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Cracks emerge in SEIU Local 1000 leadership as bargaining season begins

Union chief Yvonne Walker speaks at California Democratic Party Convention

Yvonne Walker is president of Service Employees International Union Local 1000, Walker, 58, runs state government's largest union. Here she is speaking at the 2018 California Democratic Party Convention.
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Yvonne Walker is president of Service Employees International Union Local 1000, Walker, 58, runs state government's largest union. Here she is speaking at the 2018 California Democratic Party Convention.

Three top officers at SEIU Local 1000 say union president Yvonne Walker’s tight grip on power is keeping them from carrying out the promise of change on which they were elected last year.

The newly elected vice presidents of bargaining, organizing and finances at the Service Employees International, the state’s largest union, said Walker has restricted their travel and withheld information they need to do their jobs.

Walker, who kept her title in the same election after a decade leading the union, said the trio misunderstands the organization’s rules and their own roles within it.

Frictions that have been building since the May 2018 election came into broader view when vice president for bargaining Tony Owens wrote a letter to the union’s board of directors last month saying he had been kept out of a bargaining meeting.

“If I’m going to do the job I was elected to do, I should be involved in all aspects of bargaining. That seems like a no-brainer,” Owens said in an interview.

Walker said the bargaining team Owens was trying to join exercised its authority under union rules.

“It’s a difference of ‘what I think my job is’ and what it actually is,” she said in an interview.

The divisions reflect the messy process of incorporating would-be reformers at established political organizations, a challenge that has become a trend in California and national politics. Last year, two newcomers defeated incumbents at the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, and a 13-year president of California Professional Firefighters lost a re-election bid.

The Local 1000 election came at a tricky time for the union, preceding the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus vs. AFSCME decision last June. The ruling eliminated the ability of unions to collect fees from non-members who benefit from union bargaining, raising the stakes for convincing workers to join unions and stay in them.

As divisions in its leadership persist, members are trickling out of Local 1000, which represents about 96,000 state workers. About 53,100 of them are dues-paying members, according to June data from the State Controller’s Office. A year ago, 56,700 members were paying dues, the data show.

Walker, a former U.S. Marine and legal secretary who was first elected to lead Local 1000 in 2008, fended off challenger Sophia Perkins to win last year’s election. But Owens, Anica Walls and Kevin Menager, who had teamed up with Perkins under the banner Members for Transparency and Change, cleared out Walker’s slate of three vice president incumbents, leaving the four winners to work out their differences.

Contract season

“None of the officers that were elected were happy with the outcome,” Walker said. “But once the election results were announced, I did a lot of reflection and said, ‘the members have spoken and this is it. And as an organization we have to move forward.’”

Differing opinions quickly emerged about how the vice presidents should prepare for this year’s contract negotiations. Local 1000’s current $4 billion contract, which gave workers a cumulative raise of 11.5 percent over 42 months, expires in January.

Walker said she hired a contractor to help guide the preparations, including plans for the vice presidents to meet with members around the state. But when the vice presidents couldn’t agree with her on a common agenda and questions for the meetings, she told them the union wouldn’t pay for travel she called a “victory lap.”

The new vice presidents said they shouldn’t need Walker’s permission for information and travel, and that they can’t bring the change members voted for if they must always get approval. They said that Walker and lower-level union officers aligned with her have intentionally shut them out.

Owens, in his letter to the union board, described his attempt to attend a closed-session June 3 bargaining meeting held by Bargaining Unit 1, the largest of nine units the union represents.

Susan Rodriguez, the unit’s chairwoman, asked Owens to leave, telling him he isn’t a part of the bargaining team. After he refused, Rodriguez ended the meeting.

“To be dismissed as if you’re of no value, regardless of what the members want, that’s a tough pill to swallow,” Owens said.

Rodriguez said the unit’s bargaining team previously had decided to restrict its meetings to bargaining team members and select staff. She said the same restriction was in place for the last two contracts she has helped negotiate as part of the Unit 1 team.

“We have to preserve that confidentiality, and, I want to call it, the sanctity of the room, and that’s why we’re very tight on who we let in,” she said.

Rodriguez invited Owens and the other two vice presidents to a meeting with eight bargaining unit chairs on June 6, according to his letter. That meeting only exacerbated divisions over trust, responsibility and union policy, according to the letter.

Vice president for organizing Anica Walls said she has been unable to obtain basic information, such as numbers for how many janitors and engineering technicians are part of the union, and hasn’t been able to access contact information for members or even union stewards. She said the lack of information could impede her ability to organize contract season actions, such as shows of solidarity when Local 1000 workers wear purple.

“That’s really difficult for me personally,” Walls said. “That’s the crux of what my job should be, getting the field ready and ready for action when it comes to getting whatever it is we’re asking for at the table.”

Walker said Walls doesn’t need the contact information, adding the union is guarding members’ information more closely than ever as anti-union groups attempt to reach members following the Janus ruling.

Secretary-treasurer Kevin Menager, who is a vice president, said he hasn’t been able to view bank and credit card statements, lease agreements for union buildings around the state, union leave spending and other financial details.

“Knowing the ins and outs to get a good picture I think is my responsibility to the board and to our members, and I feel I’m not being allowed that,” he said.

“Again, that’s a difference of ‘what I think I need to do my job and what I actually need to do my job,’” Walker said.

She said Menager’s access to union finances — including reviews of quarterly financial reports and the ability to ask the union’s chief financial officer more detailed questions — is sufficient.

‘Just because you want something different, doesn’t make it so’

The vice presidents say a section of the union’s governing document, known as a policy file, gives them broad authority to conduct union business.

A paragraph on the union’s executive committee — the president and the three vice presidents — assigns the committee “all the necessary authority to carry out the policies, programs and plans of the Local between meetings of the Local 1000 Board of Directors,” including as they relate to “financial and staff resources,” training and other tasks, according to the file.

Walker cites sections on specific offices as being the governing text.

According to those sections, the president has authority to carry out the union’s policies and procedures, execute its plans and programs and to clarify and interpret Local 1000 bylaws and policy when the union’s board of directors is not meeting.

Sections on the vice presidents’ roles task them with “assisting the president” in administering the union’s affairs, and identifies the president as the union’s chief negotiator, giving the leader the option of delegating that responsibility to the vice president for bargaining.

“Just because you want something different, doesn’t make it so,” Walker said of the governing policy.

However the policies are interpreted, the newly elected vice presidents face expectations from members who voted them in because they wanted things done differently, Menager said.

Among the complaints of the vice presidents and some other union members is Walker’s decision to hire Margarita Maldonado, the union’s former vice president for bargaining, as the union’s chief of staff a few months after Maldonado lost the election to Owens.

“It is sending a message to the members that ‘regardless of what you all voted for, I’m going to keep this person in a position of power anyway,’” said Ronald Rosson, a District Labor Council president in the Bay Area. Rosson said he was speaking on behalf of his district’s members, not in his official union role.

Walker said Maldonado was the best candidate for the job, citing her experience as a Bargaining Unit 1 chairwoman from 2004 to 2011 and an elected bargaining representative before that, along with her tenure as vice president for bargaining.

“Anyone would have been foolish not to have hired her and brought her in,” she said. “The organization is better for it and our members are.”

A way forward?

Walker said closing the union’s divisions will require the vice presidents recognizing their roles and for the three to clarify their visions with her to build a “portfolio” to guide their work. She said that since she is accountable to members as the union’s leader, she must retain the authority of her title.

“Ultimately, everything that happens in the local – good, bad, indifferent – whether I do it, somebody else does it, or anything else, ultimately is my responsibility, and the members see it as my responsibility, and I accept that,” she said. “Which is why I’ve worked very hard at making sure we’re a visionary local, we’re a planning local, we’re a leadership development local and every day we do something to change their lives.”

The vice presidents each suggested the way forward lies with members making their voices heard at the ground level.

“There’s a lot of disaffected people out there who have cynically given up hope that our union can be what it can be,” Menager said. “But we can come together. It just takes people being willing to come together. We can’t give up.”

Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. He covers taxes, pensions, unions, state spending and California government. A Montana native, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.
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