by Chris Carlsson
originally published in Processed World #4, 1982
SSEU picket line 1968
Without the historical experience of unions, “union” meant “the act of uniting and the harmony, agreement, or concord that results from such a joining.” Significantly, then, the definition of the word unionize is “to cause to join a union; to make to conform to rules, etc. of a union.” The beauty of the words “harmony, concord, agreement” are lost in the oppressive implication of the words “to cause to join” and “to conform to rules,” etc. SSEU then, by my experience is a union that does not try to unionize.
I am in union with SSEU as a group of individuals. I am not a member of a union ... I feel that there are many people like myself who don't like listening to the rhetoric, jargon and propaganda of union meetings and union leaders; who don't like organizations or individuals which make unilateral decisions that affect the lives of many people.--Cree Maxon, May 28, 1974, The Rag Times, Vol. 1, No. 16
The Social Service Employees Union of San Francisco appeared in 1966, just as a widespread revolt was sweeping the country. While most people look back at the '60s as a time of urban riots, the anti-Vietnam war movement, hippies, drugs and rock 'n roll, the SSEU represented a now-forgotten convergence of cultural and worker rebellion.
The SSEU aspired to be completely democratic. Its activities were carried on by the workers themselves, on their own time and sometimes on work time. Decisions about union activities were made collectively by both union and non-union members. During its entire existence (between approximately 1966 and 1976) it had no paid officials and signed no contracts with the Welfare Department management.
The 200+ workers involved in SSEU at its peak evolved a unique strategy for improving their own conditions as workers and for challenging the basic authoritarian relations that prevailed (and still prevail) around them. This strategy depended on the diverse and wide-open media they created, consisting of uncensored newspapers and leaflets. It was also based on a dialogue/confrontation process between the workers and their managers, welfare administrators and government officials.
The Trade Union as an Obstacle
In early 1966, some welfare workers banded together to defend co- workers from summary dismissals. They also began formulating and pressing a number of grievances. As soon as workers acted for themselves, however, their union (Building Service Employees International Union BSEIU -- Local 400, which later changed into SEIU) became as much an obstacle to their efforts as their employers.
For example, one of the first grievances raised was over space. People worked at desks jammed together in cramped quarters. When the welfare workers discovered a space code in the state regulations requiring more space-per-worker they wrote letters of complaint to the Social Services Commissioner and the State Dept. of Social Welfare. They gave the letters to their union to send, but found out later that the union hadn't sent either.
Shortly thereafter, the Executive Secretary of the union chastised the welfare workers for sending irate letters to administrators who were his friends and with whom he had political understandings. In response, the workers demanded to have the question of union representation put on the agenda of the next meeting.
The next meeting, obviously stacked by friends of the union's leader who owed him favors, had the largest attendance of any in the local's history. Then-Executive Secretary John Jeffrey pushed measures through which dissolved the union's welfare section, abolished the workers' uncensored Dialog newspaper, barred Dept. of Social Services (DSS) workers' leaflets, and prevented welfare worker members of the union from holding meetings at Local 400's office or electing any union officers to represent their section. About fifty of the affected workers then decided to start an independent union, which was named the Social Service Employees Union (SSEU).
The Cultural Context
As U.S. prosperity seemed to be peaking and the welfare/warfare state assumed its present enormous size and importance in daily life, millions of people organized themselves in active opposition. Rising expectations and desires quickly exceeded what daily reality had to offer. While many focused their oppositional energies on specific issues, all kinds of people rejected traditional roles and attitudes and attempted to find new ways to live, work and have fun.
In San Francisco, long a city with a bohemian underground and strong oppositional currents, the “flower children” or hippie subculture bloomed and was made famous by the media-hyped Summer of Love in the Haight-Ashbury district in 1967. For many people dropping out of the establishment meant a rejection of regular work. Still faced with the inflexible demands of a money economy, however, these dropouts often turned to the welfare system for survival. As counterculturists came into regular contact with the social workers of the welfare bureaucracy, the two groups began sharing ideas and perspectives.
Very soon most welfare workers stopped seeing themselves as representatives of the state and the welfare system. Instead, they counseled welfare recipients on how to best take advantage of “the system.” But more importantly, they spoke out for themselves as workers trying to be creative in their work and helpful to people in need. They went along with the widely-held notion within the SSEU that it was part of a broader movement for fundamental social change.
Curiously, though, this notion does not seem to have prompted the SSEU to a critique of the welfare system as such. There is little or no mention in its publications of the role of the welfare system in controlling the poor, nor much reference to the welfare workers' own role in maintaining this control. SSEU members challenged specific injustices both in their own condition as workers and in the allocation of benefits to recipients. But they seldom explicitly condemned the social relationships that make welfare necessary. Perhaps the feelings of self-acceptance and satisfaction gained from helping people get benefits largely blinded most SSEUers to the longer-term implications of the work.
Basing its activities and tactics on the needs and desires of individual workers, the SSEU developed a strategy of non-violent, incessant pressure on the welfare hierarchy. The union eschewed individual acts of insubordination since these usually resulted in firings. Instead they evolved a dialogue/confrontation process, whereby workers would pursue grievances over nearly anything that concerned them via direct spoken or written communication with the pertinent administrators.
The pressure from below created by the dialogue strategy often led to administrative hearings with managers, commissions, the Board of Supervisors, etc. The SSEU demanded and won rights for employees to appear before such hearings to defend their own interests. They also won the right to introduce any evidence or call any witnesses that they felt would support their case.
Although they pursued numerous legal avenues of protest, the SSEU never relied on paid officials to represent the workers involved. Their efforts in the area of commission hearings and dissimilar settings were devoted to allowing people to speak for themselves. And while they would do their best to get as much as possible from the authorities in any given situation, they never signed away any rights (such as the right to strike or to take any other actions to help themselves), nor did they ever agree to stop trying to gain further concessions from management.
Fundamental to the success of the SSEU's strategy was the publicity they created to keep each other, and any interested outsiders, informed about the situation. The monthly newspaper Dialog served as an open forum for the exchange of ideas and information. During most of its existence (1966-74) its policy was to print everything any welfare worker sent in, completely unedited. Later (around 1971) The Rag Times, a weekly 8-page mimeographed news-and- opinion sheet, was created by workers in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) section. Dialog continued to appear concurrently until they both gradually died out around 1974.
For almost five years, a mimeographed leaflet appeared nearly every morning on every desk through five or more welfare office buildings. These leaflets were created by over a hundred different workers, both members and non-members of SSEU, and addressed a wide range of subjects. Individuals would make their grievances known to co-workers and the administration in leaflet form, demand action from management, and then follow up by publicizing the results, or lack of them, in a new leaflet.
This technique puts management in a difficult position. Any heavy-handed reactions will only further the anger and independence of the workers. On the other hand, if they just give in to the demands of the aggrieved worker, other workers will be encouraged to present their grievances and expect immediate results. Exposed like this, authority loses either way.
Equally vital to the SSEU's success was their willingness to take immediate collective action to confront problems. One time, fifty welfare workers left work in mid-morning and went to a Civil Service Commission hearing. All were reprimanded for leaving work, but they were given the right to send five representatives to future Commission hearings.
In another instance of direct action in late summer 1968, twenty-one workers went to the Dept. of Social Services administrative offices to discuss impending layoffs. Although they received 5-10 day suspensions for sitting in the administrative offices for four hours, the layoffs were rescinded.
Some months later, sixty workers participated in a symbolic case-dumping in the office of the division's Assistant Director after a big increase in their workload. Their willingness to do things like this in relatively large groups gave them leverage against intimidated administrators reluctant to challenge them through speedups and other forms of harassment.
Union and Party Attempts to Take Over
The SSEU didn't find the welfare administration to be its only enemy. In early 1968, the same Local 400 of the SEIU which had earlier expelled the welfare section dispatched a paid organizer to recruit members. At that time, the SSEU was growing rapidly, making the administration uneasy. Although the Local 400 organizer didn't have much success with the workers in the Dept. of Social Services, he did manage to recruit some members in other areas of the welfare bureaucracy.
Also in early 1968, the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), a Maoist "vanguard party," dispatched a small group to the welfare department to recruit followers. By being very active and taking responsibility for the newspaper, the PLPers managed to get editorial control over the workers' Dialog, and in short order began printing a barrage of pro-“collective bargaining” articles and opinions (i.e. in favor of affiliating with AFL-CIO, signing a contract with the administration, censoring the newspaper, etc.). And, as is always the case with Leninists, the PLP prevented the publication of any ideas that didn't fit their mold of “political correctness.”
During the summer of 1968, a bitter fight erupted between most of the SSEU-affiliated workers and an odd coalition of SEIU trade unionists, various Marxist-Leninist parties (PLP, Socialist Workers, Communists, etc.), and Democratic/Republican party hacks. The “coalition” was in favor of joining the AFL-CIO, engaging in collective bargaining as an exclusive bargaining agent, signing a contract with the administration, and eliminating the free flow of ideas by “editing” the newspaper. After several months, which took their toll on the strength and active membership of SSEU, a September 1968 vote of the general membership repudiated the goals of the coalition by better than a 2-to-1 margin. Soon thereafter the PLP and its coalition partners left the department and went to look for other places to “organize.”
In the early '70s, the Service Employees International Union created a national local (#535) for federally-employed welfare workers. After some initial success at unionization in the Los Angeles area for Local 535, SF's Local 400 gladly turned over its welfare workers jurisdiction. Local 535 recruited some welfare workers in San Francisco, and soon began a strategy to build the union: a yearly ritual strike, used by Local 535 as a way to gain members and to establish exclusive bargaining rights for itself.
SSEU members, now a dwindling minority in the welfare bureaucracy, found themselves in the awkward position of being against these strikes. This extended passage by welfare worker Judy Erickson from the March 4-10, 1974 edition of The Rag Times, is a telling expression of the practical and emotional effects of this bind:
The yearly morality problem is upon us again. In making a decision not to strike one hopes not to lose friends who feel strongly that to strike is the best tactic to improve conditions. Again I plan not to strike yet I believe in fighting the same injustices as those who plan to strike.
I feel the yearly SEIU strike is programmed by union leaders who currently are battling each other for membership in order to establish more power when collective bargaining units are created. Strike in the past ten years has replaced real organizing and become a method to recruit members. The pattern is: Condense and exert all energy a month or two before salary raises. City Hall anticipates the strike action and so makes their bid impossibly low. Union leaders then respond angrily and have a platform for the media and can speak with outraged moral conviction. They who risk nothing set up and control the proceedings from beginning to end. Finally the strike-which may produce an additional one or two percent. Little precaution, if any, is taken for people involved because it is "scheduled to last only a few days. The possibility that it could go on indefinitely is hardly considered...
Traditional unions work for conformism, for a mass undifferentiated way of acting, for precisely what we are ordered to do every day for the city and county of San Francisco. It substitutes for real organizing year after year.Finally, I feel by striking I would reinforce a process which means I could retire in 20 years after 20 strikes and be assured 20 miniscule raises. But by working for change without controllers, I have hope the administrators will one day meet such opposition as transcends even my liveliest imagination.
The SSEU slowly dissolved in the 1970's, like other small independent unions that grew out of the rebellious 60s. The last official SSEU meeting was in 1976. By some accounts the dissolution process began as early as 1970, although different workers still pay dues to this day, and publication continued until 1975.
The SSEU aspired to be part of a general social movement for emancipation; emancipation not just from the real and rhetorical shackles of capitalism, but also from the countless ways we have internalized our oppression and learned to accept our role in a world based on hierarchy and domination.
During its existence, the SSEU brought about a remarkable unfolding of different workers' creative energies. What's more, as Burt Alpert remembers it, the experience of actively challenging the limitations imposed by the daily grind "brought people out into the world," asserting their uniqueness and desires. Rather than seeking a "unity" of thought and purpose. the SSEU encouraged the widest possible diversity, and in fact such a diversity flowered at the time.
The dialogue/confrontation tactic went a long way toward unmasking authority as illegitimate and unreasonable. More importantly, it strengthened people's confidence in their own ideas and in their ability to do things for themselves. Using a simple typewriter and mimeograph, the SSEU participants offered themselves and their co-workers the possibility of putting his/her ideas out into the public realm, further empowering the individuals involved.
Moreover,the fact that workers were in constant, open contact with each other about a wide variety of subjects including working conditions and problems they faced collectively, put an enormous amount of pressure on management. After all, if workers were figuring out their problems for themselves, what did they need administrators for?
But this strategy also put pressure on the workers themselves: to keep the channels of communication open; to figure out how to deal with disagreements on tactics, strategies, etc.; to keep the heat on management and figure out new ways to subvert management control... the energy to keep all this going came from around 200 individuals.
Their energy, in turn, came largely from the perception that something bigger was going on, a social movement of which they were a part. By challenging the oppressive conditions of everyday life, SSEU participants felt that their actions, in concert with others, would lead to a more generalized transformation of society. Keeping up the energy became increasingly difficult. Today, many ex-SSEUers are (understandably) burnt out.
Actually, this remains one of the key dilemmas faced by those of us who aspire to participate in a rebellion for a free society: How can we challenge the immediate conditions we face, and at the same time contribute to a more generalized oppositional movement? What are the connections between workplace organizing and resistance, and the larger problems of world capitalism and authoritarian domination? Also, how can groups of people organize themselves in their own interest, hang together and last, without turning into new institutions of power and control?
The SSEU pioneered a unique approach to organizing in the office. It was based, however, on the special conditions of welfare work. Most important among these was the workers' perception of their jobs as having some socially useful quality—however ambiguous this quality may seem in retrospect.
This is in marked distinction to office work in CorporateOfficeLand where the work has no relation whatsoever to the direct satisfaction of human needs and few pretend that it does. The vast majority of office work done in San Francisco or any other financial center has to do with circulating money or wealth-related information around. It is difficult to imagine why anyone would want to have more direct control over essentially useless work, except perhaps to put an end to it.
Nevertheless, contemporary office workers can learn a lot from the SSEU experience in terms of strategy, possibilities for creative resistance, and obstacles that will be encountered in any organizing effort. The importance of the individual and his/her desires and needs can be seen in the SSEU story as the central concern of organizing. A new movement for social liberation will not be created by existing (or new) bureacracies or organizational imperatives. It will have to be based on the creativity, humor and resourcefulness of freely cooperating individuals. But first we must contact each other. Isolation is our greatest problem now.
Howard Dewitt and Norma Johnson -- their dismissals led to the first protests...
The following is excerpted from "The Labor Contract: Nugget or Noose?", A leaflet put out by Burt Alpert of the SSEU during the 1968 fight over contract bargaining:
There are two basic methods of collective bargaining. Both result in written guarantees: the one a directive by management, the other a contract (or agreement) between management and workers.
The Collective Bargaining Directive: this is the direct result of grievance action. Workers with a specific grievance, or group of grievances, whether in a unit, building or entire department, organize a protest. The protest may take the form of submitting petitions, balking at doing certain work, forcing management into conferences, work stoppages, slowdowns, or going on strike.
As a result of the protests, administration negotiates with the employees, or with a committee chosen by them, and issues a directive or bulletin establishing improvements.
On their part, the workers agree to nothing: Administration has published the bulletin, not they. For the moment they may accept what is granted in the bulletin, but they are free to renew their protests, in the same or other forms, and to renegotiate at any time. Out of this there grows a continuous strengthening of employees' bargaining position and an expansion of their control of the job. [These bulletins have the force of law].
The Collective Bargaining Contract: In this type of collective bargaining, employees present a list of demands to administration. If the demands are not met, a strike vote is held. As a result of the strike vote, or if a strike occurs, a negotiating committee meets with administration and comes to a tentative agreement. If this meets with the strikers' approval, a contract is signed for a stipulated time (one/four years). The workers return to work. The process is renewed at the end of the contract.
A contract being an agreement, each side gives something. The first thing that the workers give is the guarantee that they will not take any strike, or other action during the life of the contract.If there is a violation of the contract, the matter, as almost universally agreed to in contracts, is handed over to a compulsory or binding arbitrator. In most instances, the arbitrator rules in favor of the administration, that there has not been a violation, or the violation is "beyond the control of" the administration, and that is the end of the matter. The only way in which this can be overturned is through grievance action on the part of the workers. They are forced to do what they could have done previously without the contract, but in doing it now they must oppose not only administration, but also The Contract, and the union.