Originally posted July 14, 2009.
There is an insurgent reform movement within the union that represents most of the County of San Diego’s employees. And it threatens to overturn the status quo within SEIU Local 221. SEIU – or the Service Employees International Union – is the largest public-employee union in the country, and its San Diego affiliate in Local 221 is having an internal election this month. The candidate for president on the reform slate is Monty Kroopkin, an old friend of ours.
SAN DIEGO, CA. Monty Kroopkin appears to be an unlikely candidate for president of Local 221. With his salt and pepper beard and pony-tail, and glasses tipping off his nose, he appears to be more suited for some intellectual post at a local university, or perhaps polishing and working on his Harley.
Yet he and his fellow reformers are running against the status quo in Local 221, a status quo upheld by the current leadership of president Sharon-Francis Moore and her Executive Board. Monty did not mince words in describing the problems he perceives with the union caused by Moore’s presidency.
Patty and I met Kroopkin at his small 2-bedroom North Park home, and with coffee cups in hand, followed him to an upstairs outside deck next to the attached granny flat. There the welcome breeze cooled us.
I have known Monty Kroopkin for many years, since both of us attended UCSD in the early Seventies. Back then, he easily fell into being the mentor for numerous student-journalists on several campus-sponsored newspapers over the years. Monty personified the student-as-activist role model for the waves of younger kids who streamed through the university on their way to careers and middle-class lifestyles, instilling in them a perpetual stance of questioning authority and being on the underdog’s side, whether it was Vietnamese peasants or South African freedom fighters.
Growing up in New York, he had ended up in San Diego in 1970, gravitating to the areas primo college. He had graduated from UCSD with a Sociology and Communications degree, and had started a PhD program that he had to eventually shelve in order to find work and pay the bills.
As our own lives took their separate turns, Monty and I always stayed in touch over the decades since. He had been an early supporter of the original OB Rag, and when this blog appeared, Monty quickly jumped on our bandwagon and has supported us ever since.
So, as I climbed the stairs to the deck for our interview, I felt like I was sitting down with an old friend who was walking out on the proverbial gangplank with his candidacy – for if he loses, his name will be mud around the Union hall on Kearny Mesa Road, a stones throw from 805.
Yet as we talked, and as I listened to his passion for union democracy, his deep concern for the union members, and listened to how he had organized a reform slate to run against the entrenched leadership in the upcoming union elections, my trepidation grew into an excitement that I was unprepared for.
His knowledge of the details of how Local 221 was organized, and all the people it represented, was amazing, but to be expected. The Local, with a membership around 8,000, represents most of the classified workers at the County; these include nurses (public health and at the jails), eligibility workers, social workers, adult probation staff, the clerical staff throughout the County – including the Sheriffs Department, and such folks as environmental health inspectors. This numbers between 13,000 and 15,000 people. The Local does not represent attorneys – DA’s, County counsel, Public Defenders, and does not have Sheriff deputies.
221 also represents clerical people and classified posts at a number of incorporated cities in the County: National City, Imperial Beach, Chula Vista, La Mesa, Encinitas, San Marcos and even Calexico. These cities combined account for about 500 to 600 workers.
Members get to vote – for officers for the leadership, and theoritically on policies, issues and the direction of the Local. But here is where Kroopkin has problems with the current union leaders.
“The current president, Sharon-Francis Moore, … she and the rest of the appointed Executive Board rigged the vote and wrote the new constitution for the local. The membership was shut out.” Monty explained that Local 221 was formed two years ago with the merger of two other SEIU unions – Local 535 and Local 2028. The International – meaning the national office – led by Andy Stern – appointed Moore and the rest of the current Executive Board. “The members were promised a new election within 6 months,” Monty said.
“And that was a year and a half ago,” I asked. Monty nodded. Sharon-Francis Moore, an attorney from New York, had no area roots, yet she was set up and given an annual salary of over $130,000 by the Ex Board, again a Board appointed by the national’s leadership and beholden to her.
The current president and her senior staff re-wrote the local’s constitution and made deep changes in how the locals that had merged were set up. They minimized the Executive Board, and moved from a proportional representational model where chapters elected people to fill the seats of the Board to one that “was set up to protect their own positions,” Monty said. “Now, there is no rational basis for the seats on the Executive Board,” he added.
I asked Monty point blank: what are his problems with Sharon-Francis Moore.
“Currently,” he said, “she has four unfair labor practices charges filed against her, by her own staff at the union hall.” These folks work for the union as staff. During contract negotiations, a number of them picketed Moore’s home. “She then threatened to take away any Family Leave benefits. She targeted the picketers and the ringleaders – and harassed them with phone calls to their homes.”
Kroopkin continued: “Members complain that their calls to the union are not returned.” This was a common complaint, I said, among members of any union – I had experienced this when I was a union rep years ago.
“Yeah,” he replied. “They missed all kinds of deadlines – grievance deadlines – contract deadlines.”
“One wide-spread complaint (from the members) is poor representation.” Monty went on, “This allows management to run amok!”
There is also, Monty said, “an attitude of arrogance towards the members by senior staff.” He has witnessed times when staff would yell at members, deriding them. “This is unacceptable,” he said. “The staff don’t work for the members, they work for the president.” It should be the other way around, he implied.
“Andy Stern (the International president) has pushed a corporate model of management onto the union.” And now, Monty continued, “there is vast contempt with the union among members. People don’t even know who the leadership is, as there is so little communication with the members.”
In response to all these problems, Monty began organizing a reform slate to run in the current election. He formed the slate from a loose community of stewards and activists from both the unions that merged to form 221. Now, the Reform 221 slate has 11 candidates for the 16 open positions.
Monty himself was a steward for 7 years, and was elected by his co-workers to be on the contract negotiating team twice.
The union election is being run by an outside firm that specializes in union elections. A mail ballot was sent out to all the members July 1. They must be returned and in the hands of the pollsters by July 21. In addition, from July 14 to the 21st, there are various polling sites around the County for members to cast their ballots. The tally will be made on the 21st.
Monty believes that if the turn-out is good, he and his slate have great chances of winning the election. But the members have experienced a couple of years of poor representation, plus there’s apathy, people not caring, not thinking that they can change things at their union.
“We have a better organization than the incumbents,” Monty said, “and they don’t have popular support.” Monty and his reformers want to change the make-up of the Executive Board, bring back proportional representation, “so every kind of worker and every kind of work is represented.”
Go to http://reformseiulocal221.blogspot.com/for the candidates and their positions.
This is exciting. My old friend could be the next president of Local 221. There is indeed a reform movement throughout SEIU, all over the country, of union members so upset with the way Andy Stern and the International has treated them, that they have organized themselves against that leadership. The reformers have formed something they call SMART – SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today. SMART-inspired insurgencies have won in various locals around the nation, including a couple of wins here in California.
Monty Kroopkin is working for a victory here in San Diego. It’s all about the turn-out, he tells me. “The tide is turning.” We shook hands and then Patty and I turned into the approaching night air.