AFSCME Uses Anti-Government Messaging to Attack Ed Lee

by Randy Shaw on October 11, 2011

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the nation’s largest public employees union, is stooping to right wing, anti-government messaging to elect Leland Yee as San Francisco’s mayor and defeat Ed Lee. AFSCME’s mailings criticize Lee for supporting a continuation of the city’s higher sale tax, even though it helps fund public employees and is backed by Yee and the San Francisco Labor Council. AFSCME also blames Lee for cost overruns on a series of public service projects, a rhetorical attack on public infrastructure and economic stimulus investments commonly associated with the Tea Party. AFSCME is waging this fierce anti-public sector campaign while representing no municipal workers in San Francisco who could be hurt by its attacks; its only local bargaining unit is at UCSF.

Every political season has its share of outrageous mailers, but AFSCME’s independent campaign for Leland Yee is the first time I recall a public employees union using anti-public sector messaging. AFSCME’s UCSF workers are state employees not directly impacted by the union’s stirring up anti-public sector sentiment in San Francisco, but this is hardly an example of labor solidarity.

AFSCME Attacks the Sales Tax

AFSCME’s chief attack against Lee relates to his support for continuing the city’s existing sales tax. According to AFSCME’s campaign mailings, “Interim Mayor Ed Lee approved a multi-million dollar tax break for Twitter Inc. and other big corporations. But he’s pushing a sales tax increase for us.”

AFSCME is referring to Lee’s support for Prop G, which extends the city’s current sales tax and would fund public safety, children’s services and programs for seniors. These are the type of public services unions typically support.

Leland Yee, for whom AFSCME is sending the anti-sales tax mailings, also backs Prop G. In other words, AFSCME is attacking Lee for taking the same position on an issue that its own candidate is supporting. That’s called hypocrisy.

The San Francisco Democratic Party and San Francisco Labor Council have also endorsed Prop G, as did the San Francisco Bay Guardian, whose Yes on G endorsement noted, “the bottom line is that years of deep cuts have taken a disastrous toll on the city budget — threatening core social services and, yes, even public safety programs — and the city needs the money. Besides, this simply keeps the city’s 8.5 percent sales tax rate where it is, at a level we’ve already budgeted for.”

Prop G is so non-controversial that City Attorney Dennis Herrera, barred by law from taking positions on ballot measures, nevertheless came out in favor of the measure at a Commonwealth Club debate last week.

So who is the “us” AFSCME is speaking for when it attacks Ed Lee for backing a measure that will help San Francisco municipal employees as well as other workers keep their jobs? Well, the leading opponent of Prop G is the Republican Party, not exactly a staunch AFSCME ally.

Prop G is opposed by the same anti-tax, anti-public spending folks that AFSCME routinely opposes – when it’s not busy spreading right-wing talking points in its campaign to elect Leland Yee.

As for AFSCME’s criticism of Lee’s support for the Mid-Market/Tenderloin payroll tax exemption, this measure had enormously broad support and passed the Board of Supervisors by an 8-3 vote. In light of the many arts and high-tech businesses that have announced plans to move to Mid-Market since the legislation’s passage, I think the vast majority of voters back Mayor Lee’s position on this issue.

I do not recall Leland Yee speaking out against the payroll tax measure either before or after passage. While AFSCME’s independent campaign for Yee is legally barred from coordinating with Yee’s official campaign, it would be helpful to hear from Yee whether he shares or opposes AFSCME’s opposition to the measure.

Blaming Lee for Infrastructure Cost Overruns

AFSCME’s mailings also blame Lee for cost overruns on a number of city infrastructure projects that occurred when he was either head of DPW or the city’s CAO. The articles cited to back this conclusion do not identify Lee as negligent, or even make it clear what role, if any, he played in the cost overruns (which includes the cost of bottled water at City Hall, a policy its supporting article shows as also being backed by Herrera).

As with its attack on the sales tax, AFSCME’s criticism of public infrastructure cost overruns sounds a lot like what Congressional Republicans say about President Obama’s past and proposed economic stimulus measures. In fact, AFSCME’s claims could easily fit into speeches by John Boehner or Eric Cantor, both of whom repeatedly cite cost overruns as a reason not to support rebuilding the nation’s failing bridges, schools, and faltering infrastructure.

AFSCME knows that all major projects, public or private, inevitably face cost overruns. The reason is that unforeseen circumstances and changes in market conditions occur between approval of massive projects and their completion (recall how Hurricane Katrina caused lumber costs on all projects nationwide to skyrocket as most of the supply went to rebuild damaged areas).

Yet here in San Francisco, AFSCME is adopting right wing, anti-infrastructure right- talking points in order to tear down Ed Lee and elect Leland Yee.

AFSCME’s mailings do not disclose Ed Lee’s leadership in getting Prop B, the streets, sidewalk, and streetscape improvements bond measure, on the November ballot. If passed, the measure will create many union jobs (it is endorsed by the Democratic Party and San Francisco Labor Council) while revitalizing a city infrastructure that has suffered from a lack of funds. Yet those believing AFSCME’s mailings will vote against Prop B and any other measure that funds big projects.

Why Go Negative?

AFSCME understandably wants to reciprocate for Senator Yee’s support in Sacramento on issues affecting the University of California and the union’s employees statewide. Its campaign could highlight how Yee has stood by AFSCME members, described his leadership in challenging UC budget abuses, and link the qualities they believe he has shown in Sacramento to the race for San Francisco mayor.

Instead, AFSCME is running a relentlessly negative anti-Lee campaign. One piece accuses Lee of engaging in “The same old Bullsh*t.” Another has a photo of an out of control driver who is supposed to represent how Lee has put San Francisco on a “Crash Course.”

I don’t think San Francisco voters appreciate such negativity. And when the votes are counted in the mayor’s race, candidates who have spent most of their time bashing Ed Lee rather than promoting their own records will join AFSCME in regretting such tactics.

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