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Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is a labor union representing about 1.8 million workers in over 100 occupations in the United Statesmarker, Canadamarker, and Puerto Rico. The main divisions are health care (around 50% of the union's membership), including hospital, home care and nursing home workers, public services (government employees), and property services (including janitors and security officers). SEIU has over 300 local branches. It is affiliated with the Change to Win Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress. It is based in Washington, D.C.marker, and has seven internal divisions: Communications, Education, Human Rights, International Affairs, Organization, Political, and Research.

SEIU is sometimes referred to as the "purple ocean," easily recognized at political events thanks to the union's purple shirts. The union is also known for its Justice for Janitors campaigns.


The SEIU was founded in 1921 in Chicagomarker as the Building Services Employees Union (BSEU); its first members were janitors, elevator operators, and window washers. Membership increased significantly with a 1934 strike in New York Citymarker's Garment District. Growth from organizing new members, and affiliating with other unions, and mergers with other unions resulted in a membership working in industries well beyond BSEIU's initial boundaries. In 1968 it renamed itself Service Employees International Union. In 1980 it absorbed the International Jewelry Workers Union, later the Drug, Hospital, and Health Care Employees Union (Local 1199), and the Health & Human Services Workers.

In 1995, SEIU President John Sweeney was elected president of the AFL-CIO, the confederation of labor unions in the United Statesmarker and Canadamarker. After Sweeney's departure, former social worker Andrew Stern was elected president of SEIU. In the first ten years of Stern's administration, the union's membership grew rapidly, making SEIU the largest union in the AFL-CIO by 2000.

In 2003, SEIU was a founding member of the New Unity Partnership, an organization of unions that pushed for reforms at the national level, and most importantly, a greater commitment to organizing unorganized workers into unions. In 2005, SEIU was a founding member of the Change to Win Coalition, which furthered the reformist agenda, criticizing the AFL-CIO for focusing its attention on election politics, instead of taking sufficient action to encourage organizing in the face of decreasing union membership.

In June 2004, SEIU launched a non-union-member affiliate group called Purple Ocean to stand with workers in the fight for economic justice.

On the eve of the 2005 AFL-CIO convention, SEIU, along with its Change to Win partners, the Teamsters union, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, announced that it was disaffiliating from the AFL-CIO after the 50-year-old labor federation declined to pass the Coalition's suggested reforms.The Change to Win Federation held its founding convention in September 2005, where SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger was announced as the organizations' Chair. As with other Change to Win unions, many individual SEIU locals remain affiliated to regional AFL-CIO bodies through "solidarity charters."

Recent organizing

Recently, the union has made a concerted effort to expand outside of its traditional base on the coasts. Since 2004, the union has seen success organizing workers in Texas, Florida, Nevada, and Arizona in particular. Over 5,000 janitors organized with SEIU in Houston, Texasmarker in 2005, which was especially significant due to the size of the campaign and its location in an area with low union density. In Floridamarker, a high-profile strike at the University of Miamimarker which lasted nine weeks and included a hunger strike, ended with the union winning representation of 425 janitors on campus. This victory was shortly followed by another 600 workers at North Shore Medical Center, also in Miamimarker, voting to join the SEIU in early 2006.

There is also a joint local of SEIU and the New York-based union UNITE HERE called Service Workers United.

One of the major potential areas of union growth in the United States is organizing workers usually hitherto considered "unorganizable," especially low-wage service sector workers, in what is often called "social movement organizing." Many of these service sector workers are minorities, immigrants, and women.

As an example of this, in 2006 and 2007 Oregonmarker's SEIU Local 503, OPEU (Oregon Public Employees Union) built on its earlier successes in organizing state-paid "long-term care providers", including homecare workers (in-home care providers) and family-child-care providers, by organizing "commercial" adult foster home providers who receive state funding. Commercial providers are licensed to operate foster homes with up to five senior or disabled residents. By forming a union, providers would for the first time be able to collectively bargain a contract with the state over service fees, benefits, regulations, and respect.

In the spring of 2007 the state Employment Relations Board (ERB) verified that a significant majority of the commercial providers across Oregon had signed authorization cards supporting forming a union, and Governor Ted Kulongoski signed an executive order recognizing commercial adult foster care providers as a union, and opening the path to contract bargaining.Following the governor's executive order, the Oregon legislature passed a bill, on June 28 2007, codifying the executive order and making the adult foster care providers state employees solely for the purpose of collective bargaining. After successfully organizing commercial providers, SEIU 503 continued the campaign and organized "relative" adult foster home providers, who are licensed and paid by the state to provide care for senior or disabled family members.

In November 2007 the Oregon ERB verified that a significant majority of relative providers had signed authorization cards and Governor Kulongoski signed Executive Order No. 07-20 recognizing them as part of the union. With the success of the two stages of this organizing campaign, adult foster care providers were able to form a union for the first time in the United States. In August 2008, the new adult foster care providers in SEIU Local 503 and the State of Oregon completed negotiations on the first adult foster care provider union contract in the US.


Notable locals

SEIU Local 473/395a, Allentown, PA

In November 2009, Nick Balzano, president of SEIU Local 473/395a in Allentown, Pennsylvania threatened to file a grievance against the town for allowing an aspiring Eagle Scout (Boy Scouts of America) to voluntarily clear a walking path for the town. Balzano said that, because several SEIU members had been laid off, “there are to be no volunteers.” He continued to state that, "We'll be looking into the Cub Scout or Boy Scout who did the trails." This prompted national attention, including attention from many of the major national news outlets. The local mayor as well as U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-15th Distric, criticized Balzano and called for him to apologize to the city and the city's residents. Following the nationwide backlash, Balzano resigned as head of the local chapter, and seven other executive officers also resigned from their positions.

1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East

SEIU's largest local union, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East has a membership of 250,000 and claims to be the largest local union in the world. It represents various parts of New York statemarker, chiefly in New York Citymarker and the Syracusemarker Buffalomarker. Another notable section in the North Country has approximately 3,500 healthcare working union members.

SEIU United Healthcare Workers West

SEIU United Healthcare Workers West (UHW West) is a large (150,000 member) local union based in Oakland, Californiamarker. In August 2008, the international union announced plans for a hearing to consider trusteeing UHW West and did so on January 27, 2009.

SEIU Local 32BJ

SEIU Local 32BJ is a politically outspoken building services local based in New York.

SEIU Local 87

One of the first SEIU locals was SEIU Local 87, the Janitors Union in San Francisco started during the 1930s by George Hardy. Hardy improved wages, benefits and working conditions for the janitors who worked in San Francisco's office buildings. Under future leaders such as Herman Eimers, Rex Kennedy, and Robert Parr, members of Local 87 continued to enjoy improved wages, benefits and working conditions. These victories were all won with very few strikes. Unfortunately during the 1990s and the first few years of the 21st Century, workloads in many of San Francisco's high-rise office buildings drastically increased along with a deterioration of working conditions.

SEIU Local 1 Canada

The largest local in Canada is SEIU Local 1 Canada. It represents over 46,000 health care and community services workers in Ontariomarker. Its members work in hospitals, home care, nursing and retirement homes and community services throughout the province.

SEIU Local 1000

The SEIU Local 1000 is a local union of the Service Employees International Union in the United States. It is part of the California State Employees Association (CSEA) along with three other unions. Yvonne Walker has been president since 2008. It is the exclusive legal representative for 90,000 California state employees. Local 1000 deals with issues of concern to current rank-and-file state employees, such as salaries, benefits, working conditions and contract negotiations. Local 1000 has nine bargaining units and represents a variety of state workers, including DMV employees, prison support staff (but not uniformed guards), information technology workers, nurses, and a variety of administrative staff.

Negotiations between the state and Local 1000 for a new contract bogged down in 2005-6. On June 12, union members voted to authorize a strike in the event negotiations failed. This would have been the first strike by state employees in California history. However, a deal was reached on June 17. The new contract was approved by union members in July, and signed into law on September 6.

Local 1000 has played a prominent role in opposing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's response to the budget crisis of 2008-9.

In popular culture

SEIU's Los Angelesmarker Justice for Janitors campaign was portrayed in the motion picture Bread and Roses.

On the popular long-running television show ER, the service employee Jerry Markovic (played by Abraham Benrubi) often wears an SEIU t-shirt, which reflects the fact that SEIU represents more than a quarter million hospital service workers in the United States.


  1. Office of Labor-Management Standards. Employment Standards Administration. U.S. Department of Labor. Form LM-2 labor Organization Annual Report. Service Employees International Union. File Number: 000-137. Dated March 31, 2009.
  2. Steven Greenhouse, "Janitors' Union, Recently Organized, Strikes in Houston," New York Times, November 3, 2006.
  3. Steven Greenhouse, "Walkout Ends at University of Miami as Janitors' Pact Is Reached," New York Times, May 2, 2006.
  4. Clawson, Dan. The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003. ISBN 0801488702; Tait, Vanessa. Poor Workers' Unions: Rebuilding Labor from Below. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2005. ISBN 089608714X; Fantasia, Rick and Voss, Kim. Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2004. ISBN 0520240901
  5. Plumer, Bradford. “Labor’s Love Lost.” The New Republic. (April 23, 2008)

12. ^National Review Online, 11/10/2009; Stepehen Spruiell

13. ^Daily Radar, August 6th, 2009; Mike Flynn

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