By Jayme Hollenbach
I have been a state employee for 18 years. Since 2009, I’ve worked at a Berks County state hospital represented by SEIU 668. For that entire time, I and my co-workers have watched our contracts get worse and our union leaders lie and brush off rank-and-file concerns.
As a former shop steward, I know we need a union. I’ve just lost hope that SEIU 668 can make things better. Our last three contracts have seen pay that barely keeps pace with inflation, increasing employee health and dental costs, and less sick time and holidays. State employment used to have better pay and benefits, but SEIU 668 has attacked every part of our jobs.
Our SEIU 668 business agent, who is our main liaison to the state-level union and to our management, has basically been AWOL. This agent gets paid more than $80,000 a year, but can’t even answer the basic question of whether our shop—consisting of both SEIU rank-and-file members and supervisors—constitutes of one or two bargaining units. She has lied about filing and following through on employee grievances, and often takes managers’ side in disputes, arguing that they are just “misunderstood.”
In fact, we barely even see our business agent. She lives an hour away from our workplace and is supposed to represent other shops in the region. But if she has 20 work days in a month, and we see her just for 1, what the heck does she do for the other 19 days?
In frustration at the lack of responsiveness of our business agent, I and a group of SEIU members from my shop tried to reach higher-ranking union leaders. In July 2018, I emailed state union president Steve Catanese about getting better service from the union. I was happy he responded. He said he’d look into the issue straight away and ensure our shop got a “productive” outcome. But when he wrote back again, I was quickly disappointed. Catanese merely pointed out that we had a scheduled meeting with our unhelpful business agent, which had already been on the calendar for months and continued to be pushed back.
That September 2018 meeting with the business agent was the first one we’d had in years. (You read that right—I said “years.”) I learned from the SEIU 668’s Chapter 9 chairman that our shop had been approved for three meals, but this was the only one we’ve had, and it consisted of lousy $2-subs from the grocery store for 45 people. In the meantime, the chairman has no problem approving $600 meals for his chapter-level meetings.
Our business agent keeps saying we need to “step up” and put a new shop steward in place—we haven’t had one for a long time, and it means our shop gets no vote at regional meetings. But she fails to understand that it’s her role to help train and equip a shop steward, because such SEIU 668 training happens only twice a year. Right now, she’s our first line of defense against an untrustworthy management, and she’s failing.
Even after all this, my colleagues and I didn’t give up. Late last year, we managed to corner Steve Catanese at a union social and persuaded him to meet with us. Unfortunately, that meeting was as disappointing as every other interaction we’ve had with SEIU. Throughout, I felt he was full of empty promises and fake smiles. For example, we questioned him on SEIU’s famed “Fight for $15.”
“Of course we’re fighting for an increase to minimum wage,” Catanese responded. We then pointed out that raising the minimum wage would lower everyone else’s salary, and asked if all types of employees were to expect comparable raises across the board.
“Well, yeah, we’re fighting for it, but it’s never going to actually happen,” Catanese said. Personally, I found his words and the SEIU’s cynical position sickening.
Not only are Catanese and the union putting on a show with a supposedly unwinnable fight, but he’s also talking out of both sides of his mouth. The union is spending money on a fight it has no expectation of winning. This is who leads us? This is who we we’re sending to contract negotiations? This is who we’re supposed to trust?
Many of us have come to the conclusion that SEIU is no longer a union. It’s more of a collection agency. It’s a money racket forcing people into increasingly less desirable contracts while telling workers, “We fought hard, be happy with this.”
As a final resort, I recently started commenting heavily on SEIU 668’s Facebook page. I kept asking uncomfortable questions about the quality of our representation. However, the social media admins and union leaders still ignored me, and ended up booting me off their page. Plus, such groups are littered with union shills—folks who are so brainwashed, they argue and tell people like me that we are just not “union strong.”
Make no mistake: I definitely want a union. I want a business agent who isn’t afraid to call in the union’s attorney if it should come to that. I want the union to fight for a legitimate contract for its members, instead of focusing on SEIU’s COPE political action committee and gaining social media brownie points with homeless food drives and “Purple Tuesdays.”
What I want is the union representation I’m paying $750 a year for. I’m thoroughly convinced that SEIU is beyond broken. Now I and dozens of my co-workers want to get rid of the SEIU and create our own union. The only problem is, we know the SEIU is entrenched in our shop. It’s not going to be easy getting the new representation we need, but we haven’t given up fighting yet.