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Fiery SEIU 1000 power fight sucks in Democratic Party

SEIU Local 1000 is by far California’s largest union of state employees with nearly 100,000 represented members and a $46 million annual budget. However, its leadership has been consumed by a fiery power struggle of equal proportions – a struggle whose latest chapter now includes the California Democratic Party.

“Things are chaotic,” said Local 1000 board member William Hall, the self-described “driving force” behind the effort to oust his union’s new president. “And they are going to remain chaotic for a bit. Change usually brings some kind of chaos. Change is rarely smooth and comfortable.”

That president is Richard Louis Brown. He won on a 10-point reform plan and is barely 120 days into a three-year term. He called the effort to remove him and give the board full control an attempted “lynching and castration” of the union and a “robbing” of members’ right to directly elect their union chief.

The seeds of this turmoil were first planted in May when dues-paying members clearly voted to end the reign of their powerful 13-year president, Yvonne Walker. However, voters did so without giving her successor an equally clear majority. Walker received just 27% of the vote to 33% for Brown. This left 40% voting for other candidates and a board of directors filled with divided loyalties.

Then at 5 a.m. the next morning, police roused the freshly minted in-coming president from bed to investigate what turned out to be a fake domestic violence call against Brown, who lives alone. Who dropped that dime has never been discovered, but Brown suspects his election opponents. This was soon followed by an unsuccessful post-election effort to overturn his victory by disqualifying him as candidate.

Two weeks later before Brown took office, the outgoing Walker called an emergency board meeting. Voting against a Brown campaign promise, the board approved giving $1 million to fight the recall effort against Gov. Gavin Newsom. Then when Brown called his first board meeting the following month to consider at least some of his platform, opposition board members walked out denying him a quorum. However, the opposition blames Brown for not promptly calling the meeting to order and instead haranguing them for more than hour, which caused him to lose the quorum.

Since then only four major pieces of union business have been accomplished:

  1. In July, Brown won a halting of implementation of a state employee vaccine mandate on Local 1000-covered employees to force the Newsom Administration to first sit down with the union per the union contract.

  2. At an emergency August board meeting, the new contract for auto workers was ratified.

  3. Per his campaign pledge, Brown has not signed board stipend checks. These previously went to the top four board members (including union president) and totaled more than a half million dollars since 2016.

  4. Last on Sunday Oct. 17, a part of the board met and voted to overturn the last election by changing the bylaws to strip Brown of his powers, centralize those powers with the board, and end the direct election of the union head by union members. This was hosted at the California Democratic Party’s headquarters building in Sacramento.

Brown characterized this meeting as “illegal, improper, and out of order” and has refused to abdicate his office. He is also considering suspending board members who voted to oust him at the meeting.

“My opponents have never been able to accept the fact I won the election,” Brown said. “They say they’re preserving democracy, but what they are doing is removing the will of the voters. They are doing this because they don’t like me, because my insistence on full transparency, and because the changes I ran on. But the truth about all the evilness done by Local 1000 [leadership] over these years will come out.”

He noted that his opponents also continue to spread lies about him: that he is a Republican, hates the union movement, and is a friend of and controlled by the conservative Freedom Foundation. It was also well-reported another board member said Brown could “suck a d***” but has refused to apologize.

But Hall said most board members and union members are exasperated by Brown’s contentious style, charges of racism, and weekly use of Facebook Live videos. Hall added his group is preparing to soon file a court challenge to remove Brown.

“Under illegal threats, intimidation and now some retaliation [from Brown], the board came together to pass a series of motions to change the structure of Local 1000. Those board members worked with great courage and integrity,” Hall said. “We came together and created something here that is very unique.”

That included stripping the office of president of all day-to-day and other leadership powers. These were transferred to the Local 1000 board, including the right to appoint – and remove at will – a new “chairperson” to lead the organization. Hall was elected to this chairperson role. (Most other members of the Board contacted declined to comment on the record, preferring to leave Brown and Hall as the chief spokespeople.)

But Brown and his allies believe Local 1000 bylaws are clear: only the union president can preside over an official Board meeting. But a majority of Board members can formally petition for an emergency Board meeting, but Brown contended this was not done for the Oct. 17 emergency meeting. Opposition board members disagree, saying an exchange of emails and an online survey of Board members occurred that they believe satisfy the petition requirement.

Both sides said the Local 1000 chief counsel has not given an opinion on any of this, and she did not return messages to comment for this article.

Brown also questioned some of the secrecy surrounding the Oct. 17 meeting. To date, no list of board participants has been released, including who voted yay, nay or abstained on different bylaw proposals. Hall said attendee names should be available later this week once his group launches its own website and Facebook page. However, he said detailing how each board member voted is unlikely. Recording individual votes requires a request for a roll call vote, but none was made – which seems a peculiar choice given the enormity of the changes enacted and powers some board members have given themselves.

Raw vote tallies for each board item were issued last week. The most contentious of these involved stripping Brown of his presidential powers and, in effect, ending the right of dues-paying members to directly elect their union head. This reportedly passed 23-9, but those 23 aye votes represent just 35% of the overall 65-person board, including abstentions and absent board members.

“Here is where it gets tough,” said Brown about the secrecy. “Our union doesn’t have a legacy of being transparent. When they elected me and I opened up our website, I put up the votes from the past. [The opposition board members] did not want that. There are a number of reasons why they are trying to remove me from office. One of them is when I do things, I am going to do a roll call vote, and then we are going to make you responsible for your vote.”

He also questioned why the opposing board members did not pursue his removal by either of two ways spelled out in the Local 1000 bylaws. The first is by recall election. This is triggered by signed petitions from at least 20% of members. The second lets the local’s three vice presidents call for the president’s suspension for cause and a Human Relations Department process to play out.

Hall said the recall option is virtually impossible as all signatures must be collected within just 30 days and his group does not have access to the entire membership email list. He said he couldn’t comment on why the vice presidents have not chosen to pursue the HR option, but this has left changing the bylaws as his group’s only option to remove Brown.

Hall is a 23-year veteran of Local 1000 and has been on the board for 11 of the last 13 years as president of the Oakland district labor council. He speaks with a kind, sincere voice and reports that his interactions with Brown have been largely polite and respectful, but he still said of Brown “if you have bad people in power, the system breaks down.”

“In some ways, this is a form of self-preservation and -protection from somebody [Brown] who can just do so much damage and so much harm,” Hall said. “It takes just one bad person. If good people don’t stand up and make hard decisions and hard choices, then I don’t know what could happen.”

He also pointed to some important upcoming union issues that necessitate quickly changing leadership. This includes fighting an expected 2022 ballot proposition that could strip collective bargaining rights from all state employees from police to Local 1000 members.

However, Brown has long said he would approve political donations and other efforts to vigorously fight anything that threatened “the survival of our right to contract negotiation or job representation.” Brown reiterated that this week. He also said it “pains” him that the California Democratic Party – the party he’s a member of – chose to host the emergency board meeting.

“They told you to respect that Gavin Newsom won in 2018, that Joe Biden won his presidential election in 2020. They told you to respect the vote, but yet they turn around, some of these same people, and now they are trying to quote ‘remove me from office.’ This is the hypocrisy of not just some Board members, but also of the Democratic Party here in the State of California,” he said.

“What this tells me is these Democrats don’t like me,” he continued. “These are the same Democrats who were walking around saying ‘Black Lives Matter,’ trying to quote ‘help black men’ with their interactions with police, with the overall result being equality for black people in this country that we’re still seeking. That’s the unholy hypocrisy of this union and the Democratic Party.”

In answer to emailed questions, a spokesperson for the California Democratic Party (CADEM) said, “Per CADEM protocols, CADEM meeting spaces are open for reservations to organizations” such as “local county committees, young democratic clubs, and other organizations for purposes such as meetings, events, and small gatherings.”

The spokesperson did not directly answer was whether the party was concerned that hosting the meeting gave an appearance of taking sides. Also not answered was whether they would have hosted such a meeting if the goal had been to oust the previous president, who was closely aligned with the party.

When Hall was asked about use of CADEM headquarters, he said he appreciated their providing the quality space, but added it was not his group’s first choice of venue. Other unions were approached, he said, but none wished to appear as getting involved in an internal union dispute.

One thing both sides of the power struggle agree on is “elections have consequences.” Brown believes he should have the opportunity to attempt to pass his reform initiatives as elected. However, the opposition board members believe a consequence of Brown’s election and four-month presidency is the need to end the direct election of a union head by the membership.

Hall said he hopes observers know none of this was easy for him.

“There are pieces of this that I really struggled with. At the end of the day, my allegiance is to the people that work for the state of California,” he said. “Often in life there are not easy answers. I had to do something so that state employees would have a voice in the future.”

Hall said his dissatisfaction with the union’s strong-president structure predated Brown. (“The concept of any one person running a $46 million a year nonprofit with no accountability, does that really make much sense?”) This included changes that Hall himself voted for in 2015 that strengthened an already strong-president structure and weakened the board. He now acknowledges those changes had unintended consequences.

But he said under the previous president, there were not enough votes to restore an ability for the board to truly uphold its legal and financial oversight obligations. However, he said Brown’s confrontational manner and desire to make key organizational changes altered that dynamic.

Hall noted, “I often think about Benjamin Franklin when he walked out of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and a reporter asked him what kind of government they had created. His response was ‘A democracy, if we can keep it.’ If people don’t vote and participate and hold elected officials accountable and if you have bad people in power, the system breaks down.”

The Franklin quote has long been taken to mean if voters aren’t vigilant, their democratic rights could be taken away. Hall was asked if he saw irony in that his group of board members is the one attempting to take one of those rights, not England’s King George or a dictator.

“That’s one way to look at it. But who’s closer to the membership? I represent Oakland, California. I work in Oakland, California. I work next to my members. I work next to my non-members. I have an interaction with them on a regular basis. The Local 1000 president doesn’t have that. I’m elected by those people.”

Then again Brown was elected by union members in Oakland and throughout the state. He’s also been a dues-paying member for 12 years who has worked side by side with fellow union members. Plus, his views have been well known as he previously made two unsuccessful bids for union president.

“They will never accept me,” Brown said. “People who voted for me and other people who have been watching this know they will never accept me because of my race, because of my sincerity, my passion. But here in the state of California, we are supposed to be better than all the other states. But because I am here, I am exposing these flaws.”

But Brown and Hall represent two immovable factions stuck in intractable loggerhead. So sadly for rank-and-file members that means: see you in court.

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