SEIU History

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  • In 1921, members of seven small janitor unions dared to dream they could build their strength by forming a single organization, the Building Service Employees International Union. A union of mostly immigrant workers chartered by the then-AFL, BSEIU was primarily organized janitors and window washers in its early years. In addition to these, it eventually organized a range of other service workers, including doormen, elevator operators, nonacademic school employees, healthcare workers and public employees as well as service workers based in bowling alleys, stadiums and cemeteries, to mention just a few.
  • The BSEIU changed its name to Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in 1968. Chicago-based Local 1, SEIU’s first local union, is still organizing janitors and security officers today.
  • In the years during and following the Great Depression, the union was the first in the country to help other service workers like hospital caregivers and public employees unite together in a union, paving the way for the modern SEIU’s three core industries: property servicespublic services and health care. In 1968, the union was renamed the Service Employees International Union to reflect its membership and key sectors.
  • SEIU’s membership has grown from 625,000 in 1980 to more than 2.1 million today. At a time when the majority of organized labor was shrinking, SEIU was aggressively uniting workers’ strength – largely in the fast-growing service industries. In 2000, SEIU had united 1.4 million members, to became the largest and fastest growing union in North America.
  • SEIU represents more immigrants than any other union, and its membership is among the most diverse in the labor movement. Since 1996, over 1.2 million workers have united with SEIU, many of them women and people of color. Also that year, SEIU officers also committed to diversify the union’s leadership to reflect the membership, and today, more than 50 percent of SEIU members are in local unions led by a woman or person of color.
  • Following the 2004 presidential elections, SEIU launched a widely publicized dialogue to help rebuild the labor movement following several decades of decline. Despite massive economic changes in our world today, the strategies, structure, and priorities of the AFL-CIO, and many unions, haven’t changed much since the federation was founded 50 years ago – prompting SEIU and four major unions to disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO in the summer of 2005 and build something stronger to help unite the 90 percent of workers who have no union.
  • At a historic founding convention in St. Louis on September 27, 2005, SEIU, along with 6 other unions representing 5.5 million workers–the Teamsters, UNITE HERE, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Laborers, the Carpenters and the United Farm Workers–formed the Change to Win Federation to develop joint strategic organizing campaigns to help ensure that workers, not just executives and stockholders, benefit from today’s global economy. With a key focus to unite non-union workers by industry, the new federation aims to empower working people in this country so that they can build the strength to make their voices heard in their jobs, their communities, and in Washington. The delegates elected SEIU’s Anna Burger as CTW federation chair – making her the first woman in U.S. history to ever head a labor federation.

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