Many state workers did a double-take on their payroll stubs last week as the 50-percent increase to member dues and fair-share payments approved last year by SEIU Local 1000 took effect.
The increase, which raises dues from 1 percent to 1.5 percent of state worker salaries, has prompted an ongoing conflict among the union’s rank and file over what some call an unnecessary burden on member’s pocketbooks. SEIU Local 1000 has 90,000 members, both dues-paying and non dues-paying, and is state government’s largest union local.
Those who opposed the increase say a significant number of state employees took notice. “The phones were ringing off the hook, even at CSEA,” said Ken Hamidi, a member of Local 1000 and leader with Raise Organize Against Raise (ROAR), which seeks to roll back the dues.
He and other opponents of the increase told Capitol Weekly that friends working in both Local 1000 and its parent organization, the California State Employees Association, had reported receiving scores of complaints last week from workers taking the hit to their paychecks.
Jim Hard, President of Local 1000, confirmed that they had received “a number of calls.”
Local 1000 has experienced financial strife in recent years, especially following their battle against a 2005 initiative that would have required unions obtain written consent from members before using dues money for political purposes. Though the measure ultimately lost, the campaign helped put the union $6.7 million in the red.
The plan adopted by delegates last year was considered necessary in part to relieve this debt. Raising the dues cap on the highest-paid members from $45 to $75 in January, this jumped to a $90 maximum starting with Tuesday’s paychecks. Union officials argue that these measures will help create equity in the dues structure, allowing higher-earning members to carry more of the burden.
“This was the first permanent dues increase since 1990,” says Doug Crook, a spokesperson for Local 1000. “Nobody wants to increase dues. But the reality is it costs a lot to defend yourself in California.”
But critics allege that funds are being misappropriated by an unaccountable leadership. “To them, we are a huge ATM machine,” says Hamidi. “Because of that, they spend, spend, spend. There’s a lack of efficiency.”
Hamidi points out that a large portion of dues are redirected to SEIU national headquarters. According to a fact sheet on Local 1000’s website, its affiliation with the national organization comprised about 20 percent of the union’s 2006 budget.
Many say they are unwilling to pay for such a large increase when Californians will not be reaping the benefits. Alex Hernandez, who is a member of California State Employees United (or CSEUnited), another “loyal opposition” group, says a top-heavy management structure is problematic. “Obviously, there is a spending problem.”
Defenders of the increase say they’re willing to pay more if it means their interests will be protected. Bonnie Greenberg, an analyst with the Franchise Tax Board and union steward, says she likes what she’s seen from SEIU’s negotiated contract for 2007-2008.
“This is the first contract SEIU has negotiated on behalf of state workers, and this is the first series of raises we’ve received in years. I don’t think $90 a month is a lot of money considering what we could lose,” says Greenberg.
And according to Local 1000’s leadership, they stand to lose a lot. Says Crook, “There are constant attacks on state employees – contracting out their jobs, threats to cut state services, and two years ago there was an attack on their pensions.”
Crook also cites an upcoming initiative that could roll back pension benefits for new state hires. The measure was filed by a foundation led by former Assemblyman Keith Richman, and is currently awaiting title and summary at the attorney general’s office.
Though the raise in dues was approved by more than two-thirds of delegates gathered last October, there have been claims the decision was reached through less-than-democratic means. Hernandez, who was a delegate at the dues vote, says the wide margin of approval that officials boast of is not necessarily accurate. The 270-125 vote, he says, represented less than two-thirds of the 600 elected delegates.
“Some didn’t want to deal with the pressure from Local 1000 officers, others didn’t want to get pressure from the members they represented who were against [the increase]. They were kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
Even as the new dues are being implemented, Hamidi and his colleagues vow the issue is not dead. ROAR and CSEUnited are now promising to revive the issue at the upcoming CSEA General Council meeting in October. They plan to submit resolutions to scale back current fees and prevent further increases, which are slated for July 2010.
Leaders of SEIU Local 1000 say they are, and have always been, open to debate among their rank and file. Says Crook, “We’re a democratic organization that is open to heated debate about what our future should be