SEIU dissolves local; fires longtime field rep.
Thursday, March 8, 2007
Union members love their new regional organization, according to Local 521’s Web site, which quotes smiling workers from Monterey, Santa Clara, San Benito, San Mateo and several Central Valley counties.
Officials of the Service Employees International Union say the new regional entity, which was formed on March 1, makes its members “stronger together.” Indeed, the workers quoted on the union’s Web site seem to agree that the new, larger union means a more powerful bargaining force.
But the consolidation has caused some unrest. One longtime union organizer lost her job in the reshuffle. And several members of the former local say they feel abandoned.
On March 1, more than 45,600 workers from five locals—including two in Monterey County—were consolidated into Local 521. The move followed a statewide election last September, in which SEIU members voted to merge local branches into four regional units.
Under the new arrangement, two locals representing Monterey County employees were dissolved: Local 535, which represented about 450 social workers and mental-health workers, and Local 817, which represented about 3,500 other County employees.
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The day following the transition, SEIU fired Wren Bradley, Local 535’s longtime senior field representative. Bradley says the union leaders didn’t tell her why she was being let go.
Gayle Tiller, Local 521 communications director, says she has no information about who was fired as a result of the reorganization. However, she insists the regional organization will be good for rank-and-file union members.
“It’s bigger and better,” Tiller says. “It will benefit our counties, our schools, our cities. Residents will receive the best services possible and workers will get quality contracts.”
But several union members who used to belong to Local 535, the smaller of Monterey County’s two SEIU locals, say their representation has suffered as a result of the consolidation.
“This bigger entity, so far, is choosing to ignore us,” says Linda Sakata, former president of Local 535.
Other former Local 535 members say union reps aren’t supporting them when it comes to disciplinary actions and labor-management meetings. On the day following her dismissal, Bradley expressed concern about the new structure.
“There’s clearly a reduction of services,” she says. “It’s taking away the participatory democracy that existed in 535. It’s the Wal-Martization of SEIU.”
Bradley says grievances filed with the union against employers got lost in the consolidation. Union members with valid complaints against employers that required union intervention “have been left to the roadside,” she says.
“They encouraged us to wipe the slate clean before March 1. Our managers encouraged us to settle things. There’s been an attitude of just agree to something, do the best you can to get rid of it.”
Union leaders, however, deny hearing any complaints. “We’ve heard nothing but good things,” Tiller says. “We have gotten a lot of positive feedback from local 535 and local 817 members, and everyone’s feeling very good about it.”
Bradley says in the North-Central region, four former Local 535 staff members lost their jobs. In Los Angeles County, organizers say union leaders fired nine of 12 Local 535 staffers.
Tiller says she doesn’t know how many former Local 535 organizers and field reps lost their jobs.
“I don’t know about the specific numbers,” she says. “We’re growing and we will have the best staff possible.”
Some local union members, however, like the change. Harry Gamotan, former president of SEIU Local 817 and current board member of Local 521, says his old local didn’t lose any paid staff in the consolidation. And he says the consolidation “will be a good thing” for his fellow workers and the community.
“Those areas that we maybe have not been able to put sufficient resources into, now we’ll be able to concentrate on and continue to grow,” he says. “And as we improve on contracts, it’s a marketing tool. People will see it’s a good thing to belong to unions—not only union members but communities benefit.”