SEIU’s Misplaced Priorities Upend San Francisco Budget

by Randy Shaw on May 18, 2009

By voting down contract changes last week, SEIU 1021 set the stage for 1000 layoffs and devastating public service cuts. Few workers support such results, so why did 56% reject the contract? The answer is not, as some might suspect, that SEIU’s bargaining team presented a “sellout” proposal. To the contrary, SEIU negotiated a remarkable deal for city workers in a time of economic crisis, capitalizing on Mayor Newsom’s need to keep good relations with the union for his Governor’s race. Instead, what killed the contract was SEIU’s failure to devote sufficient resources toward educating its workers on the merits of the deal, despite knowing that many 1021 workers were angry at the SEIU brand due to its battles with its former UHW leadership (now NUHW), and with UNITE HERE. To address this, SEIU needed to provide additional staff and hire members as “lost timers” to build enthusiasm for the contract. But the union did not do so, despite having routinely taken such actions in the past. SEIU President Andy Stern has prioritized raids against another union over dispatching staff to assist current members, leading even the SEIU 1021 Executive Board and staff union to pass a resolution last week seeking to end this “misusing of scarce resources.”

SEIU 1021’s rejection of the contract deal reached by its bargaining team has sent shockwaves through San Francisco, and should cause SEIU President Andy Stern to rethink his allocation of resources. When members turn down a great contract, it reflects deep distrust toward the SEIU brand, and the union’s failure to address rank and file skepticism by increasing education and outreach.

Distrusting the SEIU Brand

When rank and file workers reject contracts, it’s often because the bargaining team negotiated a bad deal. But SEIU Local 1021 workers defeated a contract that kept their 3.75% wage increase, delayed new rounds of layoffs until after a November election could make them unnecessary (assuming revenue measures passed), and only eliminated eleven days of holiday pay over the next two years.

Considering that San Francisco is enduring a fiscal crisis that denies the city’s nonprofit workers any raises for a second straight year, and that requires many nonprofit layoffs, what SEIU negotiators accomplished was astounding. They leveraged a Mayor who needs their political support for his Governor’s race into a tremendous labor contract.

But the rank and file rejected it. Here’s why.

San Francisco can be like a small town. People see politicians in restaurants or on the street, and there is a sense of community here absent from many cities.

Unionized workers are part of this tight-knit community. Many SEIU Local 1021 members working in San Francisco have friends and/or family affiliated with either UNITE HERE Local 2, or the former leadership of SEIU-UHW.

Such SEIU 1021 members are angry with their parent union for its fights with these entities. This anger was stoked by the new NUHW (Sal Rosselli’s deposed former UHW team), which actively lobbied 1021 members to reject the contract; members with UNITE HERE connections did not have to be lobbied – anger against SEIU over their attacks on the local hotel union is already at a fever pitch.

When I told Andy Stern back in March that SEIU would face major blowback if they challenged UNITE HERE, he responded that this might apply to West Coast progressives, but that East Coast progressives backed the faction of UNITE HERE that has since affiliated with SEIU as “Workers United.”

Putting aside the correctness of Stern’s East Coast analysis, the SEIU President clearly foresaw major progressive opposition in San Francisco to SEIU attacks on UNITE HERE. He also knew that Sal Rosselli’s leadership team had progressive Bay Area support, and that NUHW was seeking to make inroads among Local 1021 members.

So SEIU’s international leadership should have anticipated that many Local 1021 members were angry with their union, and would oppose any contract without significant internal organizing and persuasion. An extra special effort would be needed to restore Local 1021 members’ confidence in the SEIU brand.

But SEIU took no special efforts. It devoted no resources to hiring members – known as “lost-timers”— to convince fellow members of the contract’s merits. Nor did the union engage in the massive pro-contract rallies that they used in the past, despite knowing that the SEIU brand was facing a member revolt.

SEIU’s Misplaced Priorities

Rather than invest in ensuring that the 1021 contract was ratified, SEIU is allocating staff and money raiding the jurisdictions and bargaining units of UNITE HERE.

Don’t take my word for it. Local 1021’s Executive Board and staff union passed a resolution last week preventing the local from spending resources raiding or interfering with UNITE HERE’s membership.

Local 1021’s staff union stated that SEIU is “mis-using scarce resources to fund a campaign undermining other unions,” and concluded that SEIU’s “divide and conquer tactics and decisions to attack the UNITE HERE elected leaders and members are weakening the labor movement instead of strengthening it.”

Perhaps foreseeing the members’ rejection of the San Francisco contract, SEIU staffers also stated “SEIU’s attacks against UNITE HERE are negatively impacting 1021 members’ unity and position at the bargaining table. ” The staff concluded “SEIU 1021, whose staff and members have relationships with UNITE HERE locals in the Bay Area, has been and could be further severely compromised as a result of these attacks.”

The staff’s completion resolution can be found here.

SEIU’s Other Commitments

SEIU’s diversion of resources toward raiding its longtime ally UNITE HERE is particularly untimely in light of the union’s other commitments.

First, SEIU is currently in a pitched battle to win the contract for 10,000 home health care workers in Fresno. Stern has declared that SEIU will win the June 1-15 mail ballot election, and that this will be the “death knell” of the new NUHW. SEIU staff are being redirected to Fresno from other campaigns, as NUHW is waging an all-out campaign to win a vote that could decide its survival.

In 1999, labor activists from across the nation converged in Seattle to battle the World Trade Organization. In 2009, labor activists are meeting up in Fresno – for a fight between two unions.

Second, SEIU is devoting significant staff and resources to fighting with NUHW in workplaces throughout the state.

Third, SEIU has an ambitious national political agenda that includes nationwide protests against Bank of America and Wells Fargo, and campaigns for immigration reform (in which UNITE HERE was once its closest partner) and universal health care. SEIU is also leading labor’s efforts to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.

These campaigns all involve staff time and money, requiring SEIU to put workplace-organizing campaigns on hold. Stern has correctly concluded that this is the year when SEIU should prioritize winning key national legislation impacting workers; but SEIU has chosen to wage war against UNITE HERE at a time when its resources were already overstretched.

SEIU: A Union or a Movement?

In my book, Beyond the Fields, I note how Philip De La Cruz and other key UFW leaders felt that the organization declined because Cesar Chavez wanted to lead a movement, not a union. Having steered SEIU into virtually all areas impacting the progressive agenda, one wonders if Andy Stern also prefers to lead a national progressive movement to the less public, and often more routine, job of administering the workplace needs of SEIU’s two million members.

Local 1021’s self-destructive vote – which will see its own members laid off – should remind SEIU’s leaders that success in the political realm depends on building membership, and keeping workers enthusiastic about paying dues. Unless the contract is re-voted upon and approved, SEIU will lose both members and its political credibility –particularly among the union’s many community allies counting on the $38 million in savings to preserve public services.

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