the SEIU's growth came from mergers with four other unions, including the International Jewelry Workers Union and the Drug, Hospital, and Health Care Employees Union.[10]

In 1995, SEIU President John Sweeney was elected president of the AFL–CIO, the confederation of labor unions in the United States. After Sweeney's departure, former social worker Andrew Stern was elected president of SEIU. In the first ten years of Stern's administration, the union's membership grew rapidly and the SEIU became the largest union in the AFL-CIO.[11]

In 2003, SEIU was a founding member of the New Unity Partnership, an organization of unions that pushed for a greater commitment to organizing unorganized workers into unions. In 2005, SEIU was a founding member of the Change to Win Coalition, which furthered the reformist agenda, criticizing the AFL-CIO for focusing its attention on electoral politics, instead of taking sufficient action to encourage organizing in the face of decreasing union membership.

In June 2004, SEIU launched a non-union-member affiliate group called Purple Ocean as a mechanism to mobilize non-SEIU members in support of the union's agenda. Purple Ocean members do not have voting rights within the SEIU.[12]

On the eve of the 2005 AFL-CIO convention, SEIU, along with its Change to Win partners, the Teamsters union, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, announced that it was disaffiliating from the AFL-CIO after the 50-year-old labor federation declined to pass the Coalition's suggested reforms.[13] The Change to Win Federation held its founding convention in September 2005, where SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger was announced as the organizations' Chair.

Campaign contributions[edit]

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 1990 the SEIU has been the nation’s top organization contributing to federal campaigns, donating $232,694,670, 99% of which went to Democrats.[14] Over that same period, the National Education Association was the second highest organizational political donor, contributing $96,992,506, 97% of which went to Democrats.[14] Since 1998, the SEIU has spent $19,676,660 in additional money on lobbying.[15]


Total membership (US records; ×1000)[16]

Finances (US records; ×$1000)[16]
     Assets      Liabilities      Receipts      Disbursements

According to SEIU's Department of Labor records since 2005 (when membership classifications were first reported) about 2% of the union's membership are considered retirees, with eligibility to vote in the union. SEIU contracts also cover some non-members, known as agency fee payers, which since 2005 have numbered comparatively about one tenth of the size of the union's membership.[16] As of 2014 this accounts for about 35,000 retirees and about 180,000 non-members paying agency fees, compared to about 1.8 million regular members.[1]

Presidents of SEIU[edit]

Union organizing activities[edit]

In Missouri in 2010, 12,000 home care attendants in the Consumer Directed Services program voted to unite in the Missouri Home Care Union, a joint local of AFSCME and SEIU.[17] The same year, 5,500 home care providers in Wisconsin were affiliated with the SEIU after a vote.[18] Also in 2010, part-time adjunct faculty members in the Maine Community College System voted to unionize with the SEIU.[19] In 2010 in New York, 30,000 SEIU doormen, handymen and concierges threatened to force residents to haul trash and sort mail. The union cancelled a planned strike after an agreement was reached.[20]

In 2009, the SEIU organized over 800 healthcare workers at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston.[21] Also in 2009, 13,000 home care attendants in the state's consumer directed home care program voted to join the Missouri Home Care Union, a statewide union of home care attendants.[22]

In 2009, the union launched a nationwide campaign against Sodexo, criticizing the company's labor standards.[23]

Since 2004, the union has seen success organizing workers in Texas, Florida, Nevada, and Arizona in particular. Over 5,000 janitors organized with SEIU in Houston, Texas in 2005, which was especially significant due to the size of the campaign and its location in an area with low union density.[24] In Florida, a high-profile strike at the University of Miami which lasted nine weeks and included a hunger strike, ended with the union winning representation of 425 janitors on campus.[25] This victory was shortly followed by another 600 workers at North Shore Medical Center, also in Miami, voting to join the SEIU in early 2006.[26]

One of the major potential areas of union growth in the United States is organizing workers usually hitherto considered "unorganizable," especially low-wage service sector workers, in what is often called "social movement organizing."[27] Many of these service sector workers are minorities, immigrants, and women.[28]

As an example of this, in 2006 and 2007 Oregon's SEIU Local 503, OPEU (Oregon Public Employees Union) built on its earlier successes in organizing state-paid "long-term care providers", including homecare workers (in-home care providers) and family-child-care providers, by organizing "commercial" adult foster home providers who receive state funding. Commercial providers are licensed to operate foster homes with up to five senior or disabled residents. By forming a union, providers would for the first time be able to collectively bargain a contract with the state over service fees, benefits, regulations, and respect.

In the spring of 2007 the state Employment Relations Board (ERB) verified that a significant majority of the commercial providers across Oregon had signed authorization cards supporting forming a union, and Governor Ted Kulongoski signed an executive order recognizing commercial adult foster care providers as a union, and opening the path to contract bargaining.[29] Following the governor's executive order, the Oregon legislature passed a bill, on June 28, 2007,[30] codifying the executive order and making the adult foster care providers state employees solely for the purpose of collective bargaining. After successfully organizing commercial providers, SEIU 503 continued the campaign and organized "relative" adult foster home providers, who are licensed and paid by the state to provide care for senior or disabled family members.

In November 2007 the Oregon ERB verified that a significant majority of relative providers had signed authorization cards and Governor Kulongoski signed Executive Order No. 07-20 recognizing them as part of the union.[29] With the success of the two stages of this organizing campaign, adult foster care providers were able to form a union for the first time in the United States.[31] In August 2008, the new adult foster care providers in SEIU Local 503 and the State of Oregon completed negotiations on the first adult foster care provider union contract in the US.[32]

In 2012, news sources reported that SEIU was paying local and non-local workers to campaign against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for $11 an hour.[33]

SEIU has played a role in all the fast food strikes from 2012- 2014 and has contributed more than $15 million to workers' centers and community organizations to organize them.[34][35][36] SEIU's motto for the campaign is "$15 and a union," reflecting the call to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour and the unionization of fast food workers. SEIU has recently begun supporting lawsuits filed by fast food workers to the National Labor Relations Board, calling for McDonald’s to be named a joint employer of the restaurants run by its franchisees, a move which would make it substantially easier for SEIU to unionize McDonald’s employees.[37]

Local unions[edit]

There is a joint local of SEIU and the New York-based union UNITE HERE called Service Workers United,[38] which represents food service, facilities, and laundry workers.

1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East[edit]

SEIU's largest local union, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East has a membership of roughly 300,000 and claims to be the largest local union in the world. It represents workers in various parts of New York state, chiefly in New York City, Syracuse, and Buffalo, with additional members located in and around the Canton-Potsdam and Plattsburgh areas of northern New York, as well as Maryland, Washington, D.C., Florida, and Massachusetts.

United Healthcare Workers West[edit]

SEIU United Healthcare Workers West (UHW West) is a large (150,000 member) local union based in Oakland, California. In August 2008, the international union announced plans for a hearing to consider trusteeing UHW West. On January 27, 2009, SEIU placed UHW West under trusteeship and dismissed 70 of the local's executives, including president Sal Rosselli.[39][40] Rosselli and other ousted leaders reformed under the name National Union of Healthcare Workers and pushed for UHW West members at 60 facilities to vote to decertify SEIU.[41] As of 2012, NUHW only represents 6 former SEIU-UHW facilities.[42]

In early 2013, NUHW affiliated with the California Nurses Association. Also, in early 2013, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ordered that the results of the 2010 Kaiser Permanente union election (a vote by nearly 45,000 Kaiser-Permanente employees choosing between NUHW and SEIU-UHW) be over-turned based on evidence of collusion between SEIU-UHW and the employer. The new election will take place in April 2013.

Local 32BJ[edit]

Main article: SEIU 32BJ

SEIU 32BJ is a politically outspoken building services local based in New York. 32BJ represents 120,000 property service workers,[43] and is part of SEIU Justice for Janitors, Stand for Security[44] and Multi Service Workers campaigns.

Recently, SEIU 32BJ's Thomas Shortman Training Fund was awarded a $2.8 million grant[45] by the Department of Labor, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act aiming to create jobs in expanding green industries over the next two years. The program (1,000 Green Supers)[46] will help train 2,200 NYC building superintendents in energy efficiency.

Local 1000[edit]

SEIU Local 1000 (Union of California State Workers) is affiliated with the California State Employees Association (CSEA) with one other union, the California State University Employees Union, SEIU Local 2579, a non-union affiliate of managers, confidential and supervisory employees who are excluded from collective bargaining, and an affiliate of retired state employees. Yvonne Walker has been president since 2008.[47] It is the exclusive legal representative for 95,000 California state employees. Local 1000 deals with issues of concern to current rank-and-file state employees, such as salaries, benefits, working conditions and contract negotiations. Local 1000 has nine bargaining units and represents a variety of state workers, including DMV employees, prison support staff (excluding uniformed guards), information technology workers, nurses and administrative staff.

In Knox v. Service Employees International Union, Local 1000, the U.S. Supreme Court found Local 1000 had used illegal fundraising during the 2005 California Special Election.[48] Negotiations for a new contract between the state and Local 1000 bogged down in 2005-6.[49][50] On June 12, union members voted to authorize a strike in the event negotiations failed.[51][52][53] This would have been the first strike by state employees in California history.[54] However, a deal was reached on June 17.[55] The new contract was approved by union members in July,[54] and signed into law on September 6.[56]

Local 1000 played a prominent role in opposing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's response to the budget crisis of 2008-9, much of which focused on cutting public services such as home care and education in order to reduce the deficit.

In 2012, Local 1000 won many victories while representing members in grievances, arbitrations, unfair practice charges and other proceedings. This included passing Proposition 30 to raise revenue for schools and public safety, and defeating Proposition 32.

Local 87[edit]

One of the first SEIU locals was Local 87, a local union that traces its origins back to the 1920s,[57] when it was known as Local 9 of the Building Service Employees International Union (BSEIU). It was originally led by George Hardy[58]

Local 1 Canada[edit]

Main article: SEIU Local 1 Canada

The largest local in Canada is SEIU Local 1 Canada. It represents over 50,000 health care and community services workers in Ontario and British Columbia. Its members work in hospitals, home care, nursing and retirement homes and community services.

In popular culture[edit]

SEIU's Los Angeles Justice for Janitors campaign was portrayed in the motion picture Bread and Roses.[citation needed]

On the television show ER, the service employee Jerry Markovic (played by Abraham Benrubi) often wears an SEIU T-shirt.[citation needed]

SEIU's Popular Media Organizing Program is an initiative[59] to connect popular culture and the labor movement's platform with support from the creative arts. In 2008, SEIU partnered with Manifest Hope: DC, MoveOn PAC and Obey Giant to launch a nationwide online contest[60] to gather the best artwork celebrating the grassroots campaign that helped elect Barack Obama as president. The winning artwork[61] was displayed to DC area residents and millions of people expected to gather in Washington for Barack Obama's inauguration. SEIU has also produced a "Social Justice" calendar featuring the work of Manifest Hope artists in 2009[62] and 2010.[63]

The non-profit 501c3 Bread and Roses program started by 1199 SEIU was founded in 1978 as a cultural resource[64] for union members and students in New York who, for the most part, are not reached by traditional arts institutions and programs. Since that time, the Bread and Roses program has spread widely beyond the New York City area. In 2006, “Unseen America”—a book of photography taken by 1199SEIU members and other workers—was published,[65] with New York’s Guggenheim Museum hosting a party to celebrate Bread and Roses’ “Unseen America” project,[66] which was one of dozens of events held in cities around the U.S.

Since Sliced Bread[edit]

Since Sliced Bread was an online contest sponsored by SEIU. People were asked to submit their best new economic idea to help working families. Of the thousands of ideas that were submitted, 21 were chosen as finalists. Of these 21, a winner was selected to receive a grand prize of $100,000 and SEIU's commitment to work to make the idea a reality. The two runners-up won $50,000.[67] All 21 finalist ideas were featured in a book published in 2006.[citation needed]

Political action and potential merger with AFSCME[edit]

In August, 2016, SEIU and AFSCME announced a partnership and a potential merger, which would aggregate over 4 million members.[68]


In April 2010, The National Labor Relations Board regional office in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, issued a federal complaint against a local SEIU chapter for maintaining an “annual objection” policy designed to force nursing home workers into full union dues payments against their will.[69]

In June 2003 SEIU was found guilty of violating security workers' rights and ordered to pay back dues and fees to over 400 workers.[70]

In December 2010, SEIU agreed in a settlement to stop trying to prevent workers who do not support its activities from coming to work at Morehouse College dining venues operated by Sodexo. The settlement also forces SEIU to post notice that it will not "restrain or coerce" Sodexo employees.[71]

In Knox v. Service Employees International Union, Local 1000 the U.S. Supreme Court found SEIU had used illegal campaign fundraising during the 2005 California Special Election.[72]

Sodexo USA filed a civil lawsuit against SEIU under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act on March 17, 2011. In the complaint, Sodexo alleges that SEIU engaged in blackmail, vandalism, trespassing, harassment, and lobbying law violations, referring to the "Clean Up Sodexo" campaign as "old-fashioned, strongarm tactics" and SEIU behavior as "egregious" and "illegal."[73][74] During the trial, it was revealed that the SEIU had written and distributed a manual to its staff detailing how “outside pressure can involve jeopardizing relationships between the employer and lenders, investors, stockholders, customers, clients, patients, tenants, politicians, or others on whom the employer depends for funds.” Tactics recommended include references to blackmail and extortion, accusations of racism and sexism, targeting the homes and neighborhoods of business leaders for demonstrations, and also explicitly stated that at times it is necessary to "disobey the law."[75][76] Following the court discovery of this document, a settlement was reached where Sodexo withdrew the lawsuit and SEIU terminated its public campaign focused on Sodexo.[77]

During a drive to organize 10,000 healthcare workers in November 2009, SEIU was accused of ballot rigging and using intimidation to persuade workers to vote in SEIU instead of the National Union of Healthcare Workers as their representative.[78][79]

Aramark employees from Johns Hopkins University, Towson University, Morgan State University and Coppin State University, as well as students from all four universities, participated in a protest alleging SEIU was acting to prevent a fair employee representation by the union of their choice.[80]

The SEIU's tactics were featured in a book written by an Indiana-based businessman which chronicles his 3-year battle to thwart the union's organizing attempts.[81]

Architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign, Steven Lerner was allegedly forced to resign from the union in 2011 after advocating more organizing efforts be placed against wall street and bank power in the United States with popular direct action.[82][83]

The union has been criticized for instituting top-down structures without approval of worker members.[84]

Archival and historical materials[edit]

The official repository of SEIU is the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit.[85] The Reuther Library, the largest labor archives in North America,[86] holds the most complete collection of primary source materials regarding SEIU with over 1,000 linear square feet of the union’s records covering 105 years of history (1905-2010). The SEIU Collections include a variety of organizational, executive, photographic, and publicity materials along with many other additional record types. The relationship between SEIU and the Reuther Library began officially in 1992 and the collections have since been maintained by a dedicated SEIU Archivist on staff at the archives. Notable collections include SEIU Executive Office: John Sweeney Records, the District 925 Records,[87] and materials documenting the Justice for Janitors campaign from SEIU’s numerous local affiliates.

Additional archival collections can be found at the Special Collections Library of the University of Washington (Building Service Employees' International Union, Local 6 Records[88] and Service Employees International Union, Local 120 Records[89]). The records of SEIU's United Service Workers West, including the Justice for Janitors campaign are held by the UCLA Library Department of Special Collections.[90]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Fink, Leon, and Brian Greenberg. Upheaval in the Quiet Zone: 1199/SEIU and the Politics of Healthcare Unionism (2nd ed. 2009)
  • Fletcher, Bill, and Fernando Gapasin. Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (2009)
  • Lopez, Steven Henry. Reorganizing the Rust Belt: An Inside Study of the American Labor Movement (2004), focus on SEIU in Pittsburgh
  • Plumer, Bradford. "Labor's Love Lost," New Republic, April 23, 2008, Vol. 238, Issue 7 online in Academic Search Premier, focus on conflict between Stern and Rosselli
  • George E. Flood Papers 1933-1960. .25 cubic feet (1 box).

External links[edit]