On August 3, 2011, thousands of County employees were amazed to see an email sent out by the County’s Human Resources Department “on behalf of” their union. The workers are members of Service Employees International Union Local 221 (SEIU 221).
That same day, paid union representatives appeared inside the Mission Valley Family Resource Center and at the County Administration Building . The reps told workers that the County had given the Union permission to go worker-to-worker in work areas, during work time (and disrupting work), to hand out a leaflet and talk to workers about the vote currently being conducted to ratify or reject the tentative agreement (TA) on a new contract with the County. Union reps have been seen doing the same at other worksites in the subsequent days.
The contract offer evokes scenes from the mob movies genre, of an “offer you can’t refuse”. The County asks workers to agree to a 2 year contract with a 4 percent cut in the employer’s contribution to retirement funds. The County threatens that if workers vote down the contract, that it may impose a 7 percent cut instead, for up to one year.
An increasing number of workers report feeling intimidated by the sudden appearance of the union reps while they were working. The workers point to the language of the leaflet which says:
“If we do not ratify this TA, we must be prepared to mount an aggressive campaign against the County up to and including a sustained strike.”
There is no legal requirement that workers authorize a strike if they vote “no” on a contract offer. Long strikes are extremely rare in the public sector.
The email sent on August 3, 2011 had the subject line: “Ratification Process of the Tentative Agreement“. It announced that voting on the contract offer would begin the very next day[!] Voting is to continue until August 18. In addition to information about the times and locations for casting ballots on the County’s “last, best and final” contract offer, the email explained that there would be “informational meetings” at the very same times and locations and that members would be “allowed to vote at these meetings”.
The email went on to warn members:
“If we do not ratify by August 25, 2011 the County can impose terms and conditions for up to one year that could include the elimination of the full 7% pension offset without any one time monetary payment or increases in health care flex benefits, or the other language changes agreed to.
“If the membership does not accept the TA we must be prepared to operate without a contract for up to one year.
“We must decide what we are willing to accept.”
Workers immediately objected that the rights to a secret ballot and to be free from campaigning at the polls were being trampled. The ominous warning in the email about the consequences of a “no” vote on the contract was also seen as a blatant scare tactic to promote a “yes” vote. It was also seen as directly aiding the County in its desire to implement a contract with sharp pay cuts.
For months SEIU 221 officials have told members that the County has a large budget surplus (unlike most counties in the country) and more than $2.2 billion in cash reserves. Union officials have explained to members that the County’s pension fund has recently won awards for being one of the best managed, best funded, and healthiest funds in the country.
Union officials have urged members to “stand firm” for a fair contract and to resist the County’s demands for financially unjustified concessions. On May 31, the Union also filed unfair labor practice charges with the state Public Employment Relations Board, alleging the employer was illegally failing to bargain and engaging in illegal coercion tactics. Those charges are pending a hearing.
The union contracts expired on June 16, 2011; an impasse was declared, and a mediator was called in to conduct the legal impasse procedure. Union representatives reported to the membership that the County was only “going through the motions.” On July 20, 2011, the impasse procedure was exhausted and the County presented its legal “last, best, and final offer.”
The official Union “messaging” abruptly changed. A large Solidarity Rally, set for July 23 in downtown San Diego was cancelled.
The Union ‘s bargaining team mysteriously voted to sign a tentative agreement and to ask the union membership to vote on the offer. The Union ‘s membership had already voted down a better bad offer in February, and many members had expected the bargaining team to simply reject the offer. Members began to hear a drum beat of doom and gloom from Union officials about the even larger pay cut the County might impose if we vote down the contract offer, and about how our union membership is “not willing and not ready” to continue fighting for a fair contract.
When paid union reps appeared on Friday, August 5th at the County Adoptions Center in Linda Vista, I was very concerned, as a SEIU shop steward. I emailed the County’s top Labor Relations officer to inquire about it. Labor Relations Manager, Susan Brazeau, said the union reps were not violating any rule, and if their conduct was of any concern, employees should take it up with the Union President (not with a Security Guard or site manager).
Word of the County’s official position has been spreading like wildfire. The County’s past practice has been to instruct employees that if they see any of the paid union reps wandering around a worksite unescorted by an employee, then employees are to call a Security Guard to take the rep to see a manager (and, usually, to be escorted off the property).
What is Going on Here?
Many union activists see the County’s side of it as part of the wave of right-wing attacks on labor, like Wisconsin. They see the sort of concerted legislative and policy think-tank work such as that of the American Legislative Exchange Council behind it (see ALEC Exposed).
The County has 5 arch Republicans for its Board of Supervisors. The County is one of the few in the country that has been operating with a budget SURPUS, and with one of the strongest and healthiest pension funds in the country, and with $2.2 BILLION in cash reserves. Money is not the issue. Union activists see it as one of the new tactics the right is trying out around the country — to see if the Great Recession is causing more fear than fight and if they can cow workers into taking concessions even while the Boss is doing well. If workers lose this one here, they will roll it out across the country.
What is not so clear is why union officials also have a big financial stake in getting union members to act like sheep and march to the slaughter voting “yes”.
SEIU 221 has been operating at a deficit for the past few years. One can look up the annual “LM-2” financial statement that all unions file with the federal Dept of Labor, at the Dept’s website. The most recent one, for 2010, shows that the local took in $5,123,634 and spent $5,411,945. The previous year was worse, with the budget over-run exceeding $800,000.
Now, if union members all vote “no” on the contract offer, then 6 large bargaining units, with thousands of members, could be operating without a new contract until June 2012 (maybe even longer). When unions go without a contract, one of the things the employer can do is stop collecting union dues out of the paychecks, and stop giving the money to the union. The employer can try to bankrupt and kill the union.
It is true that the other 6 bargaining units of County SEIU 221 members have a contract and their dues collections would be unaffected. The same is true with all the contracts SEIU 211 has with other employers in San Diego and Imperial Counties. Those other contracts represent only 20 percent of the Local’s membership, however. So, the County probably could not break the union financially.
It is highly likely that the International has told the local president to “sell” the pay cuts contract because (1) the International does not want to have to pay a lot of the local’s bills for the next year, and (2) the International does not want to spend money out of the strike fund (they’d rather save it for campaign spending for Democrats in 2012), and (3) there is a strong movement of members organizing to switch to a new independent union, with a certification election going on this month for the first bargaining unit that is trying to do it. If a new contract is signed, members working under that contract would be locked in to membership in SEIU until at least October of 2012. Without a new contract, those same members are free to petition for an election to switch unions, at any time.
Many members believe these are the reasons SEIU 221 President Eric Banks has suddenly stopped telling union members to FIGHT and to NOT put up with pay cuts.
With so many horror stories in the press in recent years about lying, cheating, thieving high level SEIU officials, it is little wonder members aren’t “buying” it this time. The National Labor Relations Board last month threw out an election involving 43,000 Kaiser workers represented by SEIU due to illegal conduct by SEIU and Kaiser. Former SEIU 6434 President Tyrone Freeman was recently caught stealing over $1 million dollars of union dues funds and rigging local union elections. Numerous similar reports of SEIU corruption have been published in the past few years.
Here are the series of emails mentioned in the above post:
Here is the email sent by the County to thousands of workers:
From: Dept of Human Resources
Sent: Wednesday, August 03, 2011 6:26 PM
Subject: Ratification Process of the Tentative Agreement
This message is being sent on behalf of SEIU Local 221 to members of CL, CM, CR, FS, HS and SW bargaining units. …
To: SEIU Local 221 members in CL, CM, CR, FS, HS and SW
From: SEIU Local 221 Bargaining Team
As many of you know, the Bargaining Team has signed a tentative agreement (TA) with the County and will put the agreement out to the membership for a vote. In the coming weeks each of us will need to make a very important decision: whether to accept and ratify the TA or to reject it.
The terms and conditions of the TA are as follows:
$750 one-time monetary payment
5% increase in health care flex benefits
2% reduction in the pension offset
1% one-time monetary payment calculated on base wage
5% increase in health care flex benefits
2% reduction in the pension offset
And the following language changes:
SW Eligibility Continuous Improvement Committee. A committee for members in the SW Unit who are working in the FRCs and other areas who are facing challenges with the Task Based Eligibility System and Business Process Reengineering.
SW Labor Management. This agreement separates the labor management committee into two forums, one for the Social Workers, and one for the Human Services Specialist. Each group will receive two hours to discuss separate issues with some overlap where both groups will meet together to discuss common concerns.
Labor Management. Labor Management meetings minutes will be distributed electronically to employees.
Communications in the worksite. The County agreed to not unreasonably hold any communications to union representatives at the worksite
Release Time Procedures. The County agreed to include reasonable travel time for release time.
The TA must be ratified by our members by August 25, 2011. If ratified we will have a new 2 year agreement with the terms and conditions listed above.
If we do not ratify the TA by August 25, 2011 the County has proposed the following offer:
4% reduction in the pension offset
2% one-time monetary payment calculated on base wage
10% increase in health care flex benefits
3% reduction in the pension offset
And the language changes listed above.
**THE BARGAINING TEAM DOES NOT RECOMMEND THE SECOND OFFER**
If we do not ratify by August 25, 2011 the County can impose terms and conditions for up to one year that could include the elimination of the full 7% pension offset without any one time monetary payment or increases in health care flex benefits, or the other language changes agreed to.
If the membership does not accept the TA we must be prepared to operate without a contract for up to one year.
We must decide what we are willing to accept. Tomorrow, August 4, 2011, we will begin a discussion with our members in worksites, in locations around the county, and at the Local 221 offices to explain the offer. Members will be allowed to vote at these meetings and all day at the Local 221 offices during the voting period.
The list of informational sessions where members can vote is attached and will be available on our website at www.seiu221.org. We are working with the County to reserve voting locations and we will be updating the list on our website as they are confirmed. A full copy of the Tentative Agreement is also available on the website for members to read.
You must be a member to vote on the TA. If you are not a member of SEIU Local 221 you can join at any one of these meetings and be eligible to vote. You must have a form of picture ID ( County ID , driver’s license, passport, etc.) to vote.
This is a very important decision that our members must carefully consider.
Here is the email exchange between Monty Kroopkin and Susan Brazeau:
From: Kroopkin, Monty
Sent: Friday, August 05, 2011 11:44 AM
To: Brazeau, Susan
Cc: Ekard, Walt
Subject: union access permission?
Good morning Susan,
I am writing you in my capacity as a union representative. I need to confirm that the County has given SEIU Local 221 permission to have union representatives go around in work areas, including going desk-to-desk during work time, passing out union literature and talking to workers about the current voting on a new union contract with the County.
Paid union staff are now in my building doing exactly that, and I have reports that this is going on all over the County. Some workers are complaining already that they are being pressured about how to vote. I would not want to see any steward or other employees end up subject to discipline for assisting the paid union staff in this activity if it is not authorized by the County. And, of course, I would hate to see any unnecessary and expensive litigation result from this situation. Taxpayers certainly have much better things to spend money on.
So, does the County authorize the activity?
From: Brazeau, Susan
Sent: Friday, August 05, 2011 1:38 PM
To: Kroopkin, Monty
Subject: RE: union access permission?
SEIU’s President has worked closely with the County to ensure adherence to the Union Access provisions of the various MOA’s. Nothing stated in your email is in violation of the MOA’s or past practice. Concerns regarding the conduct of union representatives should be communicated to Eric Banks.
Susan M. Brazeau
County of San Diego
Labor Relations Manager
Monty Kroopkin is a shop steward for Local 221, and ran for president of the union in 2009. For further information, contact Monty Kroopkin, organizer for SMART*- firstname.lastname@example.org
*SMART is SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today
Recent news reports on County contracts, finances and pension fund: