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Controversial Insurgent to Run 90k Member Union

The new statewide President vowing to disaffiliate, cut dues; already caught up in controversy

Brian Young's picture
Jun 01, 2021

The largest state workers union in California, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000 has elected a new President, Richard Louis Brown. He unseated the previous President Yvonne Walker, who had held the position since 2008. Although he has not taken office yet, Brown is already ruffling feathers with his statements about Governor Gavin Newsom, the SEIU, and the tactics he used to get elected.

Brown ran a campaign that promised to take a more aggressive tone with Newsom, including not supporting him in his upcoming recall election, creating a larger strike fund, cutting union dues in half, and disaffiliating from the SEIU. Local 1000 represents 96,000 people who work for the state of California and represents 9 of the 21 bargaining units in the state government.

Brown’s was elected largely on attacking Walker’s decision to make concessions in 2020 when the state faced a potential $54 billion budget deficit. Workers ended up seeing pay cuts that topped 9%, although Newsom has said that he is expecting to restore those cuts when the new fiscal year begins on July 1. Workers were especially angry when Newsom presented his budget last month and the expected record deficit had turned into a record revenue surplus, partially due to the enormous federal aid that was given in the recent stimulus bill.

With Newsom facing a recall election over his handling of the pandemic, Brown has promised that his union will not be supporting Newsom even as SEIU California, the umbrella organization for SEIU locals in the state that represents 700,000 workers, said that it is firmly opposed to the recall of Newsom.

“He is going to need support from public-sector unions to help him fight his recall,” Brown said in an interview with The Associated Press. “When I become president of Local 1000, he can look for somebody else to support him. He will not get any help from us. He’s on his own.”

Newsom was elected Governor in 2018 thanks in part to unions like Local 1000 supporting him. However, Brown believes that in the ensuing 2+ years, Newsom has strayed from labor instead demanding that they take cuts that were equivalent to two days wages each month during the pandemic. “That’s why I said we’re going to run his ass out of office,” said Brown.

Brown won the election last week with just 33% of the vote. Five candidates were running. Walker received just 27%. Although the union has 96,000 members, just 7,800 voted. Brown had run against Walker two previous times.

Brown is also promising that once he takes office on June 30th he will ask the union to create a strike fund to be used in future contract negotiations. Unlike other state’s, many public employees do have the right to strike in California. Local 1000 has previously authorized strikes in 2009 and 2016 but contracts were settled before they were forced to go on strike. Brown is also advocating for disaffiliation from the SEIU, which he says eats up more than half of the members’ dues. He has also promised to cut union dues in half and create more transparency in union affairs with the hope that this will build back union membership. How he plans to cut dues while also increasing the strike fund remains unclear.

He also promised to end the union’s participation in politics claiming that it is alienating half of the union's memberships. “You’re alienating half your union,” he said. “You can’t unify your union if you’re involved in politics.”

The election of Brown may come under further review in the upcoming days as Strikewave is reporting that questionable posts on Brown’s Facebook page give the appearance that he was offering members money to vote for him.

According to posts made on Brown’s personal Facebook on April 16th, Brown states that "I offered to pay for you to vote . . . [and] I have offered many people the same thing[.]" He goes on to state that he never told recipients of funds who to vote for, and offered money because voting “is that important to me[.]”

Strikewave reports that the member addressed in the Facebook post clarified that Brown offered to pay dues for individuals who had or were considering leaving the union. Brown has struck back at the criticism calling rules that only allow dues-paying members to vote for the union President “voter suppression.” He also said that Walker’s supporters were giving out scratch-off lotto tickets to members. Limiting voting to only dues-paying members is common in unions as people not paying full union dues are not considered members of the union and are often not entitled to the full benefits that a union member receives.

Other candidates running for President, like Tony Owens, agreed that other violations may have occurred, but Brown’s statements crossed the line. “I believe that vote-buying is illegal,” wrote Owens in an email to Strikewave. “I think it is harmful to the democratic process and invites corruption.” Owens has filed a post-election protest pointing to irregularities, including eligible voters not receiving ballots. Another candidate for President Kevin Menager said “Equating union dues to a poll tax shows either a ridiculous level of ignorance or a calculated political play on emotions,” wrote Menager in an email to Strikewave. “Requiring membership in an organization is the most basic requirement for participation in it,” Menager said paying membership dues so that another person could vote was inappropriate, though he told Strikewave that he had no knowledge of Brown explicitly asking for a member's support in exchange for payment.

While there is nothing in Local 1000’s constitution that explicitly states that an officer or candidate couldn’t pay someone’s dues in exchange for a vote, the SEIU’s International contract does ban candidates for international or local office from soliciting support from nonmembers, which someone who is not paid up on their dues would be considered. Another worrisome statement from Brown came when he parroted a Freedom Foundation talking point saying that the union controls wages and working conditions for nonmembers and that they “shouldn’t be represented by the union if they don’t want to be represented by the union.”

Some members are also concerned over his previous statements that equated the union donating to Black Lives Matter as similar to donating to the Oath Keepers, a history of anti-vaccine comments, and outlandish social media behavior. Workers on a SubReddit for state workers characterized Brown as “batshit crazy,” and a “Trump-loving anit-vax from the cheap seats idiot.”

It is unclear whether the SEIU will step in to investigate the allegations against Brown or the allegations that other candidates might have violated the union's campaign rules. While Brown said he expects challenges from the SEIU, Local 1000 maintains unusually wide autonomy from the International union making it hard for them to come in and remove him from office. In the meantime, the Executive Board of the union is expected to meet on June 2nd to take up a resolution to endorse Newsom and to write a large check, possibly for $1,000,000, to his recall campaign before Brown can block the move. Brown takes office on June 30th.

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