Building the Service Employees International Union: Janitors and Chicago Politics, 1911-1968
thesisposted on 17.02.2017, 00:00 by Benjamin L. Peterson
As one of the few expanding and politically powerful unions in the county, many have argued that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) represents the future of the American labor movement. However, few scholars have devoted much attention to the early days of the organization. My dissertation partially fills this gap in the literature by examining the foundation and evolution of the organization in Chicago between 1912 and 1969. During this period, the SEIU in Chicago developed a particular approach to labor activity—what I call civic unionism—that emphasized political power over labor militancy and prefigured modern trends in the labor movement such as community and social movement unionism. Through this approach, the union helped unskilled workers, most prominently janitors, to achieve higher wages, power in the workplace, and a sense of professional dignity. Although these successes represent significant victories, civic unionism proved far from perfect. By committing the union to the defense of the status quo it required the organization to defend the corrupt machine politics of Chicago and blunted any larger social agenda that they might have pursued. Ultimately these compromises resulted in both internal corruption and internecine conflicts that caused significant damage to the organization. Despite its faults, the civic unionism of the Chicago SEIU deserves study not only as a prelude to the modern organization, and modern organizational concepts, but also as a distinctive form of unionism that challenges many of the basic categories in which unions are normally classified. Seeing Chicago from the perspective of the union also provides unique insights into the city's political, social, and economic development.