Just when the Democratic Party in California needs all the help it can get to win its upcoming election battles, a significant part of its base is divided and weakened by internal conflicts and a sickly economy.
California has more unionized workers than any other state, and a higher percentage of its workforce belongs to a union than in all but eight other states. Last year, 2.4 million workers in California, or 17.2 percent of the labor force, belonged to labor unions – far higher than the national figure of 12.3 percent.
These workers have formed the backbone of the Democratic Party's base in California. But California's largest union, the Service Employees International Union, representing some 700,000 workers in the state, is instead fighting the largest private sector union election held in the United States since the United Auto Workers battled the Ford Motor Company in 1941.
Sacramento and labor insiders tell me that SEIU in general is far less of a presence in the State Capitol than usual, especially in helping to craft and lobby for legislation, and is losing valuable time in turning out volunteers – "boots on the ground" – to work on voter registration and other election-year activities.
This week, 45,000 Kaiser Permanente employees will begin voting on which union will represent them. SEIU, which currently represents the Kaiser workers, is fighting a recertification battle against a breakaway union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, led by longtime SEIU leader Sal Roselli. Roselli established the new union after being ousted by SEIU's national president Andy Stern from his leadership of SEIU's 150,000-member West Coast local United Healthcare Workers-West. Stern himself resigned this spring, replaced by longtime SEIU leader Mary Kay Henry.
The Roselli-Stern split has cost SEIU dearly. SEIU has already spent millions on just hotel bills to put up thousands of its organizers in hotels around the state fighting various recertification battles with NUHW. Some of SEIU's most experienced organizers have left the union in protest over the conflict. Many of them have signed up to work for Roselli's new union.
SEIU has now assigned more than 1,000 of its own staff and members to fight the NUHW in a high-stakes battle with long-term consequences for SEIU. The cost of the battle, which includes flying in workers from outside the state and paying workers released from their regular duties to work on the election, could cost SEIU $20 million or more, one former SEIU organizer told me.
This is just the latest in a series of high-profile battles that SEIU has waged against Roselli and his supporters, who are vying to represent not only the Kaiser Permanente workers but tens of thousands of other home health care and hospital workers throughout the state.
In addition, SEIU in California has been hurt by a corruption scandal involving its largest California local and its head Tyrone Freeman, all exposed in a series of reports in the L.A. Times two years ago. And SEIU's Sacramento office has shrunk in size in part as a result of resignations in the wake of the union's split. Annelle Grajeda, president of SEIU's California State Council in Sacramento, also stepped down in the wake of charges of questionable spending. SEIU also shook labor unity by threatening to withdraw or withhold dues from county labor councils – and in one case actually did so – because the councils refused to take sides in the Roselli-Stern conflict.
These and related battles did "weaken SEIU in the state," said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara. "The labor movement (nationally) is in terrible shape, and this didn't help.".
The divisions reached such a point that SEIU even withheld its annual contributions to the California Democratic Party, reportedly in the $1 million range, because the union was upset that party chairman John Burton, a long time labor stalwart, had expressed support for Roselli and his breakaway union. When I talked with John Burton earlier this summer, all he would say was that SEIU's withholding of funds "hasn't been helpful."
"Whenever there are internal disputes, it is not helpful," he told me.
As of Friday afternoon, the California Democratic Party could not confirm whether SEIU had made its contribution for this year.
Add to all of this is disappointment within labor ranks with Democrats in the state Legislature for approving massive budget cuts in order to secure Republican support to pass a state budget. (The California Teachers Association, the state's second largest union, is deeply unhappy with a series of education bills approved by the Democratic majority to help improve California's ultimately unsuccessful bid for federal Race to the Top funds.)
Mary Gutierrez, communications director for California SEIU, said that the conflict with the splinter union has not compromised SEIU's ability to play a significant role in the Nov. 2 elections in California. "We know this election is important to us, and it is our number one priority," she told me on Friday. "We are very clear about the challenges, and we have no plans to scale back our efforts because there is a Kaiser election going on."
To those concerned that SEIU will not be able to engage in voter registration and other voter mobilization activities, she said these typically begin six weeks before an election, and the Kaiser Permanente vote will be over by then. "There is too much at risk for us, for our children's education, the environment," she said. "You have Meg Whitman who says there is a job problem in California, and her solution is laying off 40,000 workers. I don't understand how you solve an unemployment situation by laying off more workers."
However, in a high-stakes election, SEIU would typically have used September to mount a voter registration drive, and even August to recruit and motivate staff and volunteers. The deadline to register is October 18 – just two weeks after all ballots are due in the Kaiser Permanente election on October 4.
When Andy Stern resigned, many labor activists hoped that new leadership would heal the wounds that had opened up during his tenure. Mary Kay Henry, who succeeded Stern, has helped patch up conflicts with UNITE HERE, which represents hotel and restaurant workers. But the battle between SEIU and NUHW in California has not been resolved, with the former union throwing in all the resources it can muster to win it.
SEIU has endorsed Jerry Brown for governor. Without the full force of labor behind him, prevailing over multibillionaire Whitman will become even more challenging. The same applies to several initiatives on the November ballot such as Proposition 25, which will allow a majority in the Legislature approve a budget, in place of a handful of Republicans hostile to labor unions having effective veto power over it.