Minimum wage fight splits powerful union

Original Article:

  • Author: Michael Salstman

  • Publication Date: February 2016

  • Newspaper: OC Register

  • Topics: Minimum Wage

If you read recently that the Service Employees International Union had filed for a ballot initiative for a $15 per hour minimum wage in California, you might think you’re seeing double.

Think again. It turns out that two SEIU groups in California are trying to raise the state minimum wage to $15 from its current $10 level. Their proposals are nearly identical in content, and are equally bad economic policy. But understanding the reason these two initiatives may compete for voters’ attention has nothing to do with economics, and everything to do with union politics.

California’s SEIU is divided into warring factions: The two most important are the hospital workers union SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West and the SEIU California State Council, a federation of local SEIU affiliates that has close ties to the SEIU International office in Washington, D.C. The leaders of these two groups – Dave Regan of SEIU-UHW, and Mary Kay Henry at the national office – are at each other’s throats over control of the 1.9 million-member labor organization.

Six years ago, Henry and Regan were allies who needed support to consolidate their power. Former SEIU President Andy Stern installed Regan as top boss at SEIU-UHW in 2009, amid controversy that led one SEIU local president to bolt the union and form his own. Stern departed under a cloud of complaints over fiscal mismanagement in 2010, and Regan backed Henry’s bid for SEIU’s top job.

By 2014, the alliance had fractured. Rumors reported on a blog run by dissident SEIU members said Regan was angling to run against Henry in the union’s 2016 internal elections. Henry handled that potential challenge by reviving an old reorganization plan that took long-term-care workers (who made up about half of Regan’s membership) and moved them under the control of one of her allies.

In addition to a loss of face for Regan, the move ensured more union president proxy votes remained under Henry’s allies’ control. Regan reacted by writing a nine-page missive against Henry’s leadership, alleging that SEIU “increasingly bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the paranoid and dogmatic style of a Cold War witch hunt.”

It’s amid this chaotic infighting that the competing minimum wage measures are playing out. Regan announced in 2015 that SEIU-UHW would help fund a nationwide effort (The Fairness Initiative) to put the minimum wage on the ballot in as many states as possible in 2016, with California being one of the targets. It’s the kind of bold accomplishment you might use to bolster your candidacy for, say, the top SEIU job. So when the SEIU state council swooped in and announced its own duplicative ballot measure, there was little doubt about its purpose.

Caught in the middle here are SEIU members, who are on the hook for the duplicate political campaigns that SEIU-UHW and the State Council are running. (The two SEIU factions are also backing another set of competing ballot measures.) Under federal labor law, unions can use dues money, rather than opt-in political action committee funds, for ballot measure campaigns. So when Regan’s UHW and Henry’s State Council run duplicate signature-gathering campaigns and duplicate media efforts, dues-paying members foot much of the bill.

Even if you support the policies, it doesn’t do SEIU members any good to pay dues to support two campaigns each to raise the minimum wage.

Fixing this situation will require either Regan or Henry to swallow their pride and play along. In truth, unless they both lose, we all do. The proposed minimum wage hike, coming so close on the back of California’s existing wage hike, will decimate Inland Empire and rural communities by killing entry-level jobs. Even Gov. Jerry Brown has raised red flags on the fiscal consequences for the state from $15.

So root for Dave Regan and Mary Kay Henry to keep feuding and foul up their fight for $15. The future of California might depend on it.