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Labor Pains: SF Unions Still Divided 

Wednesday, May 27 2015

For years, San Francisco has been the petri dish for the on-demand economy's remaking of the American labor force. Now, San Francisco's labor movement is getting a facelift as well.

Two of the city's main unions, Unite Here Local 2, which represents hotel and restaurant workers, and the United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), which represents public school teachers and paraprofessionals, elected new presidents this month — in very different fashion. Local 2 saw an orderly succession: Mike Casey, who has been president for 21 years, chose to step down and endorsed his replacement, staff member Anand Singh, who ran practically unopposed. Casey plans to remain on staff at the union and says he will serve out his term as president of the SF Labor Council.

The teacher's union election was a much more dramatic affair, with challenger Lita Blanc edging out longtime incumbent Dennis Kelly by just 25 votes. Blanc is the leader of Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU), a reform-minded caucus of the union that's been challenging Kelly's leadership since 2009.

EDU tapped into teachers' disatisfaction with the union's most recent contract. While the union's leadership saw the contract, which won 12 percent raises over three years and included other improvements such as 150 minutes of prep time a week for elementary school teachers, as a major victory, many members thought the union would have fared better if it had followed through on threats to go on strike.

"Two-thousand members voted for a strike in August. I thought that a strike would have resulted in a better contract for us," Blanc told the San Francisco Examiner after her election.

The EDU platform suggests the new leadership aims to be more transparent, democratic, left-wing, and militant than its predecessors, although under Kelly, the union was already a mainstay of the progressive wing of the city's labor movement. As for Local 2, Singh says the union will continue to focus on long-term organizing battles and trying to beat back what Singh calls the "illegal hotels" enabled by Airbnb.

The transitions come at an auspicious moment for the city's labor movement. Four years after labor failed to unite around a progressive candidate to challenge Ed Lee for mayor, Lee is poised to achieve re-election practically unopposed. Meanwhile, the District 3 supervisor's race is turning into a proxy battle for progressive forces dissatisfied with Lee's business-friendly politics, and, according to Casey, the labor council has already agreed it won't be able to agree on an endorsement of either Lee-ally Julie Christensen or progressive-favorite Aaron Peskin.

"It's particularly difficult right now within the Labor Council," says Casey, "because land use is in the middle of every fight." Issues like affordable housing pit building trade unions, which support development for the jobs it creates, against other unions such as UESF and SEIU 1021, which have signed on to the campaign opposing a major housing development at 16th and Mission streets.

And that division leaves labor at a disadvantage when it comes to mounting political opposition to Lee's agenda. "There's so much money flowing around in San Francisco right now that people are getting good contracts," says Alysabeth Alexander, vice president of politics for SEIU 1021, "but neoliberal politics are moving at the speed of light."

About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.


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