[lbo-talk] SEIU looks to megachurch

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Fri Jun 16 08:42:44 PDT 2006

<http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news? pid=washingtonstory&sid=aQH6UvOQEwoI>

Stern's Union Looks to a Church for Inspiration (Update1) By Kim Chipman

June 16 (Bloomberg) -- In its quest for ideas to revive the power of organized labor, the Service Employees International Union is going to church.

Earlier this year, about 20 union leaders descended upon Radiant Church in Surprise, Arizona, near Phoenix. Their goal: learn how a small fellowship founded by a Microsoft Corp. engineer eight years ago grew to attract 6,000 visitors a week.

The SEIU, which has doubled in size in the last decade, has been one of the few glimmers of success for the U.S. labor movement during a period of precipitous decline. Organized labor has lost its base within the manufacturing industry as jobs move overseas. Last year, just 7.8 percent of non-government workers belonged to unions, the lowest in 70 years.

The SEIU, which represents 1.8 million janitors, security guards, and health-care and public-service employees in North America, is adding members -- 200,000 last year -- in part by trying to redefine what it means to be a union member. ``We need to restructure the union to have a different relationship with workers,'' SEIU President Andrew Stern, 55, told reporters last month.

That goal led them to unconventional models such as Radiant. ``We are looking at what lessons we can learn from them,'' said SEIU Treasurer Anna Burger, 55.

Lee McFarland, Radiant's founder, says the secret is not scaring away people by acting too church-like.

Starbucks in the Lobby

At this church, crosses are nowhere to be found. The music has a rock 'n' roll beat, visitors dress casually and worshipers are welcome to listen to the service while hanging out at the Starbucks in the lobby. If they prefer coffee without the sermon, there's also a Seattle's Best drive-through window --anything to make the non- believer comfortable with organized religion.

``It's something we really have to remember,'' Burger said in an interview. ``Sometimes we are out there trying to get someone to go on strike before they've ever connected to the union. Radiant's approach is much more about building a relationship and understanding that people have different abilities to commit.''

The SEIU's soul-searching began about two years ago when it formed a committee of local officials to find ways to tap into a pool of 50 million non-unionized services employees. The parallel between churches and unions may have been staring them in the face all along.

Essentially Voluntary

``Both are essentially voluntary membership organizations, so they have to figure out how to reach people and persuade them that it's worth joining,'' said Richard Hurd, a labor studies professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. ``With the current low levels of union membership and steady decline that's been going on for the last 25 years, labor leaders have to start thinking about what they can do to reach and attract people.''

SEIU officials say they are trying to erase the negative images of unions as being too militant, rigid and corrupt, and instead present an organization that fits the times.

Ideas so far include following the lead of its Chicago office and setting up call centers for members to ask questions or air grievances, freeing up union representatives to do more organizing in the field. The union has also met with scholars at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to mull new organizational models.

Some of the ideas ``might not pan out, and some have a `back to the future' quality, but I think in tough times they are looking for new ways to approach organizing and servicing their members,'' said Harley Shaiken, a labor analyst at the University of California at Berkeley.

Common Points

Radiant Senior Pastor McFarland, 47, who left his job as an electrical engineer at Microsoft to start the church in 1997, said Stern approached him about Radiant because ``it seemed like he was looking for common points between what we are doing and what he wants to do.''

``The church needs to reinvent itself every so often because the culture changes so much,'' McFarland said in an interview. ``My impression is that the same thing has happened in organized labor.''

Radiant is modeled after the California church of Rick Warren, whose ``Purpose Driven'' series of books and seminars calls for reaching out to the ``unchurched'' and giving them a friendly, low-pressure environment to learn about Christ.

``They have this incredible approach to moving people from an interest in community to a commitment to their church,'' Burger said of Radiant. She said SEIU officials were most impressed with how comfortable Radiant sought to make visitors.

The number of Protestant mega-churches -- congregations with weekly attendance of more than 2,000 people -- has doubled in the U.S. to more than 1,200 in the past five years, mostly by creating a more open atmosphere, according to a report from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Hartford, Connecticut.

Successful Model

``The mega-church model is a success story,'' said Cynthia Woolever, a professor of sociology of religious organizations at Hartford Seminary, which runs the institute. ``They have found ways to use small groups to make people feel attached and give them a sense of belonging, even though they are part of this mammoth group.''

Stern says the SEIU has already started to streamline its roughly 300 local operations; 20 SEIU locals currently have over 25,000 members, and three exceed 100,000. Stern and Burger say they want to reorganize the membership in a way that allows a better focus on their respective industries.

Burger said she also learned from the visit to Radiant that the SEIU must do a better job at approaching workers when they first get to the workplace, rather than waiting to recruit them for battle when problems arise.

Building a Discussion

``We are also trying to figure out how people get to know each other in today's workplace, because those connections are important,'' she said. ``How do we build a discussion when so many workplaces are dispersed?''

How the union talks to members is also key, Burger says. ``Sometimes it's the language we use that turns people off because they don't know what it means,'' she said.

Not everyone is sure the softer approach will work.

``It can't all be about harmonization,'' said Bob Bruno, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. ``The labor movement was built on conflict. You couldn't build the coal, steel and auto unions without the strong language of exploitation and empowerment and I can't imagine Stern can do what he wants without that language, either.''

Still, said Hurd, it's hard to argue with the union's success so far. ``They've done a great job transitioning from the old-time local union model of fiefdoms and cigar-chomping union bosses to a more centralized and coherent organization.''

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