Labor’s love lost

Pub date February 16, 2010
WriterRebecca Bowe
SectionGreen City

Note: This file has been corrected from an earlier version.

Two recent events could have major implications for Service Employees International Union Local 1021 — San Francisco’s largest public-sector union and an important ally for progressives — for better or for worse. And this union’s fate seems closely tied to that of the progressive movement in San Francisco.

The first event was likened to a “nuclear bomb in the morning paper” by one observer, and might be interpreted as the kickoff to a fierce budget battle. Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that he is considering a plan to help solve next year’s budget deficit by laying off 10,000 full-time city workers and rehiring them at 37.5 hours, which would amount to a sweeping 6.25 percent pay cut for workers and an estimated $50 million in savings for a fiscally impaired city.

Though it was framed by Newsom spokesperson Tony Winnicker as one preliminary cost-saving option among many, the proposal received prominent front-page coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle, even before official discussions were called between the mayor and public sector unions. Since SEIU Local 1021 represents 17,000 members in San Francisco and a majority of the city’s 26,000 total employees, it would likely absorb the greatest impact if such a plan went through.

At the same time the mayor’s startling announcement hit newsstands, SEIU was in the midst of mailing out ballots to its membership for union elections. “I don’t know whether it’s a coincidence, or if the city is taking advantage of the fact that SEIU is absorbed in its elections,” Sin Yee Poon, an SEIU chapter president for Human Services Agency workers, told us while pointing out that the events happened simultaneously.

With three separate slates of candidates vying for control of SEIU Local 1021, grudges between warring internal factions have intensified into bitter sparring matches. The timing is unfortunate — just as SEIU’s internal turmoil is coming to a head, one of its greatest battles is pending over an unprecedented $522 million budget shortfall that looms like a dark cloud over the city. The deficit will surely result in job losses, and the public sector union’s ability to mount resistance even as it wrestles with internal strife is shaping up to be a key question.

This pivotal moment carries wider political implications considering that the progressive organization has in the past helped seal an alliance between San Francisco’s left-leaning leaders and organized labor through the San Francisco Labor Council.

With SEIU besieged by infighting and soon to be hurting from wage slashes and layoffs, more conservative factions of the labor community, such as the San Francisco Firefighters Union and the Building and Construction Trades Council, have recently been butting heads with progressive members of the Board of Supervisors.

At the same time, forces on all sides are beginning to eye the coveted seats up for election in June at the Democratic County Central Committee, a Democratic Party hub that is a cornerstone of local political influence, as well as the seats that will open up on the Board of Supervisors in November. Negotiations between unions and the mayor are ongoing, and mayoral spokesperson Tony Winnicker was quick to note that Newsom is open to options, other than reconfiguring 10,000 city jobs, that organized labor brings to the table. At the same time, the Guardian heard from numerous sources that city workers felt outraged and blindsided by Newsom’s decision to air the plan in the Chronicle instead of bringing stakeholders to the table.

SEIU Local 1021 President Damita Davis-Howard told us she thinks the idea of taking $50 million out of the pockets of working people in a rocky economy is wrong-headed.

“This was devastating,” said Davis-Howard, who is running for a newly created union position called chief elected officer, which is different from the union president, and similar to an executive-director post. “The mayor might as well have raised their taxes, because if you decrease their pay by 6.25 percent, they will still have the same amount of work, they will still have to pay the same mortgage, they will still have to buy the same food, the same PG&E, and they’ll be doing it with a lot less money. If any idea like this were to go through, it would actually remove the very fabric or fiber of San Francisco. It would really cut to the core of the very being of San Francisco. … I don’t see how anybody could believe that we could continue being the city that we love being with this kind of action.”

Winnicker, the mayoral spokesperson, cast it as a plan that could avert hundreds or even thousands of layoffs. “This year the easy decisions are behind us,” he noted in a recent discussion with the Guardian.

Solving last year’s fiscal shortfall was far from easy — budget tussles between frontline city workers and the mayor got ugly, and even then, the city received millions in federal stimulus dollars to cushion the blow. A similar plan of sweeping hourly cuts was floated then too, but it didn’t gain enough traction to move forward.

“The mayor is facing a huge budget deficit, there’s no question about it — but he has not lifted one finger to raise a dime in revenue,” charged SEIU member Ed Kinchley, who works at San Francisco General Hospital. As for how the union might respond if such a proposal went through, he speculated, “I think it’s the kind of thing that could lead to a strike. A big fight.”

While the city charter bars strikes by public employees, Kinchley’s comment indicates the level of frustration among SEIU’s rank-and-file.



The proposal could present a common enemy and a rallying point for a union in disarray. Internal jockeying for elected positions can be fierce in any organization, but for San Francisco’s service-workers union, the rifts are particularly deep.

The elections, which will be decided Feb. 28, mark the first time since a radical restructuring in 2007 that members will collectively decide who should lead. In 2007, the face of SEIU was changed across California when the international president, Andy Stern, began consolidating dozens of far-flung locals into centralized, beefier entities in a bid to maximize political effectiveness (California comprises roughly one-third of the entire union’s membership).

Local 1021 came into existence when 10 locals were conglomerated into one 54,000-member giant — hence the “10-to-one” label — representing health care and frontline service workers from the Bay Area to the Oregon border. 

In San Francisco, where a large segment of its members are based, the shift was interpreted by some as a power grab, and it triggered a period of ongoing strife between those allied with Stern and the international wing on one side, and those dissatisfied with changes they saw as antithetical to the democratic ideals championed by Local 790, its predecessor, on the other.

In the years following the reorganization, Stern began trying to aggregate members by raiding other unions to consolidate power. But campaigns to bring in members from United Healthcare Workers (UHW) and fend off membership losses to the newly created National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) have consumed money and resources that some members told the Guardian would’ve been better spent bolstering national support for health-care reform and the Employee Free Choice Act. According to one source, SEIU spent $10 million on a Fresno battle against NUHW.*

A fight waged between SEIU Local 1021 and UNITE HERE Local 2, a hotel-workers union that was historically allied with Local 1021’s predecessor, left some members especially stung because it marred a longstanding relationship between two groups of frontline workers.

“Andy Stern has concentrated more and more power into the hands of a group of so-called elite members of the union,” Kinchley told the Guardian. Stern’s top-down leadership style and growth-oriented objectives “run pretty harshly against what many of us believe is in the best interest of our workers locally,” he added.

In recent weeks, divisions have deepened further. A staff person who preferred not to be identified for fear of retribution filed charges with the U.S. Department of Labor against a supervisor, who is aligned with the international faction, for alleged harassment and bullying. Another complaint was filed with union leadership alleging that union bylaws were violated when membership money was authorized, but not spent, to conduct a poll without proper approval.*

“There’s a fiscal rogue-ness about it. [Davis-Howard] does whatever she wants, and she spends our dues money without authorization from anybody,” Kinchley charged.

Stern appointed Davis-Howard, and now she is running for election on a slate aligned with the international wing. When the Guardian tried to reach her to discuss union elections, spokesperson Carlos Rivera told us that Davis-Howard found it inappropriate to publicly discuss internal divisions.

Sin Yee Poon is running as her opponent on a reform slate, formed by members disaffected by the international’s modus operandi. “For the whole reform group, we’re disappointed with the general direction of corporate unionism,” Poon told the Guardian. Stressing that she believes grassroots, democratic ideals have eroded since the restructuring, she said members in her camp are agitated when they see resources siphoned into raids on other unions such as UNITE HERE and UHW. “We want it to be member-driven,” she said. “The raiding of other unions is absolutely not OK.”



The internal strife could have a wider ripple effect. SEIU Local 1021 has historically been influential in securing an alliance between the city’s labor community and San Francisco’s progressive leadership. During the last round of elections for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, Sups. John Avalos and Eric Mar campaigned and ultimately were elected with strong fundraising support from the labor council.

Yet in recent weeks, several skirmishes pitted certain factions of the labor community against progressive members of the Board of Supervisors. Outrage bubbled up from the firefighters — and ultimately the labor council as a whole — against a charter amendment proposed by Sup. John Avalos that would have extended the minimum number of work hours for firefighters.

Billed as a cost-saving measure, the proposal might have ultimately resulted in fewer firefighter jobs, but it was designed to spread the pain of budget cuts more equitably by grazing public safety departments instead of just inflicting blows on frontline and healthcare workers.

After Labor Council Executive Director Tim Paulson came out strongly against it, Avalos abandoned the idea. A source from within the labor council, who spoke on background only, described it as an opportunity for the labor council to come together and unite on class interests.

The political posturing that came out of that fight shook even Sup. David Campos, who vocally called for equitably sharing the pain during last year’s budget debacle. “This isn’t the way to do it,” Campos said when asked about Avalos’ failed charter amendment. “And I worry about the negative impact on labor and the progressive board. There are larger issues at play here. The entire progressive agenda is at stake. We need to think long-term about the specific issues plus the future of the progressive movement.”

Sup. Sean Elsbernd’s bid to reform the pension system to save money has provoked yet another fight with SEIU Local 1021. Union members argue that if they are asked to contribute to their own retirement funds, which would become mandatory under this proposal, then they should be given the same wage increase that other unions were granted when they agreed to similar terms.

But when Sup. Eric Mar tried to amend Elsbernd’s proposal by inserting language guaranteeing that pay increase, Elsbernd said it would cost the city millions more. If Mar’s amended version goes forward, “you’ll be going to the voters by yourself,” Elsbernd told the progressive-leaning supervisor at a Feb. 9 board meeting.



Another fight has erupted over 555 Washington, a tower proposed to go up beside the TransAmerica Pyramid, which was debated at a joint hearing Feb. 11 between the Planning Commission and the Recreation and Park Commission. For members of the Building & Construction Trades Council, which represents unionized carpenters, plumbers, and other workers in development-related trades, the project represented jobs — the screaming priority in an economy where funding for new construction has trickled to almost nil.

“There is, in general in San Francisco progressive politicians, a knee-jerk reaction to development projects,” Building & Trades Council Secretary Treasurer Michael Theriault told us. As a council representing people whose livelihoods depend on private sector construction, “We have a particular quandary,” he said. “We need politicians who at the same time are friendly to labor and understand that development is an economic tool that can help the city.”

The arm of labor representing Theriault’s council has been slammed with job losses due to the economic downturn, and he’s publicly expressed frustration when projects of this scale are shot down.

“What the mayor did, what Elsbernd did, and what Avalos did are all the same thing: They all staked out a position, put a provocative idea on the table, and forced unions to have a discussion with a gun to their head in a non-constructive way,” Mike Casey, president of UNITE HERE Local 2 and a member of the labor council’s Executive Committee.

A source familiar with the inner workings of the labor council said the tension between building trades and firefighters versus more left-leaning members of the labor community has been in existence for decades, and it isn’t anything new — particularly in the months preceding election season.

Casey challenged the very notion that there is a subculture of the labor council that isn’t progressive, pointing out that labor came together as whole to support Sups. Avalos, Mar, and David Chiu — “and I personally would do it again in a heartbeat,” he added. Internal catfights and struggles for control come with the territory in a democratic, diverse organization, he said. “As a group of working people, I have great regard for the membership [of SEIU Local 1021],” he said. “Occasionally there’s a dustup. In my experience, after the dust settles, more often that not, unions come out stronger for it.”.

*Corrections made to the original file.