SEIU’s Richard Louis Brown on being agent of change
Later this month, California state employee Richard Louis Brown will be sworn in as president of SEIU Local 1000 after upsetting longtime president Yvonne Walker on May 25. Local 1000 represents 96,000 state employees and has long supported Democratic candidates. But Brown – an associate governmental program analyst with the California Debt & Investment Advisory Commission – got national attention for his pledge to end all political donations by his local. This included to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recall campaign, which the local’s outgoing board still approved not long after the below Q&A took place.
Republicans seized on Brown’s pledge as evidence of weakening Democratic support for Newsom, but this ignored Brown’s more fundamental principle as explained below. Plus, Brown has been a registered Democrat since at least 2012. “You are just the second reporter to ask me about my voting history,” Brown told Sacto Politico. “But I’m completely transparent and have my voter registration posted on my website.”
Copies of his mail-in ballots posted there show a consistent Democratic voting record with two exceptions. In 2014, he submitted no vote in Gov. Jerry Brown’s re-election campaign (but voted for Newsom for Lt. Governor). Then in 2016 after choosing Bernie Sanders in the primary, he chose Green Party candidate Jill Stein over Hillary Clinton.
Sacto Politico: It has been two weeks since you were elected. So how do the words “President-elect” and “President Brown” wear on you so far?
Richard Louis Brown: It still feels strange. Some people tease me about my new title, but I’m still Richard. I’m still a public servant for the State of California. I’m going to stay who I am and realize I am fortunate to have won an election against an incumbent who had never lost in four prior elections. Often people who start wearing their titles and embracing their titles forget what they ran on and lose the people. So I am still a public servant. I am still serving the people. I am still with the people.
S/P: You made national news with your pledge to not use membership contributions for political donations. Share again your reasons for this new direction for Local 1000.
Brown: When we affiliated with SEIU in 1984, we started spending political money and caring about the issues of the Democratic Party. Our dues increased in 2007 because of politics and the International needed more money. But you can’t spend money on politics without alienating people. Our Union represents 96,000 people, and not all are Democrats. There are independents, Green Party, Republicans there as well. Plus, roughly 44% of those we represent aren’t paying dues. So you are ignoring and silencing almost half your union because they don’t want to pay dues because of the political spending.
I also ran on voting equality for everyone represented by our union. By voting equality I mean right now if you don’t pay money to Local 1000, they don’t allow you to vote [in union elections]. To me, when you force people to pay money to vote, that is a poll tax. They say, “We’re not forcing you to pay money to vote. We’re saying you have to pay dues to get these benefits, and voting is just one of them.” But the most important benefit of any benefit is voting. So you are paying money to vote whether you understand that or not.
S/P: How easy will it be to pull out of SEIU International?
Brown: It will take a vote of the membership. I’m sure we are not going to pull out immediately. It will take time for me to get in there, look around, check things out. Plus, International is not going to just let their cash cow go. Half of the dues we collect each month goes to the International, and we are among their biggest locals. They are going to fight me.
S/P: When did you begin to believe Local 1000 needed to get out of politics?
Brown: I started thinking about it in 2012. In 2010, we gave up our money – two days of personal leave per month for FY 10-11 – to Governor Brown. I said right then, “If you don’t stop this madness, it will happen again.” So what happened? He came back again in 2012 and asked for another day [per pay period]. That’s when I became very outspoken. They thought I would just shut up and go away. I didn’t shut up; I stood up. I didn’t go away; I kept fighting.
Look, I work for the California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission. It is the most transparent organization in the nation when it comes to recording and publicizing public debt. We are the best. And I am going to be the most transparent labor leader in America. You can quote me on that. Nobody is going to have to guess where we spend our money.
S/P: If the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court ruling hadn’t happened and all represented employee still had to pay dues, would you be of the same mind still? (The Court’s 5-4 ruling made it voluntary for public employees to choose whether to financially support their union through dues or not.) Brown: Yes, I would. You cannot afford to engage in politics and then think you can unify your membership. A union is supposed to be fighting for your wages and working conditions. Some say that should be our top priorities, but I say that should be our only priorities.
They also say, “But we can fight for those things by spending money with the Democrats.” But I strongly disagree. You best represent your membership by getting a good contract. Therefore, you must have a good strike fund so you can get a high-quality contract. It doesn’t matter which party is in office.
S/P: How aggravating was it to learn that the current Local 1000 Board voted on their way out last week to give Gov. Newsom $1 million for his recall defense?
Brown: The idea of them rushing to vote in a closed-door meeting and not allowing the members to see how they voted was why I was elected. All of this lack of transparency, all of this lack of respect. It is ridiculous. You rushed to give $1 million to a politician who cut your wages by 9% for the last year under a signed contract? You rushed to protect him, his family, his political career, his personal image, but yet you don’t protect your own people?
It shows how uncomfortable I have made them in their last days. They are responding to the fact that I am not a politician. I’m a labor leader. That is why they are in a rush to give money to Gavin Newsom. This is why the percentage of our dues-paying members isn’t in the 80 and 90 percentiles.
Once I take office, I would like to have an emergency meeting to get $2 million of our political money up to help our people up in Lassen County who are losing their jobs because the prison is closing. Let’s see how fast the Board agrees to that. That’s who we need to rush money to: our people. Of course, someone was saying, you can’t just take money from the political action committee and give it to someone else if it’s not a political situation. To me, it’s a political situation that those members in Lassen County are losing their jobs. So we’ll see.
S/P: Is the no-politics pledge limited to donations? Will you consider endorsing candidates at any level?
Brown: If you find a candidate who will guarantee us in writing a 24% pay increase with no deductions, then you will make me break my word. But otherwise, no endorsing of candidates. The minute I endorse a Democrat, the Republicans are out of the union. And if I endorse a Republican, the Democrats will get mad at the union. The only candidate we are going to endorse is the strike fund. We endorse her, and that candidate – the strike fund – has a great chance of winning.
When you have a good strike fund with enough money in it, you don’t need anybody. You give me some money and people and if we are together, we will make and break politicians. Because we are voters on top of it. But our outgoing Union President convinced people over the years that [the politicians] are our bosses, and they approve our contracts. I don’t care if they approve our contracts. That just means our strike fund isn’t large enough.
S/P: What about getting involved in statewide ballot initiatives that affect unions?
Brown: My number one point on my platform is no political spending on non-germane activities. If it is germane to the survival of our right to contract negotiation or job representation, then we should spend money. For instance, if you attack the pension, now you have raised my alarm. That’s a big concern of mine. The pension is a special case. If a candidate runs to eliminate our pensions, that would be a gigantic problem.
If you thought I have been talking strong against Gavin Newsom, let a candidate come up and say they want to eliminate CalPERs. That would be a war, and they wouldn’t want this action from the union. I’m just saying that ahead of time.
S/P: Is your ban on political donations a standard that only makes sense for Local 1000, or do you believe, philosophically, all Unions should stop participating in the pay-to-play political system?
Brown: I am staying out of what most unions should do. What I am part of is a labor movement. I encourage other unions to stay strong and make their own decisions. If they call me, I’ll give them my advice. I am only focused on the people we represent. Once I am sworn in, we are going to create a labor movement, not a political movement. If the other 11 public sector unions want to join us and make a federation, perfect. That sounds great to me.
S/P: In your mind, is that $1 million the Board just voted to give to Gov. Newsom taking money away from the strike fund?
Brown: Well, we don’t have a strike fund at the moment, so technically no. But moving forward we will create a strike fund. I was also asked earlier today how much money was in our political action committee. But I don’t know how much. President Walker congratulated me after the election, but I haven’t heard from her since. But when I become president [at the end of June], I will know. And Day One, all of this is will be opened up, and nobody will have to guess.
My biggest job is to give people hope. To give people hope, you have to inspire them and show that you aren’t spending their money unwisely.