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Breaking Ranks 

Union leaders endorsed Willie Brown, but the rank and file has other ideas

Wednesday, Nov 10 1999
In an all-but-unheard-of move last year, Mayor Willie Brown received the early endorsement of the San Francisco Labor Council before summer was even heading toward fall. But that was also before the even more historical anomaly of Tom Ammiano's write-in campaign. Now, Brown appears to be losing much of the union support he tried to lock up early in his re-election campaign.

The mayor has long enjoyed the backing of labor in San Francisco, most notably the San Francisco Labor Council -- a sort of congress of the city's AFL-CIO-affiliated unions. In fact, representatives to the Labor Council voted to endorse Brown in the current mayor's race way back in July 1998. The majority of the city's individual unions, including United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), followed suit, though much later in the game. Then, less than three weeks before the election, Ammiano tossed his hat into the ring as a write-in candidate, and things got complicated for labor.

Many rank-and-file union members appear to have quietly walked away from Brown -- and to Ammiano -- in the general election, and more may do so in the December runoff. And, in some cases, they are doing so in direct defiance of their unions' official endorsements.

There is no way to show definitively how union workers voted in the general election. However, with Ammiano collecting more than 25 percent of the vote -- including much of the Mission District -- to Brown's 39 percent, it's a good bet that union members are at the center of a tug of war. Anecdotally, the evidence is even stronger that Ammiano is stealing labor votes away from the mayor, and driving a wedge between union leaders who have formally backed Brown, and rank-and-filers who want Ammiano instead.

The pickle is this: Ammiano is also a favorite among labor folks, which makes his candidacy particularly problematic for labor unions trying to deliver votes to Brown. Ammiano's call for a living wage ordinance earlier this year -- a standard that would mean companies that do business with the city must pay their employees a minimum of $11 per hour -- only solidified that support. Further, a fair number of the rank and file, and even some union leaders, seemed to resent the Labor Council's unprecedented endorsement of Brown long before the election season had even gotten under way. Thus, they quietly threw their support to Ammiano.

"I'm a member of the Labor Council for UPTE [University Professional and Technical Employees]," says Fred Alvarez. "I was there when they pushed us into making [Brown]our candidate. Everyone was shocked about the pressure tactics that were used. Many people abstained, and that's a big deal at the Labor Council.

"It doesn't surprise me at all that the rank and file is voting on their own."

Another union representative, who also was present for the endorsement vote, adds: "It came down to leadership saying this is where we are, and folks saying this isn't right. It's machine politics and it's not fair. I know of a lot of folks who outwardly had to pitch for the mayor because the Labor Council put us up to it, but really just didn't want to perpetuate that machine."

Josie Mooney, president of the Labor Council, and head of the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 790, did not return phone calls for this story. But, clearly, labor will deliver many votes to the mayor.

The organization's Labor Neighbor program has put hundreds of people on the streets of San Francisco registering voters and passing out slate cards that include Brown. Labor Neighbor was the mother of all political movements long before Ammiano ever started the mother of all grass-roots campaigns. San Francisco pollster David Binder reports that about 17 percent of San Francisco voters are in a "labor household," which represents exactly the same number as in "gay households" and "Republican households."

Brown ally Joe O'Donoghue, head of the Residential Builders Association, vowed last week to shut down RBA operations in order to concentrate on registering voters. And, much of SEIU remains behind Brown, thanks in part to the mayor's backing of a wage increase to $9 an hour for home care workers.

However, the rest of the city's health care workers are not so sure about the mayor. In fact, at least two leaders of unions representing health care workers actively worked to win Ammiano votes. And, they're not alone.

It seems that Brown's significant silence on the merger of UCSF's hospital with that of Stanford's, and the organization's subsequent decision to close Mount Zion hospital, is costing him votes. UCSF is one of the largest employers in San Francisco.

"I'm working on Ammiano's campaign," says the president of one University of California union. "I've seen a lot of our rank and file out there. It's amazing. He [Ammiano] has got very heavy labor support."

And much of that support has to do with Brown's history in office, the president says.

"[Brown] has ignored every issue we've brought to him," says the president, who asked not to be named. "He completely supported hospital privatization by his silence, and we've watched our friends lose their jobs."

Leaders of three other unions at UCSF, all of whom support Ammiano, echoed those concerns. Most asked not to be named for fear of retaliation for ignoring the Labor Council's endorsement.

"You did see more health care workers than I would have thought [working for Ammiano]," observes another union leader. "It's totally rank and file. That's the pizazz of S.F. politics."

Mary Higgins, a local leader of the Coalition of University Employees, which represents about 2,400 clerical workers in San Francisco -- and is not a member of the Labor Council -- also supports Ammiano.

"Certainly I think that Ammiano was there for us with Mount Zion, when Willie turned his back on us," Higgins says. "Ammiano has not only helped us, he's taught us. He kicked our butts for whining and then led the way about what we should be doing to get organized."

Giuliana Milanese, who took a leave of absence from her job as an organizer for the California Nurses' Association to work on Ammiano's campaign, says that there's an upsurge of rank-and-file labor activists on the campaign. "I see a lot of people taking off their union jackets and saying, 'Oh God please don't tell anyone I'm here,'" Milanese says. "Two weeks ago, a labor leader yelled at me, 'This is dividing the movement.' I didn't know the mayor's race was a movement."

Meanwhile, UESF, the city's teachers union, has its own unique set of complications with the race. UESF formally endorsed Brown in mid-October. But Tom Ammiano is one of their own. The supervisor is not only a former teacher, but a former board member in the San Francisco Unified School District, which likely has swayed many UESF members away from Brown.

"Teachers' support of the mayor doesn't seem to be significantly different than the average citizen," says UESF President Kent Mitchell. "Tom Ammiano is a former teacher and has friends in the school district. Many of the teachers would find this two goods rather than a bad choice."

Indeed, the murky lines of labor support appear no different than any other San Francisco subcategory that now finds itself facing a difficult choice between Ammiano and Brown.

"Labor has always done a really good job of keeping its people behind its endorsements," observes pollster Binder. "The last several years, we've actually seen a closing of ranks because of attacks on labor." But, he adds, this election may be a bit different in San Francisco.

"Labor is a diverse group. There's a lot of conservatives and liberals, just like any other group. People have a tendency to imply that a group is monolithic, when there are a whole set of subcategories. There are people who follow their heart."

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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