Long Standing Ties

When Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich approached the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) bosses for a pay-to-play scandal to appoint a U.S. Senator, he wasn’t cold calling. They have a long “mutually beneficial” relationship, one that the Wall Street Journal examines:

The two-million member union had long been a big political backer of Mr. Blagojevich, who helped it organize workers throughout the state, sometimes over the objections of competing unions.

The relationship, while not illegal or even unusual for the SEIU, may help explain why the union finds itself involved with a federal criminal investigation against Mr. Blagojevich. The governor was arrested this week after federal authorities issued a complaint against him which, among other things, said his office suggested a deal might be worked out in which he would be given a union job in exchange for naming a labor-friendly senator to fill the vacancy left by President-elect Barack Obama.

The complaint said Mr. Blagojevich spoke twice, once in person, with an SEIU official about the Senate seat. An internal union communication, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, named Tom Balanoff, the head of SEIU’s Illinois territory, as the SEIU official…

Organized labor routinely supports elected officials, campaigning on their behalf in an effort to elect pro-labor candidates. The SEIU was an early and strong supporter of Mr. Blagojevich, backing him over several other candidates in 2002. That year, according to an AFL-CIO document, the SEIU sought and received a commitment from then-candidate Blogojevich [sic] to issue an executive order that would direct the state to negotiate a collective contract with home-based workers.

The SEIU had been working for years to build union support among child-care and home-health-care workers, who are often low paid and without health insurance, and would have requested the same commitment from any candidate, said SEIU spokesperson Michelle Ringuette.

“The SEIU aggressively seeks support from elected officials and companies to build membership,” she said. “I assume we would ask any candidate to try to make sure conditions become favorable for workers to unite.”

The commitment from Mr. Blagojevich would provide assurances that the SEIU’s organizing efforts would bear fruit when the governor was elected in 2002. Shortly after he took office in 2003, he signed an executive order allowing as many as 20,000 Illinois home-health-care workers to unionize and also appointed Mr. Balanoff to the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board, which approves hospital-construction projects.

The following year, in 2004, the union intensified its child-care-worker organizing efforts, putting 24 full-time organizers in place, compared with one or two in earlier years.

As a result, when the governor finally issued an executive order in February 2005, allowing collective bargaining, the SEIU was well positioned to respond. The day after it received a letter from the governor’s office saying that a union election could be held, SEIU submitted 18,000 cards from workers it had signed up.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, which represents other state employees and was interested in organizing child-care providers, had to play catch up. AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee said that the “SEIU had a special relationship with the governor. We never did. We weren’t involved in their plans so we can’t speculate on what was worked out.”

Gary Chaison, professor of Industrial Relations at Clark University, said the SEIU’s tactic is to use its political influence to get legislation passed that would allow independent contractors in the state to be represented by one collective-bargaining agent. He notes that some people criticize SEIU President Andy Stern for doing anything to grow his union. “Others say it as a compliment,” he says.