Labor's love lost

SEIU's internal problems are rippling through San Francisco's political scene

Last year's budget battles could be even worse this year, particularly given the labor movement's internal division
Photo by Rebecca Bowe

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.


In another development Marin County employees comprising seven units of SEIU 1021 are well on their way to decertifying SEIU. The "merger" of 10 locals into ONE overarching structure has not gone well. First, many units in the North Bay have there own unique history and traditions, as well as cultures of competences, which elude Damita Davis-Howard and her gang of cronies, who have been promoted on the basis of royalty to Damita rather than any demostrated level of competence or vision as to how meld 10 cultures into one. One poignant example, is Ms. Davis-Howards promotion of a field director who had no idea what a Skelley Hearing(the basis employee discipline) was. Since the merger, Marin county employees have become nothing more than a cash cow receiving about a dime's worth of service for for every dollar they contribute. Field staff cannot even obtain membership lists. Andrew Stern appears to have a demonstrated inability to appoint honest and competent with any sort regularity. Just check the blogs! Andrew Stern and Damita Davis Howard share the same basic meglomania-"It's not about the members, It's all ME!

Posted by Guest on Feb. 19, 2010 @ 10:57 am

As a member of SEIU Local 1021 and as a former three-term Officer for Local 790, I can see more strengths than flaws - which there are a few - in your feature on SEIU Local 1021.

All three slates, regardless of where their politics lie, are identical in the slogans they are putting forth: all three slates lay claim to being member-driven, etc. etc.

And, you forget to put forth an important element of what is plaguing SF Local 1021 today: the disastrous contract that was brought forth to the membership, voted down, and then the SEIU International came in - at a cost of $400,000 - to set the members straight: it was blitzkrieg time in San Francisco. War on its own members from the SEIU International with willing compliance from some members that are running for office on the reform slate, i.e. Sin Yee Poon. So, Poon's statement, which is self-deusional at best if she believes that SF members are consumed with elections: the majority of Local 1021's SF membership feel betrayed by the actions of the SF negotiating team and the retribution, the retaliation rained upon them by the other clique of union "elites" and the International.

Posted by GuestNancy Snyder on Feb. 19, 2010 @ 11:02 am

I wish they would decertify SEIU 1021 at BART. In my department, the SEIU 1021 employees do the same work as the AFSCME and non-reps, but make $10-$20K a year less, have to punch a time clock (which the other professional employees don't), and pay $1,500 a year in dues for the "privilege". Unions may be good for uneducated, lower class workers, but they are a bad, bad deal for professional, educated workers.

Posted by CJ on Feb. 19, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

The comments made by the BART employee are absolutely ludicrous. Unions are representative of a sector of society that includes an entire spectrum of workers. From your comments it is apparent that you lack history, but maybe they dont teach that to those in the educated realm, if they did you would know that everyone who has great benefits and perks is not because management was "good" to the educated population, but that workers formed unions to fight for things that you yourself probably receive like: healthcare, weekends, workers comp, maternity leave, and a host of other things that are taken without the knowledge that unions worked collectively across many things like being "uneducated" or not. The point was that was not put out there as a way to divide the need for unions.

Lastly, i'll name more people that have some form of union or another that fight for their rights too: doctors, teachers, nurses, MANAGERS and many other people. The point is that just because I, you or others have education does not guarantee our being treated fairly. Maybe you should look at history, or ask your parents and grand parents or if no one in your family knows about them you should do your own research instead of spewing foolish rhetoric.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 22, 2010 @ 6:29 pm