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Major AFL-CIO Union, SEIU, Has New Local Leadership in the “Cradle of Liberty”

Just in time to ring in the New Year, new local union leadership has been elected in Philadelphia, the "Cradle of Liberty". On December 13, members of Local 36 of the 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the largest in the AFL-CIO, elected a new president, secretary-treasurer and 23 Executive Board members. This came in the 18th month of a national SEIU trusteeship over Local 36, which represents over 4,300 janitors, building maintenance workers, technicians and professionals in Philadelphia and its suburbs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Just in time to ring in the New Year, new local union leadership has been elected in Philadelphia, the "Cradle of Liberty". On December 13, members of Local 36 of the 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the largest in the AFL-CIO, elected a new president, secretary-treasurer and 23 Executive Board members. This came in the 18th month of a national SEIU trusteeship over Local 36, which represents over 4,300 janitors, building maintenance workers, technicians and professionals in Philadelphia and its suburbs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The 4,300-member local chose longtime Local 36 organizer and officer Denys Everingham as their new president over the national SEIU's appointed trustee, Wyatt Closs. Closs, a former staffer at SEIU's national headquarters, lost to Everingham by a 60%-40% margin. More than 1,000 of Local 36's 4,300 members came out to vote on a cold December day—the largest turnout for any election or contract meeting in the Local's 80-year history.

Everingham's slate—"The Philly Home Team"—did not run a candidate for secretary-treasurer. Another homegrown Local 36 member, former rank-and-file building engineer Wayne MacManiman, defeated Wyatt Closs' running mate, Aquel Brisbane, for secretary-treasurer by the same 60%-40% margin.

Local 36 members know Everingham and MacManiman to be committed to an unprecedented level of decision-making by the Union's rank-and-file union members. They are highly regarded for supporting workers in conflicts with management, regardless of the members' race, sex, age, language, immigration status, sexual orientation, or what sides members took in past battles.

"The most amazing thing was the coalition that worked to get Denys elected", said Yvette Spence, an immigrant from Trinidad who cleans offices at the Mellon Bank Center in downtown Philadelphia. "Blacks, Latinos, immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, Poland, Albania—we all joined together because we know that Denys and Wayne will fight for all of the members. We feel in our hearts what is right. Wyatt Closs sent a lot of mailings out against Denys, but those mailings can't convince us to change what we know in our hearts."

"We need someone who is a leader, not a ruler", declared Montgomery Saah, a leader of the Liberian immigrant community in Philadelphia. Saah cleans offices at the 3 Parkway building. "Denys is the one who really cares about what immigrant workers face, not just at the border, but every day of our lives as we are discriminated against because of our country of origin. The SEIU pledge states that we will protect each other regardless of where we come from. Denys is the embodiment of that commitment. She is the one in SEIU who makes sure all members get the respect we deserve."

Elba Mercado, the power at the center of Latino activism in Local 36, gave insight and inspiration to Everingham, convincing her to run for office. She stated: "We had four Latinos, two Polish immigrants, blacks, whites & immigrants from many other countries on the "Philly Home Team Slate", whose name she coined. Mercado continued: "Denys' opponent—Wyatt—had lots of money and staff people working for him, but our slate used our own vacation time, and some of us lost a couple of weeks' pay to get Denys elected. Why did we do this? Because we know that Denys gets her strength from us—the members. She listens to us and together we find creative solutions to our problems. She shares information with the members, and she stands by whatever we—the members—decide."

Christine Forbes has been a member of Local 36 for some 30 years and is a respected leader in her church. She worked hard to get Denys elected, going from skyscraper to skyscraper at 11 o'clock at night in downtown Philadelphia, to campaign for Everingham. Forbes said: "I talked to every member I could find to tell them the truth, that Denys and Wayne fight for us. I'm so happy they got elected. Now we can get on the track the members want our Local to be on—strength and honesty."

Trusteeship rejects election results; files election protests

Despite their election on December 13, 2003, Everingham, MacManiman and the new Executive Board—many of whom ran on Closs' slate—have not been sworn in because of frivolous protests filed by the loser, national SEIU's trustee Wyatt Closs. Refusing to accept the membership's decision, Closs is now calling for a rerun of the election that he lost by 20 percentage points. His protests are blocking Local 36's new officers and executive board from taking office and carrying out their duties of representing members on the job and the bargaining table, and organizing new members.

"He never understood what we go through as janitors", declared Delbert Franklin, a longtime Union activist who cleans at United Plaza, referring to Trustee Closs. "He thinks if you sound like a rap artist, members will love you. It takes more than style and rap to win for workers. It really turned me off when he broke down and cried in front of management at the bargaining table. It was an embarrassment to all of us members in the room. We don't have to cry, we know how to fight, and we don't need a leader who cries instead of fighting. Denys and Wayne are strong, that's why so many members are ecstatic that they won!" said Franklin.

National SEIU's trusteeship over Local 36 expired legally on December 24, the 18-month deadline having been passed. National president Andrew Stern declared in his call for an election in Local 36 that "... it is now appropriate to end the trusteeship of Local 36 and to return the Local Union to self-governance." But Stern has not lifted the trusteeship, despite a solid victory by Everingham and MacManiman over the national union's preferred candidates.

On December 13, 2003, the members of Local 36 spoke loud and clear. They chose a new leadership for their Union, a home-grown mixture of candidates from all three contending slates. They expect national SEIU to live up to its rhetoric—to "walk the walk"—and to recognize Local 36's democracy. The members of Local 36 expect national SEIU and its trusteeship to respect them by respecting their decision. After 18 long months of trusteeship, Local 36 wants its Union back. The members want their new democratically-elected leadership recognized by the whole Union so they can turn and face management united and strong.