Setting the record straight about SEIU 1021

October 28, 2014

Larry Bradshaw is the San Francisco Vice President of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021. He is a paramedic in San Francisco, a member of the Change 1021 reform group that won election in the local in 2010, and a longtime member of the International Socialist Organization.

Here, Bradshaw responds to a critique by Bay Area radical commentator Scott Jay of the local's support for a pension reform ballot measure called Proposition C, which was passed by voters in San Francisco three years ago. In setting the record straight, he provides a blow-by-blow account of his union's attempt to fight off these and other anti-union attacks--and offers the lessons he has learned for other radicals and socialists to consider when thinking about the opportunities and challenges when working in unions today.

BAY AREA radical critic Scott Jay recently published a pseudo-exposé in which he contends I am an unreflective, myopic opportunist, who shills for San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, promotes austerity for workers and sells leaky raincoats. I can safely say I have been called worse, although the charge of being a defective raincoat salesman is a new one for me.

In both my lines of work as a paramedic and as an officer of a fighting union, I have been known to ruffle feathers. This causes some people, usually right-wingers and/or psychotic patients, to string together adjectives, epithets and insults to describe me. Scott, however, is not a right-winger, nor psychotic. Instead, Scott is a left-wing militant who I often protest, march and demonstrate alongside. Therefore, I want to spend some time responding to Scott's allegations and his flawed analysis.

Scott's critique deals with the 2011 San Francisco ballot measure known as Proposition C. The referendum, which passed by a wide margin, restructured the pension system for city employees, requiring workers to pay more in contributions, while reducing benefits for new hires.

San Francisco court workers and members of SEIU Local 1021
San Francisco court workers and members of SEIU Local 1021 (Wendy Kenin)

There was a long and complicated history to how and why Local 1021 came to endorse Prop C. But we hear none of that from Scott. Instead, he races on to connect this one measure--and my alleged role in engineering it--to a denunciation of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), of which I am a member.

He again airs a wide variety of criticisms of the ISO, as he has done a number of times over the last several years, with increasing hostility. Taken together, they reveal a deep-seated sectarianism aimed at the ISO, which underlies his critique of me and Local 1021.

Proposition C was a real concession for public-sector workers in San Francisco, and if Scott wants to take me to task for my activities around the question, that's fair enough. However to make his case, Scott distorts the positions and politics of the reform leadership of SEIU Local 1021, not to mention the ISO. I'll show why Scott's characterization of Local 1021 is false, and why Scott needs to distort our local's views to make his case.

Scott employs a number of devices to buttress his claims. He confines his story to a very narrow window in 2011, purposefully excluding the periods before and after. By ignoring the pre-2011 period, he can ignore the context in which reformers had to make a number of decisions from limited options--and then treat those decisions as if they were our preferred way of proceeding. Magicians call that sleight-of-hand.

The messy reality is that in 2011, reformers had just won office, had yet to rebuild the local and were constrained by undemocratic structures, while facing a sustained assault by politicians, media and the employers. Scott doesn't want to talk about any of this, but it might explain why union militants made the decisions they did.

Scott also excludes the important work our local has been doing since 2011--because acknowledging that work would undermine his case. For those--like Scott, apparently--unfamiliar with our record, SEIU Local 1021 has made significant strides in transforming our union into an organization capable of winning some important fights.

After spending much of our first term in office restructuring the union to make it responsible to the rank and file, we have been able to move in the past three years away from accepting concessions--or having concessions imposed on us by the employer--to resistance, winning good contracts with wage increases for our members and better services for our clients, patients and those who use public services.

This transition has been long and arduous, but we believe we've changed the direction of the local since 2011. Since virtually everything else about our local is absent from Scott's article except the narrow basis for him to concentrate his critique, I want to discuss what we've accomplished--and how we did it. But first, let's talk about Proposition C.


I want to say again, unequivocally, that Proposition C was a concession. In 2011, our Local was limited to trying to minimize concessions. Scott appears to have only recently heard of Prop C--however, this ballot measure was the subject of intense debate within our local. The majority of the San Francisco bargaining teams of our local--including city workers, RNs and municipal transit--voted in favor of supporting Prop C, viewing this support as a strategic retreat.

Why would sophisticated, dedicated union fighters chose to make such a retreat? You will not find out why by reading Scott's article. Scott doesn't want to understand the real motivations of real activists on the ground--he would rather portray them as lacking will, opportunistic and politically suspect.

Understanding the balance of class forces and the motivations of union activists involved is not to say you have to agree with them. But at least you should make sense of them and begin to have a real conversation--not a fake debate built on straw-man arguments.

So what is the context that led union activists in 1021 to reluctantly support Proposition C?

Where We Started From

The first factor to understand is that reformers inherited a dysfunctional union that was in disarray when we won office, one year before facing the Prop C issue.

Scott notes that Local 1021 is one of the SEIU's mega-locals. For those of you who are not familiar with this animal; mega-locals are the brainchild of the SEIU International. Under the guise of "bigger is stronger," the International merged locals around the country, with some of the resulting new "locals" covering vast geographic expanses--sometimes entire states or parts of several states. Our Local is called 1021 because SEIU merged 10 locals into one--hence, ten to one, or 1021.

Merging locals allowed the International to impose a de facto trusteeship. In creating 1021, the International dissolved 10 executive boards and kicked out the elected officers of 10 unions, replacing them with a new handpicked president and a handpicked executive board. In the merged locals, the newly appointed president would then have three years to use the power of the office to build up patronage, create a machine, then run for office as an incumbent and, in most cases, win.

Our reform slate, at that time called Change 1021, first won election in 2010, and we were re-elected to a second three-year term in March 2013, when we won the majority of the executive board and most of the officer positions. Our local represents 54,000 public employees spread across Northern California. Our members are employed in schools, counties, cities, public hospitals, courts and special districts, such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART). We also represent several thousand low-wage, publicly funded, nonprofit workers.

The arrival of the mega-locals in California coincided with the onset of the Great Recession. Just when the public sector and our members came under the fiercest assault we have faced, the union was in disarray, trying to merge 10 locals with 10 different cultures, 10 different data systems and 10 different ways of doing things. To say 1021 was unprepared for the Great Recession is an understatement.

Local 1021 had another unique quirk--our union had a CEO. The official title was Chief Elected Officer, but the position was modeled on the corporate CEO--an all-powerful position that controlled the union's staff and resources.

The second factor that influenced the Proposition C debate was that even though reformers had won the election and now held certain offices, the reform forces in general lacked the ability to implement their decisions. We didn't control the union's resources.

We had run a reform candidate for the CEO spot based on a platform of immediately abolishing the position. Yet once elected, our "reform CEO" quickly reneged on the pledge to abolish the position and abandoned the reform platform. Within a few months, the CEO was locked in a bitter battle with the executive board and the officers.

The executive board regularly voted for resources for our fights against concessions, only to have the CEO refuse to release the funds. The CEO locked up all the union stationary so the rest of us couldn't even write letters. Staff were told that it wouldn't be good for their careers to be seen talking to me!

So while we won the election in 2010 overwhelmingly, we had little access to union resources to mount resistance against an aggressive employers' offensive. Scott dismisses this very real problem, calling the whole question of the CEO "a relatively obscure topic not mentioned in the San Francisco Chronicle or the New York Times." So if the mainstream press doesn't cover the fight by the rank and file to take control and run their union, the problem doesn't exist?

Apparently, Scott thinks union reformers who win union elections are issued a magic wand that we can use to create an instant fightback. Who needs staff or flyers or membership lists or other tools to start to build a real campaign?

And in fact, the employers, sensing our dysfunction and weakness, seized on the situation. All across Northern California, our local was confronted with demands for concessions. In most cases, we were limited to trying to lessen the concessions, rather than overturning them.

The Context of Prop C

Next, Scott needs to lift the Proposition C debate out of any context. He does this by not talking about the 2010 San Francisco pension fight that immediately preceded it, and by minimizing the threat to pensions in 2011.

The period of 2010 and 2011 was the height of the attack on public-sector workers and the scapegoating of public pensions as the cause of the country's economic woes. Across the country and around the world, politicians railed against public workers on precisely this issue.

In San Francisco, Jeff Adachi, the city's public defender and one-time darling of the progressive community, teamed up with former Green Party mayoral candidate Matt Gonzales to demonize and scapegoat public workers' pensions and health care benefits. With the backing of conservative money, Adachi sponsored a 2010 ballot measure called Proposition B that would have severely reduced city workers' pensions, health care and collective bargaining rights.

Scott doesn't mention Adachi's Proposition B in 2010, or that support for this ballot measure started off polling at 58 percent in favor to 32 percent against. Even more worrisome was that Adachi's pension attack was polling equally high among union households.

Local 1021, along with other unions, invested a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources (phone banking, precinct walking and mobilizing opposition) to defeat Prop B that year. But although labor prevailed, the victory cost unions $1.5 million and untold hours of members' time. In the same time period, 1021 members were fighting then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's attempt to reduce their workweek to 35 hours, and they had accepted 12 furlough days. Plus, Adachi quickly began to push a repeat pension measure for the 2011 election.

The members of 1021 were feeling embattled. This is important background information, purposefully left out by Scott.

Whichever side of the Proposition C debate they were on, 1021 members knew they were being scapegoated, that the attack on our pensions was political and not budget-driven, and that concessions were not financially necessary. No one in the local argued that the attacks were inevitable, as Scott claims we believed--or that Mayor Ed Lee had to balance the budget, and it was somehow our job to help him.

This is why I believe Scott owes the membership of 1021 an apology. Members who supported Proposition C did so reluctantly, and with bitterness. They believed that the union could not keep fighting off pension attacks indefinitely. And all it would take was one defeat at the ballot box to have our retirement system gutted.

I suspect the problem is that Scott doesn't expect an argument of this caliber and sophistication from our members. But that was the real debate. Scott could argue that our assessment was wrong, or that 1021 should have fought in some other way. Instead, he resorts to misrepresentation. Claiming that 1021 members held pro-Ed Lee and pro-austerity sentiments is a straw-man argument--he refutes the false argument, without having to deal with the real debate.

How the Prop C Debate Unfolded

In March of 2011, my co-workers and I woke up to a story in the morning newspaper reporting that the CEO of our local had been engaged for months in secret "discussions" on "pension reform"'--otherwise known as concessions.

The other San Francisco officers and I immediately put out a flier and called for a membership meeting at the union hall. At the well-attended meeting, we publicly confronted the CEO--the one who had run on our reform slate--and demanded an accounting of her actions. It turns out that our "reform" CEO had been meeting with city management, billionaire Warren Hellman and the San Francisco Labor Council's Public Employee Committee (PEC), and had agreed to an eight-point framework on pension concessions.

To rein in the CEO, we called an end to secret negotiations and instituted open weekly meetings for the membership, including retirees, in which we released any and all supposedly secret documents and minutes, and demanded reports from staff and officers on any and all meetings they attended where pension concessions were discussed.

The meeting reiterated and affirmed a preexisting policy that staff and officers, including the CEO, were bound by the decisions of the rank-and-file bargaining team and rank-and-file leadership bodies. This policy had been passed in San Francisco prior to the merger, but had always been circumvented, if not ignored, by staff and officers.

Angry members voted that I should accompany the CEO to any future meeting on pension reform. Given my history and reputation for championing rank-and-file control, the members wanted me at the table to shine a light on the secret process, prevent a backroom deal and represent SEIU members' interests.

I now faced a big dilemma. I knew that going to negotiations about concessions, even as a challenger to the CEO, would entangle me in the concessions process. In accepting the mandate the members put on me, I was now in the awkward and politically schizophrenic role of arguing against concessions, while leading SEIU in negotiations where only concessions were on the table.

The CEO argued that SEIU had to unite with other unions to negotiate with Hellman, conservative politicians and city management, and agree to "moderate" pension concessions to stave off a more draconian pension attack by Jeff Adachi.

In the midst of this debate, Adachi began gathering signatures, using paid workers, on petitions for six new ballot measures that attacked our pensions to the tune of nearly $2 billion. The Hellman/city administration/union group, working toward a measure that would eventually become Prop C, now claimed it would be the smart, "consensus" alternative to Adachi.

Where possible, I and others from our union tried to carve out principled positions. For example, we knew it would be harder to scare a large group of people representing the local into concessions. So we argued that our full city bargaining team of 50-plus members, along with bargaining teams for members in the schools, RNs, community colleges, the courts, paramedics and transit, needed to be released from work and brought to the table--roughly 100 rank-and-file members in all.

The city said it would only release five SEIU members total. This was unacceptable to the rank and file, and Local 1021 stood outside the negotiations for two months as we fought over the size of the SEIU team.

Meanwhile, the PEC and other unions continued down the concession path without us. As our members read in the paper about the deal that was shaping up without us, they panicked. The weekly membership meetings we had instituted to monitor the pension concessions voted to accept a compromise of a 25-member bargaining team brought into the negotiations. The local CEO supported this compromise--my position of holding out until all bargaining teams were released was narrowly defeated.

The concession process was well under way by the time SEIU got to the table with its larger representation. Fighting to get us to the bargaining table meant that when we finally got there, we were in the position of arguing over the size and shape of the concessions package and trying to limit the damage.

For example, Adachi's measure created a two-tier pension plan under which new workers would earn 30 percent less in retirement benefits. We fought to limit the two tiers and got it below 10 percent. But Prop C was still a two-tier plan.

We also fought to ensure that the majority of increased pension costs would be temporary, not permanent. We insisted that the concessions go both ways--in bad economic times, union members would have to pay more in pension contributions, but in an improved economy, the employer would have to pay more.

Scott's analysis is correct in this much: The city was trying to use the threat of the Adachi ballot measure to push unions for more concessions. Local 1021 pushed for labor to create our own ballot measure in opposition to both the city-backed proposal and Adachi. Adachi claimed to save $170 million a year with the concessions in his proposal, and the city-backed proposal that became Prop C promised $100 million a year in savings. By contrast, the SEIU proposal saved $30 million, primarily by limiting pension practices that primarily benefited managers and the police and fire brass.

The other city unions argued that SEIU's measure couldn't compete with Adachi or the city-supported measure, and we therefore needed to merge our proposal with the city's and meet them closer to the $100 million. This signaled that the PEC was going to dramatically up the level of concessions.

When this happened, I argued that it was time for SEIU to break with the coalition unions and walk out of the process. After intense debate, I narrowly lost the vote, with the majority of the bargaining teams agreeing to stay in the union coalition.

What We Pushed For During Prop C

Scott makes a common mistake of confusing winning office with winning leadership. Simply winning office doesn't mean that an officer, especially a reformer, automatically commands the support of the union or the backing of the membership. Leadership has to be fought for and won on a monthly, weekly and daily basis in the trenches of the real battles the membership face.

I want to be clear--I had every opportunity to argue my position, but I was ultimately unable to convince the majority. This majority had just fought off the Adachi pension measure in 2010, and now, in 2011, faced multiple new referendums demanding concessions--with the likelihood that even if we defeated all of them again, they would be proposed yet again the next year.

The majority felt that Prop C was the only way to stop the radical concessions in the Adachi measure--and that at least with Prop C, they would have some control over the content of the referendum, and the damage wouldn't be as bad.

I may have disagreed with this position, but it was part of a real debate for members of Local 1021. And it has nothing at all to do with the false motivations that Scott ascribes to 1021--that the local wanted to support Ed Lee and his efforts to balance the budget.

In dismissing the actual debate among Local 1021 members, Scott writes sarcastically about the "terrifying specter" of the Adachi referendum. He suggests that there was never anything to worry about since "in the end, Proposition C passed and Adachi's proposition failed miserably."

Of course it did--when the vote took place, Adachi's Prop D was competing against Prop C, the consensus concessions measure backed by city officials and most of labor. That was exactly the reason why a majority of Local 1021 members and leaders felt compelled to support Prop C--to isolate and defeat Adachi's measure.

Even while the local was accepting this concession in the form of Prop C, our members continued looking for some way to fight back--to position ourselves to pivot away from giving up concessions and toward fighting.

Once it became clear that the SEIU teams would accept the "consensus concessions" in Prop C, I and others argued that we had to get the SEIU teams in the negotiations to agree to put our local's two biggest and longest-standing issues on the table: the loss of a 40-hour workweek for some workers and the issue of "de-skilling."

Two years before, in 2009, the city had "de-skilled" nearly 1,000 members--meaning they laid off our lowest-paid members and rehired them the same day in a new job classification at 20 percent less pay. The de-skilled members were almost all women, and mostly people of color. The previous union administration had allowed both de-skilling and the loss of the 40-hour workweek to take place. Those two issues were sore points among our membership, and the reform slate had vowed to fix both.

So SEIU bargaining teams refused to sign off on Prop C unless both issues were fixed. When the city announced it would contract out security services at the Department of Public Health, we also tied our local's fight against contracting out to Prop C. This is what was behind the quote Scott picks out, in which I told a reporter, "We are stuck on one issue." Again, the media didn't report the full story about the fight to restore hours, stop contracting out and undo the deskilling travesty.

As a result of this demand, Local 1021 was again left out of the process of coming up with Prop C for another two months--effectively, the other unions finished negotiations without the SEIU.

We refused to attend the grand public press conference and photo ops touting the consensus deal. In the photo of the Ed Lee press conference that Scott includes with his article, there were no Local 1021 leaders in attendance. We sent one staff person to take notes, but all 1021 member leaders refused to participate, out of principle.

The mayor finally relented and agreed to fix de-skilling and restore the 40-hour workweek, and the city's Board of Supervisors voted down contracting out. We won on three of the most important issues around which Local 1021 had been fighting--but it was at the cost of our union supporting the lesser of two evil concession packages in the pension referendums.

What Were the Other Options?

Scott's position is that Local 1021 should not have agreed to Prop C, even as a strategic retreat, and that I could and should have mounted a fight against the measure. He alleges that I should have supported the forces in Local 1021 that remained against Prop C, even after the bargaining teams had agreed to support it.

These forces did exist, but they remained small and isolated. They were unable to gain traction due to their political confusion. Many of the anti-concessions leaders were openly and publicly sympathetic to Adachi--because Adachi still talked left and had structured his ballot measure to hit higher-paid city workers the hardest. His measure had multiple gradations of concessions based on income level. This was appealing to some members, but Adachi was simply using a divide-and-conquer strategy, and I think the majority of our members were right in recognizing his proposal as the worse of two bad options.

In general, the pro-Adachi message didn't resonate very much among our membership, where the former mayoral candidate is widely despised. The only anti-concessions group that remained consistent throughout was the retirees, who opposed both measures--because, obviously, they stood to suffer immediately under both measures.

Without any evidence to back it up, Scott implies that SEIU was a big financial backer of Prop C. This is simply not true. The bulk of Local 1021's time, money and resources were devoted to defeating the Adachi ballot measure, which would hit a significant number of our members much worse than Prop C. Our membership voted for a proposal to spend $170,000 to oppose Prop D and $30,000 to support Prop C.

One of the reasons we were able to pivot quickly from accepting concessions in Prop C to striking against them, as I describe below, is that even when we were forced to make a retreat and support Prop C, we never legitimized concessions. We never drank the Kool-Aid of "shared sacrifice" or "we're all in this together."

We always said clearly to our members that the only reason we would take concessions now on Prop C is because we weren't strong enough to beat the employer. We went further and said we needed to rebuild the union now--because it will be unacceptable to come back the next time and repeat that we're too weak to resist concessions.

In hindsight, I suppose I could have refused to accept the decision of the Local 1021 membership when it voted to send me to the concession talks. I decided not to do that for several reasons.

First, it would have appeared hypocritical to my co-workers, as I had a long history of supporting members' control over officers, and I was now a vice president of 1021. My refusal to get involved in negotiations would also have signaled to the CEO and staff of Local 1021 that they could also continue to refuse to abide by the decisions of the rank and file. Plus, the bargaining would have been left in the hands of the CEO.

We had been recently elected on a reform slate that promised to take on concessions. I could have walked away from the Prop C mess, but we were in the concluding stages of our internal fight to democratize our union structures, and we thought and hoped we'd soon be in a position to carry out our campaign promises. We ran on a platform of fighting, not abstaining.

In hindsight, I also think that by going through this setback with the bargaining teams and the many member leaders, we built the trust and relationships that allowed us to prepare for future fights in the years that followed. It was a gamble, but a gamble that I believe paid off.

On the other hand, let's examine the logic of Scott's argument: Simply put, union reformers or socialists involved in unions can never retreat, be defeated or suffer a setback. Scott seems to say that if things go south in our unions, socialists should abandon the struggle so they can remain pure and not be party to strategic retreats.

Unfortunately, the real class struggle isn't a series of one victory after another. Of course, we always fight to win, but the reality of capitalism is that we do lose battles. When that happens, we need to retreat in a way that gives up the least, regroups our forces and prepares to come back stronger for the next battle. Scott's critique leaves no room for any of this, but I believe that's what did take place during the debate over Prop C.


So what happened to Local 1021 after Prop C? After all, it was three years ago now.

Scott lives in Northern California, so it isn't true that he is unaware of what Local 1021 has been doing. He doesn't want to talk about our successes because to do so would undermine his arguments. Scott needs to stick to a small window of time around 2011. But the aftermath of Prop C and our activity since then are worth talking about at some length, if only to reassure readers that we survived the concessions made with Prop C.

As I described above, the reformers who won the 2010 election, unfortunately but necessarily, spent the bulk of our first term in internal fights trying to democratize our union structures. In addition to bitter internal conflicts, we also--because the reform forces didn't control the staff or union resources--had to fight off attempts to undermine our efforts.

We reformed our bylaws and removed the power of our union's CEO--later abolishing the position completely. We stripped the staff of membership in the union, thereby preventing them from running for office or directly intervening in internal union politics. This was no small feat in a staff-run union like SEIU.

The end result of our reform efforts is a union structure that is somewhat unique in the American labor movement. We have created a "flat" governance structure where most power and authority resides in a large 50-person executive board. Individual officers have their power delegated to them by the board, and the board has the ability to override, restrain and rein in all officers. We are also working to decentralize power and authority outward to our regions and industries.

While democratic structural changes in unions are good in and of themselves, they are more important as a means to an end: building rank-and-file power so we can take on the employers and win. Having won the internal fight, we set a number of priorities for our second term. These include:

1. Resisting concessions. We adopted a more militant footing in bargaining and reintroduced the use of strikes as the most potent weapon in labor's arsenal.

2. Building trade union and working-class consciousness. We define our fights as a struggle between two classes over the distribution of wealth and power. We advocate a vision of social movement unionism (SMU) where our local speaks for the larger working class and for our communities, and acts as an advocate for public services.

3. Prioritizing building union power at the worksite.

Let me highlight some of our work in these three areas.

Turning the Tide: Striking Against Concessions

Over the past year and a half, our local has waged a series of successful strikes against concessions, starting at the San Francisco Superior Courts and spreading to the Port of Oakland, city of Hayward, city of Oakland, Mendocino County and two strikes at BART. San Francisco Court workers led the way, staging a highly successful surprise strike that shut down all three of the County's courts. In doing so, they reversed a 5 percent permanent pay cut and won salary increases and bonuses.

As the saying goes, nothing succeeds like success. The court workers' strike inspired and emboldened other members around the local.

In some jurisdictions, all it took was a strike vote and earnest preparations for a strike to make concessions disappear. In 2012, San Francisco registered nurses (RNs) held their first strike authorization vote in nearly two decades, prompting management to withdraw all takeaways on nurse-patient staffing ratios. Alameda County court workers voted to strike, and once they set the date, all concessions were withdrawn--and some previous cuts that weren't even the subject of the strike vote were rescinded.

It quickly became apparent that most of our members and most of our staff had never been on strike before. Consequently, they had no experience at organizing or running a successful strike. One way we dealt with this deficiency was by filling some of our high-level staff positions with people from unions that did have strike experience. The other way was to develop a "strike school" that we have taken on the road around Northern California. The strike schools have proven to be enormously popular--to date, over 1,000 of our members have attended.

The strike school curriculum is divided into three modules. The first explains why the strike is the strongest weapon that any organized group of workers bring to the table, and that this strength is an expression of our economic power. We use our Port of Oakland strike as a case study.

Module two uses the 1937 Flint sit-down strike to talk about strategic planning. We use historical film footage to show how the early autoworkers' union had to strategically target smaller plants, divisions and companies in order to build sufficient power to bring down General Motors (at the time, the largest corporation in the world). In this module's exercise, we stress the importance of always assuming there will be a strike, picking the strike date early and then working backwards to develop a plan of escalating tactics.

The third module uses the Chicago Teachers' Union strike of 2012 to foster a discussion about social movement unionism and connecting the needs of society to our contract demands. We stress that we have the power to strike for our communities, and we have the moral imperative to do so. The final ingredient is the will to strike.

The schools have proved popular with other public-sector unions. In Contra Costa County, for example, three other unions co-sponsored the strike school, bringing along 150 of their members. With other locals asking to use our curriculum, we have been prompted to open-source the modules for the broader labor movement (if your union is interested in obtaining a copy, contact me at [email protected]). All we ask in return is that other locals send us their additions and modifications so we can, in turn, learn from their experiences.

Class Politics to the Forefront

We emphasize and build on the basic class instincts of our co-workers by placing class politics at the forefront of everything we do.

If we can imbue our member leaders with a rudimentary class perspective--that they are part of a larger class of workers and they have interests which are opposed to and in conflict with another class (employers, Wall Street, political elites and corporate owners)--then our co-workers are more likely to make the right decisions in the future, whether it be in union elections, contract fights or strikes. The most important and lasting contribution we can make is political and economic education.

On a practical level, this means our local must be--and has been--involved in a variety of struggles: to hold the banks accountable; to stop foreclosures end predatory lending practices; to tax the rich to pay for public services; to promote single-payer health care; to challenge income inequality; to oppose immigration "reform" that contains guest worker programs; to support fast-food strikes; to organize adjunct professors; to work with coalitions to draft minimum wage ballot measures and then collect thousands of signatures in Oakland, San Francisco (which this November will surpass Seattle for the best minimum wage law in the country), Richmond and Berkeley; to win wage increases for thousands of nonprofit workers (most of whom don't belong to our union); to take on Kaiser, Blue Shield and Sutter Health to lower health care premiums; to turn "workfare" programs into real job training that end in entry level 1021 jobs; to work with the Justice for Alan Blueford Coalition; to go to the mat over pay equity; to open our offices to the Oscar Grant movement; to educate our members on climate justice; to fight Twitter tax breaks and Google buses; to try to limit union officers' salaries and reform SEIU International policies; and so much more.

It is ironic that Scott criticizes Local 1021 and myself for not being a "tribune" of the people. This either shows how little Scott knows about us--or more likely, that Scott does not want to talk about the great work our Local has done because it doesn't fit with the picture he wants to draw of us.

Generalizing and expanding from our political fights and contract struggles, more of our leaders are embracing a variant of Social Movement Unionism (SMU).

SMU is an ambiguous term; it is vague, overly broad and can mean different things to different people. However, it has emerged as a left alternative to the "organizing model" of business unionism, and it is appealing to many labor activists for good reasons.

For the context of Local 1021, I mean SMU to be an approach to trade unionism that emphasizes the community and the wider working class, and engages community and class allies in developing our demands and in fighting to win those demands. It also means that, unlike traditional business unionism, we understand that our members' lives don't end at 5 p.m. when they get off work. Many members go home to unsafe neighborhoods with high levels of violence, or their kids attend crappy underfunded public schools, or those kids are in danger of dying from police violence. We have to redefine these problems as labor issues that unions must address.

SMU looks different in different parts of our local. To take one example, at the Port of Oakland, SMU meant relying on the community and other unions to help us shut down the facility. Barely 40 of our 240 Port workers actually worked on the docks (most work at the airport, at the other end of town). Yet with community picketing, developed during two previous shutdowns of the Port by the Occupy movement, we managed to close the fifth largest port in the country!

The Port is a vast expanse of land, and during the strike, reporters kept showing up and saying, "But where are the SEIU members?" The reporters were missing the point--we could not have shut down the port by ourselves, with just 40 members. Hundreds of community supporters showed up in the pouring rain to picket with us, and hundreds of Teamsters and longshore workers honored our lines. This was SMU in action.

Building Power at the Worksite

SMU does not mean we abandon the workplace for community organizing. We understand that the power of our union ultimately rests on the power we have at the workplace. It is this social and economic power that unions bring to community struggles and the fights of non-unionized workers that help give those struggles the power to advance and win.

Some on the left and some in the labor movement look to SMU as a kind of shortcut to rebuilding union power. They hope to use community organizations and struggles as a substitute for the difficult work of rebuilding union power at the worksites.

While we understand that community and social movements can give us the additional power and leverage we need to win, as at the Port of Oakland, we also understand that union power ultimately rests on the power, self-organization and confidence of the rank and file in the workplace. That is why our local's "two-year plan," while incorporating elements of SMU, begins with and emphasizes building strength at our worksites.

Now, it is true that lots of our members want power and they would like to be "serviced" by the union, as they were in the days of business unionism. Our task is to show that you cannot be serviced into having power--that we need to take the experience and lessons learned in our contract fights and through striking, and apply them on the job.

This is an important point: Not all of our members and leaders immediately or fully embrace SMU, and others aren't ready to abandon business unionism. Some members get nervous about bringing allies (non-members) into bargaining sessions. Others are stuck in the old business unionism model of "labor-community alliances," where every two or three years, the community needs to come out and support us in our contract fight, and then we ignore the community and their struggles until the next contract.

It goes even deeper--some of our leaders and members actively and consciously embrace the old ideas of business unionism. It gives lie to the simplistic view of some Trotskyist sects that union misleaders are holding back the mass of workers, who are longing to fight the boss.

In summary, our work in reforming a large public-sector union and rebuilding union power by using strikes, class politics and SMU has been exciting.

I don't want to overstate our successes, most of which are quite modest. For example, while we have reversed many concessions from 2007-11, the modest pay raises our members have won in most of our contracts do not do enough to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of living in the Bay Area. And it is worth pointing out that the huge tech and real estate boom underway here means local governments have increased tax revenues, and this has led them to loosen the purse strings to a degree (not nearly enough!) compared to the depths of the recession.

Of course, we have made many mistakes--and will continue to do so, as is often the case with reformers searching for new ways in unfamiliar territory.


SCOTT DEVOTES a large part of his polemic to criticizing the International Socialist Organization, which I have belonged to for many years. I have spent most of this article challenging his depictions of Local 1021 and myself. But I do want to take up some of his criticisms that bear directly on the ISO, particularly in relation to how socialists work in unions.

Let's start with the issue of the Democratic Party.

Socialists and the Democrats

At one point in his screed, Scott states, "The Republican Party leads the attacks on workers, the poor, people of color and women." I disagree. In California, at any rate, the Democratic Party is the party of austerity. In Northern California, most of the public-sector bosses are Democrats. The same is true at the state level. While many union members harbor illusions in the Democratic Party generally, they often hate the Democratic mayor, City Council member or management representative they have contact with.

At another point, Scott criticizes the outlandish claims of some on the left that the ISO supports the Democratic Party. But he then goes on for several pages to do the same thing--claiming that both Local 1021 as a union, and myself as a union leader and member of the ISO, have carried water for and are sympathetic toward Mayor Ed Lee.

The charges against me and the ISO are particularly absurd given what you can read any day in Socialist Worker about Lee and every other Democrat. As for Local 1021, while our members may have illusions in the Democrats more generally, there is no love or respect for Ed Lee. While I can't claim to know the thinking of all 17,000 members in San Francisco, I do know that I have yet to hear a single member speak in support of this mayor.

Lee came to our union hall exactly once, when he was first appointed to office in 2011 to replace Gavin Newsom. He was grilled relentlessly by our members on his stance toward de-skilling, part-time work, layoffs and concessions. He never came back. The leaders of Local 1021 have had one meeting with the mayor at City Hall--other than the large cattle-call meetings where he addresses all unions in one large meeting--and that meeting was about the deskilling issue.

Apparently no one told the mayor that Local 1021 and I are on his side. As soon as the city agreed to fix de-skilling, the part-time workweek and contracting out, and Local 1021 finally endorsed Prop C, Lee abruptly cancelled my union leave and sent me back to work on the ambulance full time. I was the only officer of any union who was denied union release. About six months later, I was permitted to return to work for the union--but after getting in a fight with Lee over pay equity, I was again sent back to full-time work, and I still haven't been granted union leave again.

Not much of a reward for all my supposed support for Ed Lee.

Of course, this isn't to say that the majority of SEIU Local 1021 members have decided to leave Democratic Party politicians behind. The local still regularly endorses many of them. For example, while our members were fighting then-interim Mayor Lee and refused to support his election campaign, Local 1021 did vote to endorse Lee's challenger, John Avalos, a liberal Democratic member of the Board of Supervisors.

I believe our union would have been better served by running our own members for office or supporting independent candidates representing labor or grassroots organizations, but I remain in a small minority in the local on this question.

Why Socialism?

Scott points out repeatedly that I am a socialist. This is true. I have been a socialist for most of my life.

This is one reason why the charge that I support Democrats seems so laughable to me. When I grew up, the Democratic Party was the party of war--in Southeast Asia--and racial segregation in the Jim Crow South. Today, the Democrats are still the party of war, of racism and police violence in every party of the U.S., and now of austerity for workers. I could not bring myself to support or vote for the Democrats in the 1970s, and I can't do so today.

I was fortunate to grow up in the 1970s when the left talked about liberation. We were for women's liberation, gay liberation, Black liberation, national liberation and human liberation. Today, after several decades of right-wing assaults, the left has lower sights. We fight for women's rights, gay rights and human rights. Rights are crucially important, and I will always assert mine, but what I really strive for is human liberation.

Our current economic and political system stunts human freedom and human potential, and distorts our very humanity. Because of the way capitalism is organized--production for profit, relentless competition and extreme inequality--it is impossible to imagine how working people could achieve genuine liberation under capitalism. Socialism--a system based on production for human need, not profit, where cooperation replaces competition and where we establish an equal distribution of wealth--creates the potential for real liberation.

Being a lone socialist is like being a sole union member--it's a start, but it isn't going to get you very far unless you unite with others. That's why I join with other socialists in the International Socialist Organization (ISO).

Scott attributes my many ethical and political shortcomings to the politics of the ISO, and in particular, to our approach to work in the labor movement. The faults of the ISO, according to Scott, are many: he says we are eternal optimists, we don't understand how the united front works, we think we are "swimming with the stream of mass consciousness" and that the one-sided class war--where the 1 Percent beats up on the 99 Percent without the 99 Percent fighting back--is drawing to a close.

The ISO's approach to working in unions and rebuilding the labor movement is not as complicated as Scott makes it out to be. We operate on a very simple calculus--does the policy or action in question increase the self-activity, confidence and consciousness of workers?

I was fortunate when I first came around the left to run into the International Socialists, who stood out to me among other left organizations because they immersed themselves in real and practical work--and because they based their idea of socialism on a key idea of Karl Marx: "The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself."

This is central to our approach to working in unions. Workers need to do it themselves, and in the process of trying to change their world, they grow, develop and change themselves. Basic, simple and clear: Does it--whatever the "it" is--increase the self-activity, confidence and consciousness of workers?

The answer isn't always simple and straightforward. Real fights and real campaigns, whether in unions or social movements, are messy. Earlier in this article, I touted some of the recent successes of Local 1021. These "victories" were not without their problems, however. This is what real-life struggles are about.

Which Direction Are We Heading?

Scott is part of what I like to call the "preachy left": They like to stand on the riverbank and exhort all the swimmers. Scott may be correct in some of the points he makes, but his lecturing is sterile. He doesn't apply his idea to real-life situations.

During the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s, the left was driven out of the labor movement, both physically and politically, and it has been unable to re-establish a strong and consistent presence in the years since. The longer the left stood in isolation outside the class struggle, the more preachy it became and the more obsessed with the ideological purity of its pronouncements from on high. With time, the focus for some sections of the left narrowed to criticizing others on the left who might be deviating from orthodoxy.

The popular term for this is "sectarianism." You can see this tradition in how Scott writes--not only in this article, but in the several other treatises Scott has penned to detail the missteps and misdeeds of the ISO.

One of Scott's points against the ISO and me, made continually in his article, is that we are unreflective about our practice. It's hard to believe that Scott is talking about the same organization I'm a part of.

I know for certain that I have reflected quite a bit on the lessons of my experiences at forums and panel discussions--both those sponsored by the ISO and others, such as Labor Notes. I talk proudly about the reform project at Local 1021 and the type of union we are building. I'm candid about our successes, our challenges, our weaknesses and our defeats. It's certainly ironic to be accused of being an eternal optimist given that the last ISO panel discussion I was a part of was titled: "Will the unions ever fight?"

Despite being such a careful reader of the ISO's media, Scott seems to have missed a number of debates directly related to the question of labor and socialists--including some I was involved in, like my disagreement in Socialist Worker with my comrade Todd Chretien over the millionaire's tax referendum in 2012 or the various ISO members' criticism of the "Lift Up Oakland" minimum wage ballot measure and Local 1021's role in pushing these referendums.

One of the primary reasons that the ISO asks me to speak at its meetings and conferences is precisely because my experience embodies the dangers and difficulties of running for union office as a reformer, winning the election and then finding out the local is weak, disoriented and in great disrepair. When that happens, reformers and socialists get faced with challenges like Prop C and demands for concessions.

My experience shows that there is no easy path in the current climate. Union elections can be won, but leadership within the union must be fought for.

Some union activists--especially the younger, impatient ones--think that winning office is a shortcut to rebuilding unions and the labor movement. This is wrong, in my opinion. It can be one tool to work toward these ends, but it can also be a diversion--or worse, a path towards accommodation and away from left politics. The pull toward accommodation is very strong and can be conservatizing, especially if reformers come to office without a wave of militancy having lifted them there.

Scott repeatedly says the ISO touts me as an "important union leader." That and $4 will get you a cup of coffee in San Francisco. I think I can speak for many of the officers of Local 1021 in saying that we harbor no illusions about being great labor leaders.

A more apt description of us would be a rag-tag band of rank-and-file members, including a few socialists, a few anarchists and lots of democrats (with a small d), who had big ideas and thought we could build a different kind of local, even in the SEIU. We took some big concessionary hits as we came into office, but our trajectory is clearly in the opposite direction.

I think trajectory is an important question in politics: Is a movement, or in this case, a union with a reform leadership, moving toward accommodation and concessions and remaining mired in the failed policies and politics of business unionism? Or is the momentum going in the other direction? Is the movement or union heading toward a more militant stance in fighting for the workers' interests, rejecting concessions and embracing social movement unionism?

I believe the trajectory of Local 1021 is clearly the latter direction--which is why Scott has to construct a narrow window around the Proposition C debate from three years ago.

From his perch on the riverbank, Scott makes his critiques of the ISO for wrongly believing that we are "swimming with the stream of mass consciousness." The truth is that we know all too well that the currents rarely flow in one direction. The class struggle is more like trying to swim at San Francisco's Ocean Beach, which I do not recommend--lots of crosscurrents, riptides and eddies.

One thing I do know is that if you don't get in the water, you won't be able to gauge the direction of the current or the temperature of the water. The debate about Prop C in San Francisco presented a lot of challenges for Local 1021 in general, and me as a socialist in particular. But I know one thing for sure: we weren't afraid to go in the water and get wet. I encourage Scott to take off his rainproof jacket and jump in the water with us.

Further Reading

From the archives