The earliest roots of SEIU date back to 1921, when seven small janitor unions combined to form the Building Service Employees International Union (BSEIU), whose members were mostly immigrant workers. Over time, BSEIU began to organize other types of service workers as well, including doormen, elevator operators, nonacademic school employees, healthcare workers, public employees, and people employed in such venues as bowling alleys, stadiums, and cemeteries. In 1968, BSEIU changed its name to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
With 2.2 million members across the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico, SEIU is today the fastest-growing union in North America. Representing both public- and private-sector employees, its mission is "to improv[e] the lives of workers and their families and creat[e] a more just and humane society,” particularly for “people of color,” who make up 40 percent of the union's membership. In its quest to recruit new members, SEIU aggressively pursues unskilled, low-wage service workers, who constitute the vast majority of its members.
Healthcare: With more than 1.2 million members employed in this industry, SEIU is America's largest health-care union.
Public Services: Representing more than a million local- and state-government workers, public-school employees, bus drivers, and childcare providers, SEIU is the second-largest union of public-service employees.
Property Services: Representing more than 225,000 workers who protect and clean commercial and residential office buildings, SEIU is the largest property-services union in America. It is also the largest security union, with 50,000 private security officers and public-safety workers on its membership rolls.
Under John Sweeney, who served as SEIU's president from 1980-1995, the union initiated the use of "Muscle for Money" (MfM), an Alinsky strategy featuring highly aggressive, organized efforts not only to discredit and intimidate opponents, but also to pressure business leaders and public officials to support the union's agendas -- i.e., its desire to unionize additional workforces. MfM campaigns include such tactics as congregating, attending and disrupting company functions like banquets.
Moreover, SEIU parlayed MfM into aggressive "corporate campaigns" -- coordinated assaults, often conducted in alliance with social and religious activist groups, against the reputations of companies resistant to unionization. Such campaigns typically feature boycotts, picket lines, public demonstrations, literature distribution, letter-writing, and negative-publicity initiatives in the media. Corporate campaigns of this sort originated in the 1960s with "New Left" organizations like the Students for a Democratic Society.
SEIU would continue to employ tough, even violent, tactics long after John Sweeney's departure in 1995. In April 2009, California Nurses Association executive director Rose Ann DeMoro condemned the union's "ugly pattern ... of physical abuse and tactics of intimidation that have no place in either our labor movement or a civilized society."
By the end of Sweeney's tenure as SEIU president, the union hierarchy was thoroughly saturated not only with his penchant for ruthlessness but also with his far-left politics. Indeed, as the socialist New Party was becoming established in the mid-1990s, the national newsletter of the Democratic Socialists of America characterized the young organization as essentially the “electoral arm” of ACORN and its allied SEIU locals.
In November 2003, SEIU dispatched thousands of volunteers to work on the presidential campaign of Howard Dean. After Dean dropped out of the race in early 2004, Andrew Stern played a major role in persuading the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, to select John Edwards as his running mate. By June 2004, SEIU had already committed $65 million to voter-registration, voter-education, and voter-mobilization initiatives on behalf of the Kerry-Edwards campaign. Moreover, the union pledged to assign 50,000 of its members as get-out-the-vote “volunteers” just prior to, and on, election day.
In September 2005, SEIU and six other unions -- the Teamsters, UNITE HERE, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Laborers, the Carpenters, and the United Farm Workers -- broke away from the AFL-CIO and formed the Change to Win federation.
Also in 2006, during the administration of Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm, SEIU Healthcare Michigan (a Michigan branch of the SEIU) lobbied successfully for a rule that classified unpaid family members caring for their sick or disabled relatives as “home health care workers” – and classified the healthcare recipients as “employers.” This arrangement forced the caregivers to join the SEIU and pay union dues, which were collected automatically from the care recipients' Medicare or Medicaid checks. Between 2006 and 2013, SEIU Healthcare Michigan reaped nearly $35 million in this manner from the state's elderly, sick, and disabled. After the measure was abolished in 2013 by Republicans (including Gov. Rick Snyder, who was elected in 2012), more than 44,000 of SEIU Healthcare Michigan's 59,000 home-based healthcare workers voluntarily and eagerly parted ways with the union.
In 2008, SEIU spent approximately $60.7 million to help elect Barack Obama to the White House, deploying some 100,000 pro-Obama campaign volunteers who "knocked on 1.87 million doors, made 4.4 million phone calls … and sent more than 2.5 million pieces of mail in support of Obama." During his campaign, Obama told an SEIU audience: “Your agenda has been my agenda in the United States Senate.... Just imagine what we could do together...Imagine having a president whose life’s work was your work...” After Obama's election, the SEIU became an enormously influential force in his administration: and to SEIU.
Former SEIU lobbyist Patrick Gaspardserved as the Obama campaign's national political director and as transition deputy director of personnel.
SEIU played a key role in promoting the appointment of two Obama cabinet appointees: Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Labor Department secretary Hilda Solis, the latter of whom had previously received both money and ground support from SEIU during her first congressional campaign in 2000.
In May 2009, California officials reported that the Obama White House had given SEIU an unprecedented degree of influence in the negotiations over federal stimulus funds.
As of October 30, 2009, SEIU president Andrew Stern had visited the White House 22 times since Obama's inauguration -- more than any other individual.
SEIU's positions on political issues of import invariably fall under the heading of doctrinaire leftism:
Representing more immigrants than any other union in the United States -- approximately one-fourth of its members are Hispanic immigrants -- SEIU supports a path to citizenship for illegal aliens and has emphasized the need "to build a powerful, new immigrant electorate" that will support progressive candidates and causes. SEIU Local 1877 provided security for the massive pro-amnesty marches that were held in Los Angeles in 2006. At a June 2009 Washington conference sponsored by America's Future Now!, Eliseo Medina, SEIU's international executive vice president, said: "We reform the immigration laws, it puts 12 million people on the path to citizenship and eventually voters."
Viewing the United States as a nation where discrimination against nonwhites and women is widespread, SEIU in 2000 endorsed Pay Equity Now! -- a petition jointly issued by the National Organization for Women and two other organizations to "expose and oppose U.S. opposition to pay equity" for women.
In 2004, SEIU endorsed the Civil Liberties Restoration Act, which was designed to roll back, in the name of protecting civil liberties, post-9/11 national-security policies such as the Patriot Act.
To boost its effort to create an ever-expanding supply of social activists and labor-union leaders, SEIU has established “Institute for Change,” a program that seeks “to advance social and economic justice by helping SEIU locals develop their leaders, strengthen their organizations, and increase the power of the labor movement.”
In the fall of 2009, SEIU's Anna Burger told a congressional hearing that her union had "cut all ties to ACORN." But according to a House Oversight Committee report, when ACORN changed the names of a number of its affiliates later that year, it transferred significant resources to several SEIU chapters.
Between 1989 and 2010, SEIU gave $29,140,232 to political parties and campaigns. Of that total, 95 percent went to Democrats and 3 percent went to Republicans. For a list of these recipients, click here.
Mary Kay Henry, who has worked with SEIU since 1979, succeeded Andrew Stern as SEIU president in 2010. She is a founding member of SEIU's gay and lesbian Lavender Caucus, whose purpose is "to facilitate open and respectful communication between the L/G/B/T community and the labor movement." She is also a member of the executive board of Families USA.
Also in 2011, SEIU sponsored the national conference of Netroots Nation. To view a list of other notable organizations that have sponsored NN conferences, click here.
In 2012, SEIU campaigned aggressively in an effort to help President Barack Obama win reelection over Republican challenger Mitt Romney. In October of that year, for instance, the union bussed protesters to the site of a pro-Romney rally in the key swing state of Ohio and paid them $11.00-per-hour to carry anti-Romney placards and chant slogans like “Romney go home!” and “We don’t need no bad economy.”
SEIU has had many affiliations, past and present, with prominent leftist organizations and coalitions. For example: