Dick Meister: Searching for Joe


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister,com, which includes more than 300 of his columns.

San Francisco’s unions have been looking for another Joe Alioto ever since he left the mayor’s office in 1976 after eight years of being one of the best political friends organized labor ever had – anywhere.

Unions certainly have no chance of finding such a staunch supporter among the candidates for mayor in Tuesday’s election – not even in former Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, Alioto’s granddaughter. She reflects the conservative views of her former supervisorial district, which encompasses the upscale Pacific Heights and Marina neighborhoods.

Some of the other candidates claim to be labor-friendly, and some actually are. But none have gained anything approaching the all-out, almost unprecedented support that unions gave Alioto. Not surprisingly, unions have in turn been promised only relatively little post-election support by Tuesday’s candidates.

Alioto’s rewards to labor were based in part on the fact that, as he declared, “the controlling and decisive factor in my election was the support of organized labor.”

His administrations, he said, were “first of all sympathetic to labor.”

Alioto appointed union representatives to all of the city’s boards and commissions, some of which previously had little or no union representation, and helped unions in major strikes against recalcitrant employers, often stepping in to convince the employers to settle.

Probably the greatest benefits to union members came from the downtown building boom that Alioto launched, creating thousands of construction jobs.

So, with no Alioto-like union supporter in this year’s mayoral race, who are unions supporting? And how is labor likely to influence the outcome as well as the votes for ballot propositions, particularly Props C and D that involve the pensions and health care of public employees that have come to preoccupy municipal and state governments everywhere?

It seems clear that labor’s influence on the election outcome will turn out to be relatively slight, certainly considerably less than in Alioto’s time – less, in fact than in just about any other city election since the 1930s, when San Francisco was celebrated as one of the country’s premier “union towns.”

But no more. It’s sometimes hard to believe that San Francisco was ever a union town in the same league as New York, Chicago and Detroit.

The general public hardly hears from the city’s once vibrant and highly influential Labor Council and its leaders these days. Individual unions such as the Service Employees, Longshore and Warehouse Union, Nurses Association and Unite-Here, the hotel workers union, still have considerable clout, as do a few others. But that’s about it.

It’s partly the fault of the news media, but their scant coverage of organized labor reflects the failure of unions to take the leading position in politics as in economics that they once had, and must have if they are to prosper.

Unions are staging something of a comeback with the growth of public employee unions, which now dominate organized labor in numbers and influence – though locally unions probably do not yet have enough influence to play the role that once put them in a position to help elect politicians who considered them indispensable.

Public Defender and mayoral candidate Jeff Adachi and his conservative backers are trying hard to seriously weaken the growing strength of San Francisco’s public employee unions and their members, mainly through Proposition D. The apparent frontrunner in the mayor’s race, acting Mayor Ed Lee, is no particular friend of labor, either. Neither was Lee’s predecessor, Gavin Newsom.

Labor wasn’t helped by last year’s elections that gave the Board of Supervisors a strong minority of members on the political right who are at best indifferent to unions. Only five of the 11 supervisors can be legitimately considered pro-labor progressives.

It would help labor greatly to have a strong pro-union mayor, but none of the major candidates would play that role. The Labor Council endorsed Dennis Herrera and Leland Yee. The Building and Construction Trades Council went with Alioto-Pier and Yee.

But what about me? Glad you asked. I say it should be Herrera, who’s an excellent city attorney, has a broad base of supporters and, as a Hispanic, would give that underrepresented minority an important voice in City Hall. All the major candidates for sheriff and district attorney have solid credentials, and I’m sure any of them would do a good job.

Can’t see any reason not to vote for Prop A, a much needed school bond measure, and Prop B that would authorize bonds to pay for needed road and street repair. A big no on the foolish Prop E that would allow the Board of Supervisors to undo measures previously approved by voters.

No on F, another foolish and unnecessary measure. But Prop. G’s a good one. It raises the sales tax by half a percent to finance public safety programs and services to children and seniors.

Prop H is bad news. It would take away parental choice of schools and force students to attend only their neighborhood schools. Since many neighborhoods are still segregated by race or along socio-economic lines, it also would re-segregate schools citywide.

The main event includes, of course, Props C and D, and we should reject both measures. Don’t be confused by those who say, “I can’t vote no on C, because if D gets more votes, Adachi will win.” That ain’t necessarily so, for if neither measure gets at least 50 percent+one of the votes, then both would be defeated.

Make no mistake: Both propositions would be extremely harmful, because both would needlessly increase the financial burden of city employees by limiting the pensions of many new employees, while at the same time requiring them to make higher contributions to city pension funds. Both measures would also require some current employees to contribute more, although Prop D’s rates are somewhat higher, especially for higher income employees. Both C and D would also limit cost-of-living raises for current retirees.

Ever since voters in 2004 approved a badly needed reform of the City Health Service System that oversees the health care of employees and retirees, their elected representatives have had a genuine voice, with four members on the service’s seven-member governing board. The other three have been City Hall appointees.

Prop C would reverse the numbers, substituting another City Hall appointee for one of the elected members and otherwise limiting the voice of the elected members. Sponsors of Prop C would have you believe that the proposition is a “consensus” measure agreed to by all parties. But don’t you believe it.

Retirees, who make up a large part of those in the Health Service System, were not allowed to be part of the consensus negotiations, presided over by acting Mayor Lee.

It’s certain Joe Alioto would never have allowed that to happen.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister,com, which includes more than 300 of his columns.