No one would ever argue that the Service Employees International Union, the government worker-dominated union, lacks clout. It has come to symbolize Big Labor's political muscle in the Democratic Party. Andy Stern, the just retired head of the SEIU, was found to be the most frequent guest at the Obama White House last year, stopping by 22 times between January and September, more than all congressional leaders and cabinet members.
For such a powerful group, the SEIU has largely ducked serious scrutiny. Key SEIU locals in Chicago and New Orleans were controlled by ACORN, the discredited community organizing group now under investigation by Louisiana's Democratic attorney general, and Stern had made SEIU the largest single donor to ACORN.
But SEIU was able to walk away from the wreckage of ACORN with little notice.
SEIU now has a new leader. Mary Kay Henry, the head of SEIU's California nurses' local, has been active in the union since 1979. When she took over in May, she announced that the union would intensify its commitment to politics by "moving forward in an even bigger way on organizing, politics, and restoring our relationships throughout the American labor movement."
But what does that mean? For Greg Baer, a former Treasury official under President Bill Clinton who is now deputy general counsel for Bank of America, the month of May brought 500 screaming protesters armed with signs and bullhorns to his front lawn in Chevy Chase, Maryland. SEIU and National People's Action sent the protesters to rail against BofA's role in foreclosing homes. The protesters accused Baer and BofA of "greed" and "exploitation."
Baer wasn't home, but his 15-year-old son Jack was, and the frightened boy barricaded himself in the bathroom and called his dad for help. When Baer arrived he had to leave his younger son in the car while he plowed through the protesters to reach his front door. Nina Easton, a reporter for Fortune magazine and a neighbor of Baer's, observed the entire incident.
"Intimidation was the whole point of this exercise, and it worked -- even on the police," she wrote. "A trio of officers who belatedly answered our calls confessed a fear that arrests might ‘incite' these trespassers." The protesters finally left, but only to move their circus to the front lawn of a JPMorgan Chase executive.
Easton concluded that "when hundreds of loud and angry strangers are descending on your family, your children, and your home, a more apt description of this assemblage would be ‘mob.' " She also discovered another possible motive for the bully-boy tactics: "SEIU, suffering financially, owes the bank nearly $4 million in interest and fees. Bank of America declined comment on the loans."
When Easton called SEIU for an explanation of why it had organized the protest, spokesman Stephen Lerner offered no apology and gave a chilling response. "People in powerful corporations seem to think they can insulate themselves from the damage they are doing," Lerner said, bolstering Easton's belief that the mob was intent on physically intimidating its adversaries.
"Bank of America came to the homes of millions of Americans when they engaged in predatory lending that helped drive the financial crisis," wrote George Goehl, the executive director of National People's
Action, in defending the spectacle.
This isn't the only time SEIU members have been involved in such tactics. ACORN teamed up with SEIU members to conduct bus harassment tours of the homes of AIG executives during the 2008 insurance bailout. Apparently, now that ACORN has collapsed in scandal, the SEIU is having to do the dirty work it used to contract with them.
Then there was the Gladney incident. Last August in St. Louis, Tea Party activist Kenneth Gladney was set upon by SEIU members during a town hall meeting on health care. They were apparently angry that an African American was supporting the Tea Party movement and hurled the N-word at him while beating him to the point of hospitalization. St. Louis County officials waited until November to press assault charges against two SEIU members. Four others were charged with interfering with police during the incident. All six have pleaded not guilty.
Union leaders respond to criticism not by appealing to their members for restraint, but by accusing Tea Party activists of fomenting fear -- with only the flimsiest of evidence. In April, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka gave a speech at Harvard in which he warned that anger at a sour economy was being transformed into dangerous "hatred" by forces on the right, and he compared the situation today to the moment when "radio voices were calling for violence" just before John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963.
Such over-the-top rhetoric is no doubt meant to distract from the very real objectionable tactics that unions sanction. Congress long ago banned secondary boycotts by unions against companies not part of a core labor dispute. So instead the SEIU and others have apparently decided it's acceptable to target private homes and families for abuse.
Mary Kay Henry has been in her new position as head of SEIU for only a couple of months. She should be asked if the tactics used by her members against Baer are something she supports. And if not, will she repudiate them and promise to put an end to them? Something tells me that in this highly charged election year we are going to see more and not less of the SEIU using its muscle to get its way -- aided and abetted by a mainstream news media that largely downplays or ignores such incidents.