Sweeping victory for SEIU reformers

March 9, 2010

Larry Bradshaw, the newly elected third vice president of SEIU Local 1021 in California, looks at how reformers are shaking up the "mega-locals" created by SEIU President Andrew Stern.

IN A stunning upset, union reformers in Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 swept to victory in their local's first-ever elections--an outcome that will rattle the top leaders of the 2 million-member union.

The reformers in Local 1021 were expected to do well given the Northern California local's poor performance in defending jobs and public services, and local officials' seeming inability to resist concessions.

Even so, the reform slate, calling itself Change 1021, surpassed everyone's expectations by winning 26 of the 28 positions it contested. The reform slate won all the officer positions, most of the local's industry and committee chairs, and secured a majority on the executive board.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the state, reformers in SEIU Local 521 captured a number of seats on the local's executive board after an uphill fight. The Voices of the Members slate had to battle an army of paid union staff. The reformers were unsuccessful in winning any of the officers' positions, but their gains, coming alongside the win in Local 1021, signal growing dissatisfaction with the SEIU's bureaucratic methods.

SEIU Local 1021 members protest planned in San Francisco
SEIU Local 1021 members protest planned in San Francisco (Steve Rhodes)

Further south, the newly elected president of SEIU Local 221 suddenly resigned in the midst of an ongoing Department of Labor investigation into the local's recent disputed election.

Former Local 221 President Sharon-Frances Moore, who headed the local's incumbent machine, had defeated a reform slate in July 2009. The opposition, calling itself Reform 221, has challenged the fairness of the election and speculated that Moore's decision to resign "for personal reasons" after less than six months in office suggests that the Labor Department probe uncovered election and/or ethical irregularities.

ALL THREE of these locals are newly created "mega-locals" --a product of a radical reconstructing of the SEIU in California.

Three years ago, the SEIU embarked on a plan to consolidate its California locals into large, centralized entities that covered huge geographic expanses and encompassed tens of thousands of members. Local 1021--the name comes from a merger of 10 locals into one--claims 54,000 members. Local 521--the name was coined on the same way--reports 52,000 members. Local 221--created through a merger of two San Diego-area public sector locals--officially reports 12,000 members.

What else to read

Find out more about the reform movement in SEIU Local 1021, go to the Change 1021 to Member Run Web site. For more information about the legal challenge of the July 2009 SEIU Local 221 elections, see the Reform221 Web site.

Such organizations can no longer be meaningfully described as union "locals." But SEIU International President Andrew Stern claimed the mega-locals would increase the bargaining power of members, enhance their political clout and aid in organizing the unorganized.

The reality of the last three years stood in stark contrast to these promises.

Size didn't translate into political influence, as politician after politician (including liberal Democrats) turned on the SEIU, scapegoating the lowest-paid public employees and attacking wages, benefits and pensions. For example, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, a supposed friend of labor, was particularly vitriolic in his verbal attacks and especially draconian in his economic cutbacks, ripping up the union contracts of 23,000 city and county workers.

In the face of this onslaught from the SEIU's political "friends," the bargaining power of the new mega-locals receded rather than increased. And despite the promise of organizing and new growth, local after local lost members due to layoffs. Up and down the state, angry, dissatisfied and distressed members began coalescing into reform movements.

Monty Kroopkin, the reform candidate for president in Local 221, explains the impetus for reform in his local:

The 2007 mergers resulted (for us) in not only no elected leadership, but a culture of unannounced meetings; no accountability; grossly overpaid senior staff; an appointed president; a severe reduction in the amount of information members got about anything union activists and staff were doing on most subjects; weak-to-nonexistent enforcement of our contracts and labor laws; staff meeting with employers without members present; a steady decline in our membership numbers; loss of two bargaining units to decertification and certification of independent unions; loss of agency fee in another bargaining unit (and loss of most of the members there); a kangaroo court internal union trial to expel a leading dissident steward; staff yelling at and threatening stewards and chapter officers; the railroading of an unworkable and unrepresentative constitution and bylaws; executive board meetings replete with improper use of closed executive sessions; [and] suppression of members access to the roster of stewards and chapter officers...

Pamela Holmes-Morton, the newly elected Secretary of Local 1021, says reform forces came together in that local because "members want their concerns to be given priority and due consideration." For their part, Local 521 reformers campaigned on the platform of "re-focusing and returning to issues relating to members' benefits, work conditions, wages and contract enforcement."

The election campaigns played out against the backdrop of the SEIU International's effort to crush the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), a union created last year when Stern ordered the trusteeship of the SEIU's militant California hospital workers union.

Despite the SEIU's overwhelming advantage in resources--including staffers from locals controlled by Stern allies--the NUWH has scored some important wins in union representation elections.

IN THIS environment, the reformers' message of resistance and rebuilding their unions struck a chord. "I believe it's clear that the union members voted for change," said Holmes-Morton. "Their votes are indicative of their desires for member representation, enforcement of employment contracts, financial transparency and access to the union leadership."

While reformers in Locals 521 and 1021 are rolling up their sleeves to begin the hard work of rebuilding and revitalizing their union, in Local 221, the rank-and-filers are preparing to take the initiative, says Kroopkin:

This month, we expect to hear from [the Department of Labor] if they will sue to get us a new election or reach an out-of-court settlement with the local for that, or dismiss our complaint. Their preliminary findings were that there were serious violations in the July 2009 officer and executive board elections.

Because this has been up in the air for all these months, Reform 221 has remained in a low-gear campaign mode. We continue to make public criticisms of the Stern-appointed--and then-election-rigging--executive board. We take credit for the resignation of former Stern-appointed and contested-elected president Moore. We are demanding full disclosure of any (unconfirmed) ethics investigation into her conduct as president.

We are discussing whether or not to contest the special election to replace her, which will be in four or five months, regardless of the outcome of our [Labor Department] complaint. We are discussing the feasibility of trying to get the annual local general membership meeting in April to repeal certain policies and acts of the executive board and/or enact some of our platform planks.

In addition, Kroopkin said the Local 221 reformers, "are identifying issues which the incumbent 'leadership' is failing to address, and attempting to take the lead on some of these. Building support for March 4 [the day of action to defend public education] is one example. Trying to build rank-and-file organization to prepare for 2011 County of San Diego contract negotiations is another one."

Back in Local 1021, Holmes-Morton is confident about the future of reform. "The reform forces are committed to fully engaging the membership and insuring that Local 1021 is a member-run union," she said.

Further Reading

From the archives