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The SEIU’s Own Staff Are On Strike

Above Photo: Members of SEIU Local 721 hold a press conference outside LAC+USC Medical Center Thursday, May 26, 2022, in Los Angeles, CA. Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

In One Of The Largest Union Staff Strikes In US History.

130 union staff workers walked off the job last week after management with SEIU Local 2015 refused to bargain.

Vehicles plowing through picket lines is nothing new for the labor movement, but usually the aggressors are replacement workers (“scabs”) or corporate managers. Rarely is it the case that such vehicular transgressions occur when the union is behind the wheel.

Tragically, that’s what happened on Nov. 1, the first day of an open-ended unfair labor practice strike by 130 staff of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2015 in Sacramento and Los Angeles, California. An HR manager of the union’s second-largest local in California, which represents over 400,000 long-term care workers, drove a pickup truck through the union staff’s Los Angeles picket. The manager struck Alex Sanchez, a striker and organizer with the local, who suffered minor injuries.

“She hit me and I practically rode her hood for 25 yards. I felt like I was running on ice,” Sanchez said. “If I would have taken a slip, she would have ran me over.”

The ongoing strike is one of the largest union staff strikes in American history, according to the Pacific Northwest Staff Union (PNWSU) Chapter 2015, which represents the staff members who work for SEIU Local 2015. Since the strike began, pickets have spread to offices in San Bernardino, Fresno, Oakland, and San Jose. Staff organizers, research and policy analysts, staff working the union member help line, as well as staffers from the finance and contracts departments, all walked off the job.

Union staff are often at-will employees, but staff at some labor unions are unionized themselves and bargain contracts with their employer—in this case, Local 2015 management is the employer. But staffers at Local 2015 say they are striking because management has failed to bargain in good faith, allegedly committing a number of unfair labor practices.

While SEIU Local 2015 staff and management signed a collective bargaining agreement in 2020, they could not agree on issues related to wage scales and healthcare. Many SEIU staff live in rural areas in California where their Kaiser health plans are not accepted, thus putting them in the financially stressful position of having to pay out of pocket to out-of-network providers. In late 2021, midway through the contract term, both parties agreed to reopen negotiations to revisit these issues.

In February 2022, after a number of proposals and counterproposals, Local 2015 management reportedly declared an impasse, imposed unilateral changes to the contract, and refused to bargain further with PNWSU. Management argued that the contract was almost expired and that they should wait to bargain a new full contract at the end of 2022. But the local’s workers don’t want to wait to solve 2021’s problems.

“We don’t want to bargain a full contract if we still have issues on the table,” said Stasha Lampert, treasurer of PNWSU. How can the workers trust that process, she asked, when they are “dealing with a management that thinks they can just unilaterally declare what the contract will be and start implementing”?

“They want to build a new house on a shaky foundation,” Sanchez added. “We still have a bad taste in our mouths because of the way the contract was implemented.”

In March, PNWSU filed ULP charges against Local 2015’s management with the National Labor Relations Board. For the next seven months, staff repeatedly asked management to come back to the bargaining table and engaged in a number of workplace actions: they asked family and friends to text and email union officers, for instance; they also vocalized their positions in all-staff Zoom meeting chats and collectively changed their video backgrounds to the PNWSU logo. Management mostly ignored the actions, said Lampert, but they eventually started shutting down the Zoom chats and calling fewer all-staff meetings.

This isn’t the first time SEIU staff have had trouble bargaining with their employer. In 2019, staff at the international union headquarters in Washington, DC, voted twice to authorize a strike as contract negotiations dragged on over layoff protections, but they eventually ratified their contract without having to take that action.

“We’re a labor organization. We preach solidarity and worker power, and empowerment and development of workers,” Sanchez said. “[Local 2015 management] is doing the exact same thing that our members’ employers are.”

Tensions came to a head in the last week of October when the staff voted to authorize a strike with 95% approval. That brought management to the table on Oct. 31, but Lampert said the union officers still refused to bargain. “They were hesitant to use any language about bargaining, saying they were there just to listen to our concerns,” said Lampert. “But they came completely unprepared and completely unwilling to bargain.”

That was the last straw for the workers. On Nov. 1, staffers walked off the job and began their strike, and were met quickly by what Sanchez described as a hit-and-run.

Alex Sanchez began working as an organizer for Local 2015 organizer in April, but he is a 20-year labor movement veteran. He’s worked as an organizer, union representative, and rank-and-file worker. Having so much experience with union work and labor-management relations, Sanchez knew to call a labor detail at the Los Angeles Police Department to make sure management and staff mutually respect the legal ground rules of the strike.

On the morning of the first day of the strike, Sanchez reported that both parties treated each other with respect. However, by the afternoon, the mood shifted noticeably. Management entering and leaving the local union office reportedly became antagonistic, including Local 2015 Executive Vice Presidents Arnulfo De La Cruz and Dereck Smith. In their vehicles, union officers stopped short at the picket or “aggressively crept” through the line, according to Sanchez.

Sanchez also told TRNN that managers were seen recording the protest on video, which is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act. Emails sent out to staff suggesting they scab and job posts uploaded by the local on the first day of the strike to—a website that collects open union staff positions—suggest the local is trying to replace the strikers. Sanchez also posted photos on social media depicting individuals patrolling near the union office who appear to be hired private security.

In response to this intimidation on the picket line, Sanchez reached out again to the LAPD labor detail to have the boundaries reiterated. But around 5:30PM on Nov. 1, as the HR manager, Alexia Peebles, tried to leave the building, Sanchez and other witnesses report that she accelerated toward the picket in her vehicle. She struck Sanchez, who was looking the other way, with her truck. He was later diagnosed by his medical provider with muscle spasms, but said the injuries are minor. He filed hit-and-run charges with the LAPD against Peebles, and is back on the strike line.

In an email response, SEIU spokesperson Terry Carter wrote that SEIU Local 2015 is “committed to bargaining in good faith with our staff’s union,” but did not respond to questions about management’s conduct on the picket line.

Over the past few days, through both rainy and sunny weather, workers and union staff from the California Federation of Labor, the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), SEIU Locals 721 and 1199, and other unions and organizations have joined the picket or expressed their solidarity online. Sanchez led chants as union management crossed the picket line in Los Angeles.

“¡Sin justicia! [No Justice!]” Sanchez bellowed.

“¡No hay paz! [No peace!]” his fellow strikers roared.

“¡Sin contrato! [No contract!]”

“¡No hay paz! [No peace!]”

The irony of a labor conflict within a labor union is not lost on the local’s workers. Workers going on strike are often, unsurprisingly, angry at their employers. However, in this case, as Sanchez notes, it’s particularly painful. “Lots of folks here are just heartbroken,” he said, emphasizing that staff didn’t expect such aggressive actions to be taken by the leadership, whom they had once considered mentors.

Sanchez told TRNN that staff aren’t taking the strike lightly. They are committed to the values of the labor movement and are worried about their membership, as well as the public image of the SEIU. According to Sanchez, staff pleaded with Local 2015 leadership to bargain in good faith, knowing that a public labor dispute between the union and its staff would make their organizing efforts more difficult. “We’re trying to get union density up. When I’m organizing new folks and all they have to do is Google and see how SEIU is acting, how are they going to react?” he said. “Think about how much damage will be done to the labor movement because of this.”

Union staff are workers too, Lampert emphasized, and there can’t be a strong labor movement if unions don’t treat their own workers with dignity. “All people deserve dignity in our jobs. All of us,” she added. “It’s as simple as management needs to come back to the table.”

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