[Excerpt] As part of its ongoing commitment, SEIU has devoted increasing attention to the challenge of getting local unions to embrace organizing and to allocate sufficient resources to the task. In this context, the unions 1992 national convention adopted two key resolutions: one to affirm the centrality of organizing, the second to assist leadership development with targeted educational programs. In the months following the convention, a discussion unfolded among national staff regarding appropriate steps required to assist local union leaders committed to change. Although internal organizing and initiatives to develop leadership skills among women and people of color were encouraged, the highest priority was afforded to external organizing. The objective was to expedite a dramatic reorientation toward external organizing at the local level. Because SEIU is decentralized-with significant local union autonomy, buy-in from local leaders was viewed as essential to assure organizing on the scale required to maintain steady growth and thereby enhance the unions power.
The discussions among national staff came to be defined as "local union transformation" and ultimately focused on the issue of representation. If local resources are to be freed for external organizing, then it follows that representational functions will be affected. A decision was reached to examine the actual steps that SEIU locals were taking to alter their methods of representation. A staff working group was established to explore this issue. Particular attention was devoted to identifying practices that would fulfill representational obligations and save resources.
In 1994 the international contracted with Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations to help it look more deeply at this question. SEIU chose to do this through a concrete examination of the experiences of several local unions. The staff work team began with something of a buckshot approach, sharing anecdotal information about a range of innovations. Attention was then narrowed to a manageable number of representative locals, covering all U.S. regions and representing all SEIU industries, and with a variety of experiences. Twelve "best-practices" locals were selected for in-depth analysis. The choice of these locals did not reflect a value judgment on locals not chosen, nor was the choice the result of a scientific method. Rather, the work team looked at a variety of different experiences that might help it think through which steps could be taken to shift resources in SEIU locals, with the ultimate objective being greater resources allocated to organizing. This essay focuses on the specific practices of eight of these locals, although it is based on all twelve cases, plus interviews and discussions with representatives from at least ten other national unions.