Service Employees International Union Descends on Denver

May 30, 2012
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Members of the SEIU "Host Committee" wait for arriving participants at DIA on Monday

DENVER–As the Service Employees International Union wrapped up its three-day convention here Wednesday, one thing was impossible to ignore: The union is preoccupied with the Occupy movement.

Slogans made popular by Occupy Wall Street and its many spin-offs, such as “We are the 99%” and “Tax the Rich,” were ubiquitous during the union’s international meeting at the Colorado Convention Center. The SEIU’s motto for 2012: “Win for the 99%.”

Mary Kay Henry, who was reelected SEIU international president Tuesday in a unanimous vote of the 1,800 delegates, trumpeted the union’s decision last year to combine forces with the Occupiers in a multi-city strategy called “The Fight for a Fair Economy.”

Negotiating contracts for workers “is no longer enough,” she said.

“We can no longer win one battle at a time. Our union has to unite with a broad 99% movement to tackle all forms of social inequality,” said Henry. “And we need to decide to take primary responsibility to lead on closing the gap between the rich and everyone else.”

Henry, the first woman president of the SEIU, rallied the crowd with a speech heavy on class warfare, telling delegates that the nation’s economic woes stem from a “40-year coordinated attack by the right wing to take from the 99% and give to the 1%.”

“The system is rigged in favor of the rich,” she said. “Our democracy is broken. The 1 percent is trying to dismantle any form of worker organization that can resist their agenda.”

She said examples of the right-wing attack include the drop in union membership, which she described as the loss of collective-bargaining rights for workers; the push in state legislatures for voter-identification requirements, and the fight against the president’s Affordable Health-Care Act.

“These are not random acts,” said Henry. “We are seeing the culmination of a 40-year coordinated plan energized by a Supreme Court decision that allows the 1% to buy an unfair tax system, to finance a relentless attack on all of us and all of our communities, to drain our public education system, and to dismantle and destroy workers organizations.”

Her mention of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, facing a June 5 recall election brought by the labor movement,  brought a chorus of boos from the crowd.

“Walker and his pals are stepping up their divide and conquer tactics by using the use of race as a fault line to divide us, from thinly veiled racial attacks on our president to the demonizing and racial profiling of immigrants in Arizona, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama,” said Henry.

The only way to combat such “attacks” is that “the 99% need to unite,” she said.

“We need to unite in our workplaces, we need to unite at the polls, and we need to unite in the streets,” Henry said. “It doesn’t matter what industry they work in or what union they join–What matters is that the 99% join together to tackle the 1%’s power.”

At a time when other unions are losing members, the SEIU has increased its membership by branching out to previously untapped employment sectors, such as the health-care industry and state and local governments.

The group added 54,000 members in 2011, bringing its total to 2.1 million. Union membership nationally has leveled off at about 14.8 million, but the movement has retained its political influence through campaign donations and get-out-the-vote efforts on behalf of primarily Democratic candidates.

The SEIU came under criticism earlier this month when it was reported that the union is paying $4,000 per month for office space for Occupy organizers in Washington, D.C. Occupy critics said the union’s largesse shows that the movement is less non-partisan and spontaneous than it claims.

The SEIU, widely considered the most pro-Obama of the labor unions, made it clear this week that reelecting President Obama is its top priority for 2012. The Democratic president is expected to face Republican Mitt Romney in the November election.

“The 2012 election in the US presents us with a crystal-clear choice about whose vision for America the majority of the people in our country want to live in: The 1% Romney vision? Or the 99% Barack Obama vision?” said Henry.

“Coming out of Denver, every US delegate has to leave on fire in making the winning of the reelection of President Barack Obama our union’s number-one priority,” she said.

Earlier Tuesday, union members participated in an Occupy-style march from the convention center to Wells Fargo Bank. About 2,000 people surrounded the Wells Fargo building on Broadway, calling for the bank to pay its “fair share” in taxes. Among the speakers at the protest was Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez.

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