News

State employee union split over dues-hike fight

The 87,000-member Service Employees International Union Local 1000,
California’s largest single local representing state employees, is caught in
an internal dispute over a plan to double, or even triple, dues over time.

The group’s leadership says the money is needed, in part, to stave off a
$6.7 million deficit and build on past successes. But some in the
rank-and-file contend the proposal represents cavalier governance by an
entrenched elite.

The fight, which critics say could weaken the union, has splintered the huge
local into two factions, with a majority of the union’s directors apparently
supporting the increase. In unusual discord that just now is emerging
publicly, both sides are grappling for leverage.

“The firestorm over dues has created so much hostility against the union,
we’re not only back to square one, we’re at minus-seven,” said Dave
Burkholder of Sacramento, an SEIU steward.

One faction, headed by the leadership, is the Caucus for a Democratic Union,
or CDU, which supports the increase. The other is California State Employees
United, or CSEUnited, which opposes the hike. Both sides are waging
campaigns to woo the hearts and minds of the membership, both characterize
themselves as reformers, both have Web sites and both are girding for an
October 21 showdown. That’s when the issue will be settled by a
simple-majority vote of some 600 delegates from district labor councils
across California.

“We feel this is necessary,” said Jim Hard, president of SEIU Local 1000.
“It’s not good timing, it’s never good timing to raise dues, but the
challenges coming at us are huge, and very, very important.”

“The fact is, it is urgent to invest in this organization now to defend
state service, employees, wages, pensions and health benefits,” he added.
“If we don’t do this, those who are organizing the opposition–and it is
being organized–the result would be a shell of a union that could never win
for state employees.”

A letter to members said that rejecting the increase could mean the local
might “go back when the union had very little strength, and members went
years without a wage increase.”

Some within the union see the dispute in terms of power, not just money.
They note that requests from union board members to examine the books were
summarily rejected, and that the simple-majority vote–such a dues changes
would have required a two-thirds majority earlier–was pushed through by the
leadership in a parliamentary maneuver. They contend that the leadership has
been wooing votes by offering perks–such as leave and travel–and that even
the location of the October 21 meeting has not yet been disclosed publicly.
As of Wednesday evening, the site of the meeting was not listed on the Local
1000 official Web site, although other events, earlier and later, were
posted.

Hard said that quarterly financial reports are “hand-delivered to directors,
and if anyone wants to see the books, they can come into the office any
time.” Union spokesman Danny Beagle said notices of the meeting–which will
be held in Sacramento at the Radisson–were sent out last week.

But critics said the documentation isn’t readily available, and that it is
difficult for rank-and-file members to get access to the leadership.

“Before you raise the dues, you have to make the leadership more
accountable,” said Barbara Powers, a chief steward and SEIU official
familiar with the inner workings of the union. Powers, a former supporter of
CDU, has become sharply critical.

“We have had numerous occasions when members of our own board of directors
have asked to see the books, and they were refused. [The leaders] are more
interested in gaining new members than in protecting our [existing]
members,” she added. “Keeping the location of the meeting secret until the
last minute could make it harder for some delegates to attend, and even
picking the October 21 date is significant, because some delegates have to
be at a CSEA (California State Employees Association) meeting on that date.”
Key delegates, she added, “are being wined and dined by the leadership. This
is an ongoing thing.”

Outside critics of SEIU believe the dispute, in the end, will sap the union
of strength–although they acknowledge that it is hard to quantify such a
loss for the powerful, politically active union.

“Anytime that they have a division like this, it weakens them,” said Sen.
Dick Ackerman, R-Irvine, an SEIU critic, the Senate’s GOP leader and the
vice chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, which frequently deals with
union-related issues. “It would have an impact on their political
activities.”

Privately, some union members agree, but they declined to be quoted by name
because they feared retribution from the leadership. So do two top officials
in other major unions–but both declined to talk about SEIU’s issues. “[The
dues increase] is certainly of concern to me, but SEIU is not my union, and
those aren’t my members,” said one ranking official of a union that has
public employees. “Union people just don’t want to talk about another
union’s problems,” added the other.

At issue is the proposal offered by SEIU leadership to raise the limits on
dues, thus allowing phased-in increases beginning in April 2007. The formula
is complex with a sliding scale of caps but, in effect, the current maximum
of $45 per month could climb to about $90 per month, then rise to $135 per
month within three years. By one estimate, the union’s projected budget for
2007 calls for nearly $38 million in spending against $31 million in
disposable income–a $7 million gap that the potential dues increase is
expected to resolve.

The funds are intended, among other things, to cover a nagging deficit,
aggravated by the political battle last year over Proposition 75, in which
the Schwarzenegger administration sought to limit the dues-gathering ability
of public-employee unions. CSEUnited says the increase also will be used to
send money to the union’s parent body in Washington–an allegation that Hard
rejects.

Under affiliation agreements, money sent by SEIU Local 1000 to the
Washington headquarters is partly rebated, but those rebates are scheduled
to dwindle. Critics of the increase say it is needed to fill the gap.

Fights over dues, not unusual in unions, is typically an internal issue of
limited interest to outsiders.

But Local 1000 is a major political player and the cornerstone of SEIU in
California. Its nine bargaining units include doctors, janitors, nurses,
correctional workers, researchers and technology workers, among others.

Issues affecting its stability can have a rippling impact across the
political landscape. During the last election, the union levied a special
assessment–called an “augmentation”–on its members to defeat, by a
half-million votes, Proposition 75, which would have barred public-employee
labor unions from using dues or fees for political contributions without the
worker’s written prior consent, renewed annually. That assessment, about
one-third of a percent added to the usual 1 percent-per-month dues, expires
in December.

For Burkholder, SEIU Local 1000 gets scant benefit for the millions of
dollars it sends to the national headquarters. Rather than raise dues, cuts
should be made, he argues.

“We sent them a total of $14 million, and we get back $5 million. We send it
to them gratis, but when they give us a rebate, it has strings,” he said.
“We pay for the representation, we pay for bargaining costs, we pay for the
state council, the publications, staff salaries, staff retirement, lobbying
state government, grievance arbitration, the district labor councils. But
what do they do?”

For Hard, the union has to have the resources to withstand a ne
w assault
from Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Like his movie, he said ‘I’ll be back’ when he withdrew that attack. And I
think he will.”


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