Why isn’t S.F. labor resisting layoffs?

December 1, 2009

Brian Cruz and Andy Libson, members of SEIU Local 1021 and United Educators of San Francisco, respectively, argue that labor's failure to resist concessions created problems between the unions--rather than the solidarity that's needed.

WITH BUDGET cuts threatening layoffs in the San Francisco Unified School District and the city's public health system, the two unions that should be leading the fightback have failed to mobilize their members for a crucial fight.

The unions--United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021--will be hit hard if San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom proceeds with plans to lay off more than 500 municipal employees.

The unions could--and should--be making common cause with the struggle in the University of California and California State University systems, where workers, faculty and students are organizing protest actions ahead of a statewide day of action to defend public education on March 4.

But the sad fact is that neither UESF nor SEIU Local 1021 has mobilized its members against cutbacks that will only worsen as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tries to solve the budget crisis on the backs of public employees and the people they serve. And there's little sign of the kind of strategy that could resist the budget cuts coming now or an expected round of further layoffs in March 2010.

SEIU Local 1021 held a protest against planned layoffs of city workers in San Francisco
SEIU Local 1021 held a protest against planned layoffs of city workers in San Francisco a week before the cuts hit

Local 1021 members and leaders did organize a protest march November 23, in which 18 people, including some members of the union leadership, were arrested for blocking traffic in downtown San Francisco. And the following day, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to appropriate nearly $2 million to postpone the layoffs until January while the city finds other ways to close the $28 million budget deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30 and estimated $522 million spending gap for the following year.

But Newsom has refused to postpone the layoffs, scheduled to take place December 1. "As mayor, I don't have to spend the money, so this is much ado about nothing," he said.

The unions affected could have done much more to save these jobs. In fact, SEIU Local 1021, itself a result of a merger of 10 SEIU locals just three years ago, represents over 50,000 public sector workers in northern California. The possibilities for fighting back are practically endless, yet Local 1021's top leadership has at times proven hostile to mobilizing its membership to fight the cuts.

THE FIGHT began this past spring when Newsom tried to extract concessions from SEIU Local 1021 in the form of layoffs and furloughs. After members voted twice to reject the proposed concessionary contracts, the mayor threatened 1,776 layoffs and sent out pink slips.

Instead of mounting a public campaign and organizing its members to fight to save all the jobs, Local 1021 agreed to a third concessionary contract, and brought in staff from around the state to make sure the outcome of the vote would be "yes" this time. The union's message was to accept the cuts now to stave off the layoffs until after November 15.

The contract didn't prevent layoffs. Some 288 city workers lost their jobs on May 22, and now 546 clerks are threatened with losing theirs. The remaining staff will be called on to do more work with a reduced staff. And these cuts are disproportionately hitting women and minorities.

Under pressure from rank-and-file activists and union reformers, a committee of union members was created to organize the budget fight. But for months, it has been denied access to basics such as lists of union chapters in San Francisco and contact information for rank-and-file union activists.

Instead of assisting this fightback, the priorities of Local 1021 leaders lay elsewhere--in passing union bylaws that will give them more power and winning the upcoming election. Within the last few weeks, members received several glossy mailings, at a cost of more than $30,000 each, about the bylaws, and with the leadership's faces all over them. Little has been sent out about the layoffs.

UESF officials have been no better at organizing to fight job cuts expected in the spring. Instead of mobilizing union members, UESF leaders have urged members to "save their pennies" over the coming months because teachers might not have a job next year. In fact, UESF has stated that its overall strategy for fighting the cuts rests with legislation. The union rightly advocates overturning the two-thirds majority in the state legislature needed to pass tax increases in California and for amending Proposition 13, the anti-property tax initiative, to raise taxes on valuable commercial property.

We agree that it's high time to tax the rich. There's one problem, though. This effort does absolutely nothing to protect workers' jobs this year. Secondly, even this minimalist strategy that tries to defend our jobs at the ballot box has already been torpedoed by UESF's parent organization, the California Teachers Association, which has already announced it will not take up these issues in a ballot measure next November.

In any case, focusing on ballot initiatives to fight layoffs is always a losing strategy. It's predicated on the idea that Democrats care about our jobs more than Republicans. In reality, the only way either of these two parties will respond to the needs of workers in the SEIU, UESF and other public sector workers' unions is if we decide to fight back. That means saving pennies for strikes and work actions, not for layoffs.

BESIDES FAILING to defend jobs, the layoffs of San Francisco city clerical workers will accelerate a chain reaction of "bumps" in which high-seniority workers whose positions are eliminated displace workers who have fewer years with the city.

This situation not only pits more senior clerical workers in Local 1021 against those with less seniority, but also has the potential to pit the SEIU against the UESF in schools where SEIU secretaries are being laid off, potentially causing massive disruptions to schools mid-term.

The issue of seniority within any union is an important one. For a union, seniority rights protect long-term workers who voice their concerns about how a workplace is run. It offers important protection to experienced workers who often are most familiar with the contract and with how things run in any workplace. The senior workers of any workplace are often best positioned to call out unfair, inefficient or even abusive practices of management.

High-seniority workers are also often the highest paid. By defending seniority rights, unions can resist the bosses' attempts to cut costs by chopping the highest-paid workers. Seniority rights, moreover, are supposed to offer all workers a sense that they can have some stability in their jobs.

Finally, if cutbacks are made by management, using seniority as the basis for layoffs is the fairest way to make the cuts. Seniority provides assurance that employers aren't able to use job cuts to remove more experienced, higher-paid employees to cut labor costs. In the final analysis, seniority rights are one of the few ways in which unions exert some control over hiring and firing in the workplace.

It's no accident that when bosses go after labor, one of the first things they complain about is "obstinate" unions that protect "undeserving" workers. This is often code for attacking seniority and contractual protections for workers.

Seniority has its limitations--most importantly, that it can exclude people of color and women, who are often last hired and first fired in many workplaces. Nevertheless, seniority is an important union principle that, as socialists and union activists, we defend.

Still, there's a problem when our unions continually invoke "seniority" to defend the most senior workers, without ever waging a fight to defend all workers from cuts or layoffs.

The impact of the cuts has already been felt at the City College of San Francisco and the San Francisco Unified School District, where workers are being bumped by their laid-off counterparts.

Clerical workers with no experience in education will be placed in schools in the middle of the school year. And any educator who has worked in a city college or public school for even a few years knows that there is no more specialized or critical position in a school than the school secretary. They are rightly seen as being as important, if not more so, than the principal or administrator who runs a school or college. These are not people who can be replaced easily, and the impact will be even more devastating to schools if done in the middle of the school year.

UESF's position is that it formally "supports the SEIU," but UESF leaders place an emphasis on solving the problem with as little disruption to the schools as possible. UESF promises to speak out at hearings and press conferences, but for the most part, it has left it up to individual school sites to deal with the impact and figure out how to protect their own clerical workers.

Moreover, there has been no direct communication from UESF to the affected school sites, and no information to the membership as a whole. Teachers who are grappling with how to take a stand to defend both the schools and the workers in them are getting no clear direction. As a result, the cuts have the potential to pit UESF members against SEIU members, as many rank-and-file UESF members advocate for saving the jobs of the less-senior SEIU clerical workers they work with, rather than accept the seniority "bumps."

Let's be clear: Five months from now, when pink slips start rolling in for UESF members, the UESF leadership will be making sure that seniority rights are respected. Seniority is an equally important principle for both our unions as we face layoffs.

The problem we face isn't the seniority system, nor our brothers and sisters in SEIU or UESF. In fact, we are the solution. We are the ones who can stop the march of politicians and bankers who are destroying the public sector and public-sector jobs. We are also the ones who can begin to organize our unions to be the tools of struggle necessary for this fight.

WHAT WOULD a fightback look like?

Both SEIU Local 1021 and UESF have the power to make Gavin Newsom shake in his boots. Not only do they represent almost 25,000 workers in San Francisco combined, but these workers--being teachers, paraprofessionals, paramedics, 911 dispatchers, social workers, hospital workers and more--are essential to the functioning of the city.

The workers in these unions also have huge communities around them (such as parents of school children or patients in the hospitals) that could be mobilized against the layoffs.

The unions could take a page from the playbook of UNITE HERE Local 2, which represents 10,000 hotel and restaurant employees in San Francisco and has organized numerous marches of thousands of people as well as civil disobediences to fight for a better contract. Recently, its membership voted to authorize a strike, and the union has carried out several three-day strikes at selected hotels.

Public-sector workers in San Francisco and beyond need to follow that example. Imagine massive protests with thousands of workers from both unions as well as their supporters demanding that the city lay off no workers and that it fund city jobs. Imagine actions in worksites that show the city we're serious. Imagine a massive public campaign supported by protest that could shame the mayor.

Imagine how Gavin Newsom or Arnold Schwarzenegger would react if the SEIU and UESF stood together and said, "Enough! No more layoffs or concessions!" And "No more work!" unless you respect the SEIU workers and UESF educators who make this city run and educate the workers of the future.

This kind of solidarity and class struggle approach is now possible with the March 4 call for strikes, walkouts, school occupations and marches across the state of California. To date, few unions have signed on to the call to action, made at a statewide mobilizing conference October 24 by the California Campaign to Save Public Education.

That needs to change now if we're going to build the kind of solidarity and fightback that can actually protect our unions, our seniority and workers and students facing budget attacks across the state.

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