Too often, unions function as slush funds for the Democratic Party, lining the pockets of politicians while spending very little on members. Union members who don’t like this are often told to work to change things from the inside, but the example of a State of California employee shows how difficult this can be.
Richard Louis Brown, fed up with the status quo, promised to be a new kind of union leader. When Brown became president of SEIU Local 1000 last June, representing 96,000 California state employees, he aimed to reform the corruption that had been plaguing his union. His platform included ending political donations, taking steps to ensure the integrity of union elections, and treating people in the bargaining unit equally, regardless of whether they paid dues or not.
True to form, the union worked to silence, intimidate, and outmaneuver Brown. When he tried to stick to his campaign promises by staying out of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s recall election, the union’s board voted to contribute $1 million to Newsom anyway. Brown became even more of a thorn in the union’s side when he proposed severing the local union from SEIU’s national union.
Union officials eventually tired of obstructing his efforts and decided to force him out instead. In October, the board voted to strip him of many of his powers as president. Finally, on February 28th, he was officially suspended from office.
Worse yet, SEIU locked him out of the building, a common practice employers use during labor negotiations that aren’t going their way. Union-friendly progressives like Bernie Sanders broadly oppose this tactic.
SEIU leadership has accused Brown of mismanagement, improper spending, and of giving union employees too many days off, but Brown has denied those allegations.
Brown’s story is an example of what can happen to those who try to get between unions and their political spending. Even though SEIU members voted for Brown and supported his efforts to clean things up on the local level, it looks like union officials removed Brown so that they could continue the long-running system of political pay-to-play using their members’ dues.
The board of directors and the national union proved where the real power in SEIU lies—not with rank and file union members.
The oft-repeated expression “you can’t fight city hall” would make more sense as “you can’t fight the national union”—though people who aren’t happy with the way their union functions should keep trying. Reforms like those proposed by Richard Louis Brown would have a lasting effect on public employees who want better treatment from their union and don’t want their paychecks funding politics. The union may be able to lock him out of the office for now, but they can’t keep his ideas out of the union or prevent its members from demanding much-needed reforms.