‘Learn, Lead, and Leave’ — Why our Local Union opted for Officer Term Limits

In 2002, I became the founding president of SEIU 775, the union for home care and nursing home workers in Washington State and Montana. Having started organizing right out of college in 1992, it had been an incredible privilege to lead two historic union organizing victories early in my career — the campaign to win union recognition for 74,000 Los Angeles home care aides in 1999, and 25,000 Washington home care aides in 2002. But then becoming an elected labor leader in a major union at the age of 33 was the honor and awesome responsibility of a lifetime.

At the end of this month, I’ll be turning over the leadership of SEIU 775 to my successor. Not because I’m retiring from the workforce (I’m 48, healthy, and certainly not wealthy) and not because our members are seeking different leadership. I’m leaving because, back in its infancy, our union had the foresight and courage to adopt term limits for its top elected leaders. And so for me, leaving the best job any organizer or activist could ever have will be an act of conscience, of joy, and of personal and organizational renewal. I couldn’t be happier, or more proud.

THE SEIU 775 STORY

At the dawn of the millennium, no group of workers in Washington State needed union representation more than home care aides. Invisible, powerless, and consigned to a life of poverty, home care aides did (and still do) some of the most valuable work imaginable: providing seniors with the support they need to age in place, and helping people with disabilities to maintain independence and dignity.

But, often misclassified as independent contractors, and “exempted” from most labor laws, home care aides earned pennies above the minimum wage. They had no health, dental, vision or pharmacy insurance, no retirement plan, no workers’ compensation insurance, no federal tax withholding, no paid time off, no mileage reimbursement, no overtime pay, and no professional training or certification. Mainly women, people of color, or immigrants, caregivers hadn’t fallen out of the middle class during a deep recession or lost their high-paid jobs due to deindustrialization or globalization: they were excluded from the American Dream to begin with.

The union changed all of that. Not all at once, of course, but over a decade and a half of organizing, bargaining, and advocating, Washington State home care aides went from working poverty-wage jobs, to decent jobs.

Wages rose from $7.18 per hour, to between $17 and over $20 per hour under our most recently-negotiated contract. Washington caregivers receive the best training in the country from the union-sponsored training program, and must pass a state certification exam to demonstrate that they can provide the highest quality care. Aides who work 80 hours or more a month receive a comprehensive employer-paid health, dental, and vision insurance plan through the union. They receive workers’ compensation insurance, paid time off, mileage reimbursement, a longevity-based pay scale that rewards experience and training, overtime protections, and now even a pension. In some parts of the state, workers who qualified for food stamps a decade ago can now afford to buy a home, and to someday retire.

Through new organizing, SEIU 775 grew to represent over 45,000 workers, including 95% of the Medicaid home care workers in Washington. The union became a political force to be reckoned with, allowing workers’ voices to be heard not only in employer boardrooms, but in state capitals and city halls. SEIU 775 helped launch and lead the nation’s first two successful campaigns for a $15 minimum wage, in SeaTac and Seattle. Even during the Great Recession and during the more recent attacks on organized labor by right-wing anti-union hate groups and the U.S. Supreme Court itself, SEIU 775 not only survived, but never backed down — and ultimately grew stronger.

THE CASE FOR CHANGE

So why would any sane organizational executive be celebrating his own “forced” departure from such a high-impact and successful organization that he had helped to found? Why would an elected labor leader support term limits for labor leaders, even to the point of writing them into his union’s Constitution and By-laws?

Andy Stern may have said it best when he announced his retirement as SEIU International President in 2010: “There’s a time to learn, a time to lead, and a time to leave.” Unfortunately, in many union organizations, both learning and leaving are undervalued, while too many elected officers try to lead well into their seventies or eighties. Union officials are (demographically speaking) the second oldest profession in the U.S., exceeded only by morticians.

The first victims of the labor movement’s incumbency problem are the incumbents themselves. In high-stress, high-responsibility, conflict-laden executive roles, it’s simply impossible to remain at peak effectiveness forever. As scholar and former labor leader Amy Dean has written, “leaders can only give the best of themselves for so long. The top labor jobs are so demanding and exhausting that it is impossible for any one person to carry the burden indefinitely and remain at the top of their game.” Leaders and organizations in other sectors seem to understand this: Recent studies show that typical CEO tenure in the corporate sector varies from year-to-year and sector-to-sector, but ranges between four and ten years. For community non-profit organizations, it’s around eight years.

The risk of lower performance and burnout is doubly true amongst labor leaders because unions tend to offer few opportunities to rising or incumbent leaders for formal skills-acquisition, supportive (rather than political) feedback, intentionally-constructed career paths, or even for relationship building and informal learning amongst leaders from other sectors and fields.

Studies of CEO length-of-service in the corporate sector have noted another drawback to overlong CEO tenure. In early years, CEO’s tend to focus on customers, whereas late-term CEO’s tend to see customer-focus wane and instead more highly value employee relationships. In a union environment, where the our “customers” (so to speak) are union members and the “employees” are the professional union staff, such a shift in CEO focus would put any organization at risk of mission-drift.

Other studies of CEO tenure show that longer-term CEO’s tend to value the preservation of existing business practices, customer bases, product lines, and market share more highly than bold innovations and new lines of business. They become more concerned with risk mitigation than creating the next big thing. One need not spend very much time in union halls before one observes all of these tendencies in real time and in real life.

In his book Only the Paranoid Survive, late Intel CEO Andy Grove described why leaders ensconced in corner-offices are often the last to know about “10x” changes in their own company, industry, or geopolitical operating environment: They tend to spend their time with other c-suite executives, major investors, trade associations, charitable and political leaders, and not in the field with employees, customers, suppliers, and competitors. For top labor leaders, this translates to: spending time with other labor leaders, in labor federation meetings, with top headquarters staff, highly-involved member activists, sympathetic Democratic politicians, and leaders of closely-aligned progressive non-profit organizations, etc. But only rarely with unorganized workers, inactive rank-and-file members, or leaders and thought-leaders in other types of organizations outside the ecosystem of the labor movement and its existing close partners.

As Grove pointed out, this means that executives often don’t perceive existential threats or transformational opportunities that arise from strategic inflection points. They tend to repeat tactics and strategies that worked early in their decades-long careers while ignoring the voices of front-line “Cassandras” warning of mortal peril or envisioning ways to take the enterprise to new heights. The U.S. labor movement’s failed half-century effort to resurrect the enterprise-based representational collective bargaining model that peaked in impact and scale in 1953, alongside its failure to embrace innovation, develop new models, or learn from the best practices of labor movements around the world could be exhibit #1 in Grove’s argument.

Without clear expectations regarding the tenure of elected officers, there is always something more urgent in our organizations than mentoring the next generation, or building a real learning or career-path for promising rank-and-file activists and young staff. Mid-career senior staff and high-potential member-leaders often don’t have much of an incentive for development or retention, because there’s very rarely anywhere “up” to go. Talented members often find other parts of their lives in which to employ their passion for justice and change; talented staff often leave and go elsewhere (politics, academia, other non-profits). “Outsiders” — who don’t come from the rank-and-file or haven’t spent decades working their way up from entry-level staff jobs — aren’t generally welcome in the labor movement leadership trajectory to begin with. So too often, union top leadership ranks end up being occupied by a combination of leaders who have stayed too long and aspiring leaders whose decades-long apprenticeships have dimmed their vision, urgency, and creativity.

Term limits also help mitigate the power of incumbency in democratically-governed unions that must ultimately represent rank and file members. In elective public office, long-term incumbent executives can frequently be both less responsive and harder to defeat, which is one reason that both the U.S. presidency and many governors and mayors are subject to term limits. Unions, just like other institutions, can develop unhealthy cults of personality around their leaders, and the risk increases with tenure. As Ellen David Friedman and Sam Pizzigati point out, the largest U.S. union, the National Education Association, has presidential term limits in place explicitly as a way of preserving democratic governance and curbing the power of incumbency.

OUR DECISION: SEIU 775’s ADOPTION OF TERM LIMITS

The decision whether or not to adopt term limits for elected officers is one that each union must make for itself. And of course, there are always the handful of counter-examples, where a founding executive or elected leader somehow manages to defy expectations and trends and remain effective for decades upon end. But in my view, this is truly the exception rather than the rule.

After SEIU 775 was officially chartered by the national SEIU, the first step towards democratic self-governance was the drafting and adoption of a constitution and by-laws. In 2003, I appointed and chaired a constitutional drafting committee of union leaders and rank-and-file leaders to draft our first constitution as a local union. We made the decision to “walk our talk” and embrace term limits in the local union’s constitution itself. Doing so was controversial — I got no small number of concerned phone calls from national union leaders politely asking if I’d lost my mind. But then-SEIU International President Andy Stern was supportive, and he had publicly called for mandatory retirement ages for union leaders for many of the same reasons.

Our local union decided we didn’t want term limits that were too short: In some unions term limits are so short that unelected staff become the de-facto executives, because presidents come and go every year or two. But we also wanted to make a decision that future generations of union members would look back and be grateful for. We believed that unions must be vehicles for workers to exercise power, that leaders take more risks when they know they have limited time to accomplish big things, that it’s impossible for any one leader to be effective forever, and that organizations benefit from periodic leadership change and renewal in the ranks of top executives. Our members overwhelmingly ratified their Constitution. Ultimately, they opted for maximum 15 year terms for top officers (5 terms of 3 years each) — more than enough time for newly-elected officers to learn and to lead, to seek re-election multiple times if the members continue to support them, and then ultimately to leave and pass the torch to the next generation of union leadership.

This week, SEIU 775 members elected Sterling Harders as their next president. Sterling was the first organizer hired by the SEIU 775 new organizing department, and has served the last seven years as our vice president. She learned the value of unions growing up in a small town on the coast of Washington State, where her dad was a union mill worker. She learned about caregiving from her mother, who worked as a caregiver before 775 existed.

She brought more than 10,000 workers into 775, organizing 35 nursing homes in 3 years and chairing the contract negotiations that gave those workers their first real wage increase in years. She directed 775’s first organizing drive in Montana and helped get those workers health insurance for the first time. She also led the field campaign for Proposition 1 in SeaTac, the successful campaign that sparked the national Fight for $15 movement.

Sterling is an innovator, and chaired the Union’s Vision 2022 Committee, which made recommendations for how the Union could survive and grow in the rapidly changing environment around technology and models of work. She now chairs the Union’s Health Benefits Trust, which provides some of the nation’s best health insurance to 20,000 caregivers. She is also a trustee of the SEIU 775 Training Partnership, Washington’s second-largest training institution, and the SEIU 775 Secure Retirement Trust, created after 775 negotiated the first retirement benefit for caregivers in the country.

And over the course of her fourteen years in the labor movement, I’ve known Sterling first as a promising young union staff member, later as a steel-nerved organizer of private sector workers and perhaps the most talented field campaigner I’ve had the privilege to work with, and then as a protégée and designated successor. And always as a strong union sister and a friend. After fifteen years as the elected leader of SEIU 775 (and three years before that as the director of the campaign that created the local and as the appointed president) — I can’t imagine a better or more qualified leader to whom to pass the torch at SEIU 775 after what has been a total of eighteen years.

If all is right with the world, Sterling will do better than I did, learn from my mistakes, accomplish more, and through the unity and strength of workers, win bigger and bolder victories than we have so far imagined.

But no matter who might lead any particular union or worker organization, our generational challenge remains the same. Will today’s labor leaders help invent the next labor movement, rebuild the middle class, and create an inclusive American Dream for all workers? Or will the labor movement continue to contract and weaken, leaving hundreds of millions of American workers with no power and no voice?

That, not the longevity of our terms in office or the countless times we win re-election, is the question by which future generations of American workers will judge our generation of labor leaders. At SEIU 775 we pride ourselves on creating, adapting, and changing. Term limits for union officers is just one small, symbolic part of our commitment to a living, growing, creative, and innovative movement.