A major story involving the largest public employee union in California continues to unwind like a soap opera – though a soap opera with real consequences for nearly 100,000 state workers. But state media outlets are either ignoring it or covering it in unusually slanted ways.
The union is SEIU Local 1000, and at the center of its Category 5 power struggle – though hardly the sole cause – is the union’s reform-minded but pugnacious president of the past six months, Richard Louis Brown. Last May in his third try running for union president, he soundly upset long-time President Yvonne Walker by more than 6 points, but finished with far from a majority of the votes (33.46%) in a five-way race.
As Brown himself admits, he can be a loud, brash personality, but such personalities are not unheard of in the labor movement or even Local 1000. As a “loud, proud black man,” he also doesn’t shy from fights, never pulls a counterpunch, and usually gives back stronger and longer than he takes. But here too, this is not an unheard trait among labor leaders, and one often lauded when employed on your side.
And big haymakers have been thrown by both sides in the fight for control of Local 1000. Here is a far from complete sampling:
At 4 a.m. the morning after Brown’s election, someone made a phony 911 call claiming female screams emanating from inside Brown’s home. Brown claimed it had to be one of his opponents who wanted to see if Brown would keep his cool when confronted by the Sacramento police at this front door.
Many of Brown’s detractors say he is a Manchurian candidate and Trump-supporting tool (despite his published voting record to the contrary) who is bent on destroying the union. One female board member even made the papers saying Brown should go “suck a d---!" Brown responded with charges of homophobia, racism and lynchings.
At the first Board meeting Brown presided over, his opponents walked out denying him a quorum. Brown responded by not holding another Board meeting for months and reorganizing the local without them.
His opponents then held an emergency board meeting without him that was not completely by the book to strip Brown of his powers and overturn its own members vote. Brown responded by calling them insurrectionists and made good on his transparency pledge by publishing six years of union leadership credit card statements including of himself and the previous president.
Brown also recently tried to pass a 2022 budget with limited Board input. He lost by one vote, which has left the union operating without an approved budget for the first time in its history. Brown blames his opponents for this, and they blame him.
So clearly both sides have contributed to the cacophonous state. Leave it for others elsewhere to debate the relative degrees of responsibility, but oddly, the few media outlets that have waded into the power struggle have weighed in strongly against Brown. For example, the Sacramento Bee regularly in its news stories and on its editorial page describes Brown as “controversial” but seldom applies such adjectives to Brown’s opponents.
This past week, the weekly Sacramento News & Review published its own weighted piece. The first problem with the article was it being labeled “news” when it should have been properly called opinion. This started with its headline. As if judging a solo tango competition, it firmly placed all blame for the budget impasse on Brown: “SEIU Local 1000’s controversial president fails to pass a budget.” The piece also did not refer to him by his actual name Richard Louis Brown, instead oddly calling him “President R.L. Brown” when he does not go by that. The piece even quoted criticisms from the board member responsible for the “suck a d---” controversy but without sharing this germane detail with the reader.
Both publications – and the Sac Bee regularly – also state that “the board” voted in October to strip Brown of his powers. However, both outlets failed to note that the vote was 23-9 out of 65 total board members, and the opponents have yet to publish the names of who participated in the vote and how they voted. They claim it is a legally binding vote and for months said a lawsuit will soon be filed in circuit court, but have yet to do so.
This is not to say which side is right and which side is wrong, or more to blame. It’s just to note that this is an equally engaged brawl with brash, pugnacious combatants on both sides.
After Brown’s predecessor was defeated, the head of the Sac Bee’s editorial page showed his clear preference when he wrote a glowing tribute to the defeated president entitled “A leader we haven’t appreciated enough.” The piece also called Brown’s victory “troubling” and suggested he was “anti-union.” This was followed in November with an editorial from the board as a whole titled “Chaos within SEIU Local 1000 falls directly on [Brown’s] shoulders.”
The Sac Bee has occasionally written news stories that put Brown’s opponents in a bad light, but their slant often comes through even here. Take when Brown posted six years of leadership credit card bills. This included many embarrassing four-figure charges for trips to Disneyland and to the spa by past leaders. But the first story the Bee ran was about charges by Brown totaling $97 for dry cleaning his business suits and some other charges that later checked out as more appropriate. Only 11 days later did the Bee publish a story about the thousands of dollars former leadership charged for “lavish gifts, expensive trips.”
What does Brown think of all this? Not surprisingly, most Sac Bee news stories about SEIU 1000 now include some version of this line: “Brown didn’t respond to a text or a call.”
What is most disappointing about this coverage is how poorly served are any readers who try to wade in on the facts to make their own minds up. Set aside the slanted coverage. Most of this coverage has been largely about the smoke and not the underlying fire. Despite all of the big personalities and distracting headlines, at the heart of the power struggle is a fundamental difference about how Local 1000 should proceed while standing – like all of the U.S. labor movement – at a crossroads of great existential peril.
In June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court in its Janus v. AFSCME decision said employees represented by a union could opt out of paying dues. In the years since, dues paying membership has dropped precipitously nationwide with more and more represented employees taking the “free rider” option of benefitting from negotiated contracts and being represented in workplace disputes but paying nothing in monthly dues.
As of last month at Local 1000, the dues-paying membership has dropped to 54.7% from 64% before the Janus decision. Those spoken with inside the union believe this membership rate could be close to a tipping point. The union contract expires at the end of June 2023. Everyone would like to negotiate for a much stronger contract with cost-of-living protections and a pay raise, but everyone knows low membership rates weaken the union’s negotiating position. Plus, if the membership drops aren’t reversed, eventually many loyal dues payers will tire of carrying all of the free riders and start jumping en masse.
So what to do at this crossroad?
Brown thinks it’s possible to push membership up to 65% by the end of this year, but this requires getting a lot of non-Democrats back as dues-paying members. And what better way to rally solidarity than energize everyone behind a robust contract negotiation and possible strike backed by a strike fund? To build that single-focused solidarity, this is why he ran on a platform to get the union out of financially supporting the state Democratic Party and its candidates, especially as only 49% of union membership reports being affiliated with the Democratic Party. (Republicans are 21%, and “declined to state”/independents comprised the remaining 30%)
“We are going to have to communicate a message that is nonpartisan for our union to grow our membership,” Brown said this week. This is why “we [forecast] under out proposed budget to get to 65% [in 2022] and 75% in 2023. We must make a commitment to have a challenging, courageous conversation. And remember we have a lot of Democrats who are non-members as well.”
His opponents, though, think winning back so many non-dues-payers is just false hope and unobtainable. Thus they oppose giving up the strategic benefits of Local 1000’s alliance with the state Democratic Party. This, they believe, provides the best option for getting the best contract possible. So even if calmer personalities were involved, this binary schism would remain within the Union and rob the Union of a unified approach that is its best chance to improve memberships and leverage at the bargaining table.
I have talked to many players in this power struggle, and I’ve come away believing most are earnest in their desire to improve the union. However, not only do they disagree on how best to achieve that, they also don’t believe their opponents are in earnest. Thus the intractable, centripetally spiraling bad blood.
For instance, leading the other side is Bill Hall. He has has been involved with the union since 1999, and he speaks with a kinder, more measured voice than others on his side. At the disputed October board meeting, he was also elected to a newly created post as “board chair” that is intended to take over from Brown, but Hall says he is 18 months from retirement so he is not involved in this fight for personal power. He agreed the union is at an existential moment, and he understands his desire to overturn the last presidential election is a controversial move. But he believes this is the only way to “save the union,” as he believes Brown’s platform and style pose an even more imminent existential threat.
He pointed as one example to Brown’s budget, which is based on meeting membership and revenue targets Hall believes are impossible to meet and will only generate great debt. But at the same time, if the union doesn’t attempt a unified, full-throttled effort to increase dues-paying membership, little chance exists to win back many members. Then the failure of Brown’s strategy becomes self-fulfilling and not fully tested.
“Could Local 1000 benefit from some of Richard’s ideas? Yes.” Hall said. At the same time, he believes the way Brown is leading “is going to destroy us one way or another. Right now he is destroying us financially. He is not being transparent and putting up [on the website] everything that he is doing.”
When asked if he believed Brown was earnest in his intentions to improve the union, Hall paused reflectively before saying, “You are asking me a question about his integrity and intentions, and I honestly don’t know. He is completely transactional. So does a completely transactional person have the best interests of others at heart? I don’t believe so.”
And when you talk to Brown and his allies, you hear much the same in reverse.
Bottomline, Local 1000 is a union that has yet to get over a bruising election. Most players on both sides believe, as Hall said, that “the State of California is not a model employer. I would not want to be a state employee without representation.” Most also have the same desire to increase due-paying membership and negotiate the best contract possible, but they don’t agree on the best approach and they don’t trust each other.
Putting aside all the blatant media preferences out there, who is the big winner here? The other side of the upcoming bargaining table.
Past Sacto Politico coverage of SEIU Local 1000 includes: