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Shock And Awe To Pass A Contract At SEIU 1021
Date 09/06/13/03:02

by Nancy Snyder, Recording secretary emeritus SEIU 790 and rank and file member Of SEIU 1021

AT LONG LAST the tense saga between the City and County of San Francisco and SEIU Local 1021 came to a conclusion on June 4th, 2009 when, as expected and predicted in the press, the Mayor’s office and the Local 1021’s offices, the contract was ratified by the SEIU membership to giveback $15 million to the City’s general fund (and $9 million to the City’s budget set-aside entities such as the Public Library and the Mayor’s Office of Children, Youth and their Families). For Mayor Newsom, it was a needed victory as he proves to California’s populace that he can handle the “tough” budget crises that have defined California during this last decade; for SEIU, it was an absolute victory, albeit a very hollow, Pyrrhic victory since the last two weeks have been marked by SEIU International President Andy Stern’s playbook of winning at all costs without consideration of the aftershocks that remain for Local 1021 or the deadly ramifications on the entire labor movement.

When SEIU members voted in early May to reject the proposed Tentative Agreement #2 by a margin of 661 votes, the election results sent the Mayor and the SEIU Administration into a tailspin of panic and wonder. SEIU would have liked to blame their bitterest rival, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) who are presently at war with Andy Stern and SEIU) and the Mayor’s office would have liked to blame SEIU for “educating” their membership adequately enough, but the story of the rejection of tentative agreement #2 had a more resonant core: the proposed contract was rejected because the concerns of Local 1021 went unheard and unasked for during the brutal negotiation process of the past three moths. Had the rank and file membership been included from the beginning, the results would have been more reflective of what the City’s SEIU workforce wanted to contribute to close the ever widening budget chasm, the SEIU International would not have waged a campaign for the contract to pass and members would not be shocked into accepting a concessionary contract they wanted no part of.

As January 2009 began with the numbers rolling out from the SF Controller’s office, was not the expected doom and gloom – but a fully developed apocalypse for the San Francisco City workers and its citizenry. It was obvious that givebacks from the labor unions would be asked for to close the San Francisco budget shortfall, but these spring negotiations began on an even more ominous note: instead of the unity required for bargaining teams to attain what the membership needs, the bargaining team lost time debating turf wars from their various jurisdictions. The Department of Public Health, realizing they may be first on the chopping block, was determined to attain protection for their members – and very rightfully so: various DPH classifications have been “deskilled”, changing an employee’s job classifications and duties to render them less pay. The Public Library members had to defend their budget set-aside that other City departments were lusting after. The Human Services Agency felt their department may be coming in second, or third, or last behind the needs of the Public Health Department. As for the other myriad City Departments, they were just hoping to be included in the discussions.

Also at issue was a contracted raise of 3.75% that the San Francisco SEIU membership had been patiently waiting for since the last contract was negotiated three years ago. Negotiators and members knew that this would be the most logical place for the City to start and it was the most significant issue among the team. (Please realize that City workers were very much aware of the avalanche of layoffs throughout the City and the country from the economic meltdown resulting from the avarice and greed of Wall Street; from a deliberate misrepresentation is the mainstream press, City workers are perceived as less deserving than any employees anywhere.) The first tentative agreement, that was not brought to the membership for a ratification vote, included five furlough days the first fiscal year 2009-2010 and four furlough days for 2010-2011; the raise would be delayed for one year with that 3.75% going to pay for the employees’ retirement contribution – something the City had been contributing towards since 1993 but a small benefit that would be the best one to return to the City, since when the SF City employee fills out those coveted retirement papers, the employees’ base wage is higher and thus the employee will receive a higher retirement.

It was at this critical juncture that not only was the input of the rank and file needed most, but also staff negotiators who were familiar with every policy and negotiation history between the City and County of San Francisco and SEIU. Both of these key elements were missing – SEIU is over extended on every level imaginable: financially, the SEIU treasury is depleted by its internecine battle with other unions, and, given that Stern’s policies ignores the need to fully support contract bargaining, the team made basic fatal mistakes that could have been avoided. Afraid that the Tentative Agreement #1 would not pass, a few members of the team, along with the lead staff negotiator, made the decision to craft a new agreement – much to the City’s ire (who believed they had a deal in place) and with other members of the negotiating team and the membership at large. The team acted on a misplaced concept that the membership could not understand how this contract would be to their benefit; the urgency of time and getting to an agreement, any type of agreement to ensure that SEIU would be viewed in a favorable light to the public at large and help to dispel the myth that City workers were lazy and did not want to help solve the budget problem, led to a second agreement that included giving up the pay for federal holidays – SEIU would be working alongside City workers who would receive federal holiday pay for Fourth of July, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans’ Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Presidents Day. Not a sound precedent to set; when bargaining happens, the results from SEIU and other unions are scrutinized in these days of diminishing public and private resources. As I discussed what SEIU offered for the second Tentative Agreement, other City union members from the trades and from IFPTE Local 21, the local representing the professional City workers, responded by stating they would never accept such a deal since its potential for undermining benefits for other City unions and for unions bargaining throughout the country could prove devastating. If we give away federal protected holiday pay, what could possibly be the next step in the giveback wars. (As it turned out, the other City unions received the five furlough days the first year, four furlough days the next).

The SEIU administration and Bargaining Team had underestimated their own membership – they did not believe that so many members would vote and quite shocked that the members did not listen to what was best for them. Bargaining without asking the members what was best for them – what they wanted to give back to the City’s coffers – was the death blow in rejecting TA#2.

What also came into play was the extreme dissatisfaction with the Local itself for the past several years; members had felt misrepresented, if they were represented at all, and the SF 1021 membership was still reeling from the merger itself that just recently experienced its second year of more reorganization, more staff sent to San Francisco that had absolutely no conception of how the City ran its flawed budget process, the dance between the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor where SEIU Local 1021 attempts to assert itself and sometimes the concerns of the local are heard, sometimes not.

SEIU SF 1021 has devolved into a weaker entity with its decision not to fully enforce the contracts that have been in place for decades; also, the previous Executive Director believed the best way to proceed to gain power in San Francisco is to build the relationship between the Union Director and the Mayor – a procedure that worked well for a few years but fell apart when the Executive Director left for bigger and better positions in SEIU.

Within days, Tentative Agreement #3 was crafted: not really different than TA#2, it just had the loss of ten federal holidays instead of eleven and to help compensate for the loss, SEIU workers would receive nine floating holidays to be taken at their discretion.

This time, SEIU promised the Mayor and the press, they would get the message across to the members. This time, no matter what, TA#3 will pass.

During this “education” campaign, the SEIU International decided to send their International staff to help from various points throughout the West Coast and every resource available to Local 1021 would be utilized. Members received a minimum of three visits at their worksite, a glossy disingenuous mailer that promised no layoffs (a deliberate misrepresentation to the members – this contract cannot guarantee any cuts in services) and a minimum of three to four phone calls at work and at home. It was a deluge that also included the pitting of workers against one another: if one spoke against TA#2 or TA#3, you were lumped into a group that did not care for one another, did not care if people were hurting, a group that believed one’s principles trumped the agony of those who were to be laid off.

This was an “educational” campaign designed to reach their members’ most prevalent fears: being laid off. As everyone knows, fear works. And, fear was working well with the steady stream of misinformation coming from the Local’s media; as the union poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into winning this contract campaign, the fliers became glossier with the bold disingenuous statement that this contract will stop layoffs and save services: a blatantly false and misleading statement that made members wince whenever the local’s educational fliers hit the worksites.

No matter how many times the SEIU told members in their “education” campaign how this contract must pass or SEIU is doomed in San Francisco, SEIU could not stem the cynicism and distrust from the re-vote itself: members righteously felt the Union cared more about the Mayor’s feelings than the needs of their members; also, how to trust a re-vote itself. The conviction that the re-vote will simply reflect what the union wants was prevalent and was nearly impossible to dissuade among the membership.

This steady river of friendly contact from SEIU staff that had no conception of what was important to the SF members was also beginning to wear thin: a former yes vote among a custodian I knew turned to no for TA#3 simply because he resented being called nearly every day. He knew he could make up his own mind; he felt disrespected being told what to do, and, if he didn’t comply he wanted to see members suffer. The well-crafted SEIU message designed for every member in every circumstance in every location does not work.

Ballot boxes were placed where the greatest number of yes votes for TA#2 were received – the no vote locations were anathema, no ballot boxes in sight hoping to turn any no votes from being cast. How surreal is it that a labor union will utilize the tactics of voter suppression to gain the results they wanted? As one negotiating team member stated, what is the message being sent to their members, that unless you abide by what the union demands, you do not count, your voice goes unheard.

The SEIU International staff is now being deployed elsewhere and SEIU would like to believe that having won this battle, everything is fine in San Francisco. The next battle is to get a revenue measure, prepared by the Union and the City’s Chamber of Commerce, passed on the November 2009 ballot to garner more money for the San Francisco General Fund; given this economically depressed climate, asking the voters for more taxes is a concept that is far from likely to pass.

A “victory” rally, held by about thirty SEIU staff and members was held on the steps of City Hall on Friday, June 5th. It was a somewhat poignant and sad scene, given that the public and the Local 1021 SF membership is leery of what was exactly won – there will be definite cuts in layoffs and City services not matter what the Union claims. The Union has now placed all of its hopes on the November 2009 passage of this yet to be presented revenue enhancement; given that this revenue enhancement could come in the guise of budget reform that may require the dissolution of all budget set-asides, Local 1021 may find itself at war again with some of its San Francisco Public Library members as they fight to keep their budget set-aside intact.

But, nothing for the San Francisco Public Library members to worry about: SEIU will do what is best for you whether you like it or not – all it takes is a little shock and awe that will subside when the all-important win has been attained.

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