Inside the mayor's office with SEIU Local 1021

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By Rebecca Bowe

Yesterday, around 4 p.m., 22 union members rushed into the mayor’s office (the plush reception area on the other side of those stately double doors) and demanded to meet with Mayor Gavin Newsom. Immediately blocked by security from continuing all the way to the mayor, they vowed to wait -- and remained there for about two hours. The protesters were there as representatives or supporters of SEIU Local 1021, which has launched a months-long fight against Newsom in the wake of layoffs and deep salary cuts in the Department of Public Health inflicted by city budget cuts.

In the City Hall corridor just outside the mayor’s office, scores of other SEIU members gathered in support of those inside the reception area. Chants, cheers, and the refrain from Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” could be heard from outside. The SEIU members inside, meanwhile, circled up and prepared to be arrested. Meanwhile, the clerks working in the reception area continued diligently working away at their desks. (Each of the mayoral staffers declined to comment. At one point, mayoral spokesman Nathan Ballard walked through the room, and the union members hollered at him to please ask the mayor to show some leadership. "Will do," he said with a smile, and disappeared behind a door.)

The mayor never showed. Nor did any clash take place between the union members and the plainclothes security officers who were coolly guarding the doors leading out to the corridor and back to the mayor’s actual office. The union members stayed until approximately 6:15 p.m., chanting, singing, delivering impromptu speeches, and resolving that they would keep up the fight. Here’s what it was like in there.

They finally negotiated an exit with the security officers, and joined the others outside the doors.

Then, they flooded into the street outside City Hall with the other workers and proceeded to circle around the intersection of Polk and McAllister. Sup. Chris Daly joined them and thanked them for their work, vowing to do what he could to restore the cuts.

At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, supervisors voted seven to four to dip into the General Fund reserve to restore the jobs of certified nursing assistants and unit clerks in the city’s Department of Public Health.

But after it was announced that the ordinance had passed on first reading, and the SEIU workers who’d packed the Board Chambers let out a celebratory whoop, some one pointed out that eight votes were needed for approval. The measure had actually failed -- and the disappointment in the room was palpable.

The vote followed an impassioned discussion and debate. Sups. Carmen Chu, Sean Elsbernd, Sophie Maxwell and Michela Alioto-Pier all gave it a thumbs-down, but only Elsbernd and Chu explained their opposition.

“This is a proposal to spend money we don’t have,” Elsbernd protested. “These layoffs are inevitable.” According to answers City Controller Ben Rosenfield provided to Elsbernd’s questions, the city is in poor health economically speaking, with an estimated $350 million budget deficit looming next year, and a possible hit on property-tax revenues.

Yet Sups. Chris Daly and John Avalos said they believed the DPH cuts could be restored without sapping the General Fund, thanks to state legislation recently signed into law that is expected to bring more revenue into city coffers for the public-health department.

“We have the healthy San Francisco program,” Avalos noted, “but I would say that if we’re undercutting the workplace standards and the pay of our workers … then we are undercutting the Healthy San Francisco program.”

Avalos said that he’d been told the additional revenue could become available for the current fiscal year, but Deputy Controller Monique Zmuda called that possibility “unlikely.”

“At the end of the day, we do have to look at numbers, but we also have to look at the issue of equity,” Sup. David Campos said. “We cannot be the kind of city that I believe we should be if we balance the budget only on the backs of certain workers and not others.”

The majority of people who will be affected by the cuts are women and people of color. At Tuesday's meeting, Sup. Daly mentioned that he had received a letter from the local NAACP chapter president, Rev. Amos Brown, emphasizing the importance of reversing the cuts.

Daly also pointed to a DPH memo, issued right around the time of the layoff notices, announcing an $8 million budget surplus for that department. But with funds expected to flow in as a result of the state legislation, “We may not have to use this money,” he said.

When Elsbernd cautioned that the DPH surplus would be needed to address deficits in other city departments, Daly responded that the city departments using better fiscal judgment shouldn’t be punished for coming out ahead. He criticized opponents for treating DPH like “the city’s own personal ATM machine.”

Board President David Chiu voted in support of reversing the cuts, but introduced a resolution to use revenue expected to come in from the state legislation to retroactively refund the General Fund reserve. “We are facing the bottom of our barrel,” Chiu said. “The budget realities are what they are, and they are not getting better.”

Now the pressure is all coming down onto Sup. Sophie Maxwell, whom SEIU members are looking to for a reversal on her position in order to get the eight votes needed to restore the cuts. SEIU Local 1021 members urged people to contact her in a recent email. Since we haven't heard from her, we don't know why she voted no, or what her reaction was to yesterday's demonstration. We placed a call to her office, but at press time, hadn't yet received a response.

**UPDATE: Maxwell just got back to us, and here's what she said. "Yes I am sympathetic to workers, but my vote was based on information that I did not have about the state of the city [financially]. ... We're not looking stronger." As to the money from the state, she said she was hearing different amounts, and didn't expect the money to come in time. "Four months ago, we brokered a deal -- $60 million, which was a bigger add-back than ever done before. This was not their priority -- [SEIU] knew this was coming," she said. "Not having all the information going forward, knowing our city is going to be in worse shape, I am uncomfortable with making this decision. ... I'm with them on the deskilling, and those things, but I'm not with them on the approach. They didn't reach out and talk to me." She also mentioned that "The mayor has the discretion not to spend the money. This is almost like a real joke, because the mayor does not have to spend this money."**