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The Grid 

Wednesday, Jan 7 1998
Union Disorganizing
San Francisco loves to remind itself that it's a union town. Unions are powerful here, we like to claim. We are pro-union. Look for the union label. Union town, loud and proud.

But some unions in San Francisco have become too powerful, selfish, arrogant, and corrupt. Who can forget the Muni drivers' union, stridently defending the gay-bashing troglodyte who beat up two gay men kissing on a bus?

Whenever a group gains too much power, things get politically weird and wrong. And unionwise, the weirdest and the wrongest of them all these days is Service Employees International Union Local 790.

In its foray into the private sector, SEIU Local 790 has raced past all the obvious and legitimate targets of union organizers: garment sweatshops, retail profiteers, and high-tech companies that exploit temp workers. Instead, backed by a $1 million-plus grant from the national AFL-CIO, Local 790 has opted to organize the small -- and frequently cash-strapped -- nonprofit agencies serving San Francisco's poor, vulnerable, and indigent populations.

Which is about as weird and wrong a target as can be imagined for organized labor.

Nonprofits are, usually, just that: agencies of limited size and financial strength that must rely on annual fund-raising efforts to meet most if not all of their operating costs. As the name makes clear, they don't turn a profit. They can't, if they want to keep their tax exemptions.

Obviously, charity fund-raising is an extremely uncertain, year-to-year -- sometimes even month-to-month -- exercise that entails begging private philanthropists, foundations, and government funders for enough money to allow a nonprofit to keep offering its services. These funders -- especially government agencies -- are not fond of providing cost-of-living adjustments. And because nonprofits don't make money selling widgets, they can't simply raise prices to cover increased costs.

People -- let's qualify that -- sensible people who go to work for nonprofits realize they are going to have to sacrifice a measure of pay and benefits to do good, to achieve some larger social goal. They realize their bosses work within razor-thin financial margins and sometimes, as hard as it may be to face, have to lay off staff when the money doesn't come in the way it used to.

So judged on traditional labor grounds, Local 790's decision to organize aggressively at San Francisco nonprofits doesn't make sense.

Judged on political grounds, however, it makes perfectly disgusting sense.
To understand Local 790's lousy motives, you have to realize one thing first: Local 790 doesn't give a rat's ass about anything but Local 790.

Not all SEIU locals are so off-balance. Local 250 is picking the kinds of targets labor should go after: large nursing home chains and hospitals, big targets where the money and the profits and the stakes are as high as they get.

Alas, 790 is not so disposed.
These days Local 790 faces one main threat to its power: the decades-long practice of contracting out public service work to nonprofits. Properly utilized, privatization of these types of services can be a sensible practice. In many cases, nonprofits can provide more services to greater numbers of people than could be helped by more expensive city employees and their even-more-expensive bureaucratic overhead.

The problem: Those more expensive city employees are represented by SEIU Local 790. Which means their dues keep money flowing into the coffers of the union. And when a unionized city job is taken over by a nonprofit agency, Local 790 loses money.

So the maneuvering to keep the union dues flowing has become positively Machiavellian. If Local 790 can raise the costs at local nonprofits by saddling them with 5 to 7 percent annual salary hikes -- one of the demands the union is making in contract negotiations at several recently organized nonprofits -- it will have succeeded in making nonprofits expensive to use.

Maybe even as expensive as the union labor in city government.
At that point, contracting out to nonprofits will no longer be a viable cost-saving measure for the city. Local 790 will have protected its dues-paying government workers. Of course, the union will also have reduced the level of services available to the truly needy.

But who cares about runaway kids and HIV-positive transsexuals with severe drug problems, when you've got union dues and union power to protect?

This is ugly, greedy, and heartless behavior. But what's worse are the tactics Local 790 uses when organizing at nonprofit agencies. Those tactics are often so cruel and dishonest and corrupt that they very nearly overshadow the union's selfish and base motives.

In campaign after campaign, Local 790 has gone to extraordinary lengths to hide a simple fact: The basic labor argument -- that a union is needed to protect workers from exploitation -- isn't supported by conditions at most public service nonprofits.

The union's tactics usually involve crying that racism, sexism, heterosexism, or some other nasty ism is occurring at a nonprofit, to divide staff along racial, gender, or sexual-orientation lines. The charges are almost always tremendously painful to the people involved.

At the AIDS Foundation, union organizers told workers the executive director had pulled the plug on the Latino AIDS information hot line. There wasn't a shred of truth to the charge. Anyone could have called the hot line and found that out. But the organizers made the charge anyway, hoping to increase union power.

Union organizers called the agency's executive director, Pat Christian, homophobic, AIDS-phobic, and racist. Pro-union employees broke into computers and rifled confidential personnel files and, when they were caught and fired, cried racism and sexism. One organizer threatened to knife an employee who was uncertain she wanted to vote for unionization.

At another nonprofit, a small family services agency in the Mission District, the union again played the race card. Organizers lied to staffers, saying the agency's management didn't allow people to speak Spanish on the job. Again, the charge was utterly without basis. But protests were held and black and Asian employees were divided from Latino employees in the resulting bitter infighting.

At Westside Community Mental Health Center Inc., the union called the agency's direc-tors greedy and picketed the nonprofit, claiming that top administrators made more than $100,000 a year. The charge was not true -- and the union knew it. Weeks earlier Local 790 had demanded and received financial records showing that every one of the administrators made less than $100,000 a year.

At the nonprofits we've just mentioned, the organizers' first move has been to file official complaints at two levels of government. The union files charges of racism or some other form of discrimination at the S.F. Human Rights Commission, and files further complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. In the vast majority of cases, the NLRB and the HRC investigate and find no basis for the complaints. But those findings don't matter: The organizers have already invoked the shadow of management wrongdoing to provide a rationale for their campaign.

In some cases SEIU organizers appear to take the high road. We hear the organizing efforts at Huckleberry Youth Services Inc. are polite and high-minded. But these responsible organizing efforts seem to be the exception to the slash-and-burn tactics that take place in most of the campaigns.

When political groups run amok like this, it's the job of politicians to stand up and remind them they've lost their perspective or, at the very least, their manners.

San Francisco has one of the most powerful mayors in the history of the city. He was a major political figure before many local union hacks were even out of high school, and he's been a union favorite since the 1960s. He has the props to stand up to Local 790 and tell them they have gotten out of hand.

But the great Willie Brown has taken a duck on this issue. After listening to nonprofit directors' complaints last year, he reportedly showed initial sympathy before telling them he was staying neutral, apparently out of concern that he would lose more labor votes than he would gain from the nonprofit world.

This type of calculation is power politics at its worst. But we know Willie plays his politics that way.

Worse than our mayor's self-serving "neutrality" is the Board of Supervisors' pro-union toadying. Always eager to suck up to organized labor -- which, after all, can field more precinct-walkers than God -- the supes approved an SEIU contract last summer that makes it nearly impossible to contract out any more work to nonprofits. The board's budget analyst noted in his report to the board that the new SEIU contract provisions restricting contract awards to nonprofits "would limit the city's ability to save money in those cases where such services could be obtained at a lower cost than if performed by city employees."

The mayor and the board have been gelded by Local 790. So several nonprofit administrators say they'll just have to take Willie's advice. They will have to hire political consultants, lawyers, and their very own trench warriors, and brawl in the gutter with Local 790. And, they say, that's exactly what they are going to do.

It promises to be a debilitating set of skirmishes that will accomplish absolutely nothing except to drive wedges between natural political allies. It will also have been completely avoidable, the end result of an unbalanced political culture and elected officials too stupid and spineless to set some of their supporters straight, when they have gone off the good path.


About The Authors

George Cothran


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