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April 10, 2013 / Paul Levy

Ganz, Hillel, and the SEIU

Monday, December 14, 2009, 5:31am

As a child of the ’60s, I grew up with heroes like Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Then in college, we all learned about and were inspired by their precursors, ranging from Thoreau to Gandhi. We studied, too, recent practitioners of the art of community organizing from Saul Alinksy to Cesar Chavez.

I hadn’t met Marshall Ganz until I was preparing to introduce him at the IHI National Forum. It was marvelous to meet someone who had been through a parallel journey. While our paths have been different — his in community organizing and mine in public service — we have employed many of the same strategies and techniques. More important, I found that we have been motivated by a similar set of values.

Marshall ended his presentation with the famous quote from Hillel, also one of my favorites:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?

This followed his impressive speech about the nature of community organizing and, in particular, the importance of having an underlying set of values to serve as the moral basis for a movement.

Having now watched the SEIU for several years, I was struck by the contrast between Marshall’s prescriptions and this union’s mode of operation. As I listened to his talk, I realized that the union has, in many ways, lost its soul as it has gained power and influence. It has become part of the “they” that is the target of community organizing. Instead of drawing on the resources available to it — the courage, passion, creativity, and commitment of workers — it relies on money and power to gain more money and power.

What do I mean, and who, after all, am I to say anything about this? First the latter. I am just someone who cares deeply about the personal and professional development of workers, as well as their economic well-being. I am particularly interested in providing an environment in which those at the lower end of the economic spectrum can succeed in American life. I like to think that my actions and those of our hospital reflect this desire. We have tried to demonstrate it through process improvement approaches that empower all workers, through job training and development programs that give people a step up, and by adopting personnel policies that especially support lower wage workers. We are not perfect at doing all of this, but we do try.

SEIU materials indicate that the union believes in similar things. But the execution of its strategy does not reflect an underlying respect for its constituents that Marshall Ganz makes clear is at the heart of community organizing.

When I watch the SEIU at work, I see an approach more akin to that used by large, powerful corporations. I see union organizing based on trying to stifle debate. I see large amounts of dues-derived dollars being spent on corporate campaigns that denigrate the very work being carried out by the workers. When I talk with SEIU workers from other hospitals, they tell me that they do not feel a close personal connection with the union or the local stewards. When I talk with politicians, they tell me that they feel they have to publicly support the SEIU because of dollars and election-day logistical help; but they say that their support is only skin-deep because they fundamentally do not trust the union. They fear that it will quickly and viciously turn against them if there is a policy disagreement.

Marshall used the story of David and Goliath as an example of how the underdog in a social battle volunteered when no one else would take the charge and used courage and ingenuity to win — throwing off the constraints and approaches of the old way (Saul’s armor) and using the resources available to him (the sling) to surprise a ponderous and overly confident enemy with a small but deadly stone to the forehead. Compare that to the SEIU, which has diverged from those methods and become reliant on the trappings of power to acquire still more trappings of power. The union may or may not be successful in following this path, but in the meantime it will not be able to answer Hillel’s three questions in a manner consistent with an underlying set of values that will motivate workers and that is respectful of them.

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