SEIU's Claim Mayor 'Broke Promise' to Union Is a Tough Sell

Categories: Government, Labor
Yesterday's contentious SEIU protest at City Hall was both similar to and different from the protests that proceeded it. It was different in that it featured a 14-foot-tall puppet and some sort of altercation with a Native American group. And it was the same in that it probably won't save the jobs of the 500 or more public health and clerical workers whose imminent dismissal was the impetus for the whole demonstration.

Regardless of where one falls on unions, this is a shame -- these are relatively low-paid folks who serve the really low-paid and are vital cogs in the city's health care system. Yet the SEIU's oft-repeated refrain that Mayor Gavin Newsom "broke his promise" in failing to get a revenue-generating measure onto the November ballot to bring in funds now being saved by letting these 500 people go just doesn't add up.

SF Weekly has spoken with union organizers and members of the downtown business community regarding the efforts to get some form of revenue measure -- in plain English, a tax -- onto the ballot. Both SEIU representatives and members of the Chamber of Commerce acknowledge that their independent polls showed such a measure would not come close to passing. So it doesn't make much sense for the unions to accuse the mayor of "breaking a promise" to put a revenue measure on the ballot when that same union acknowledges that this was a hopeless cause. What's more, only the Board of Supervisors can put a measure on the ballot -- not the mayor.

SEIU organizer Robert Haaland said Newsom hasn't put forth "a good-faith effort" to find revenue that would have staved off these layoffs. "To be fair to the mayor's office, in July they did polling and we did polling that showed the revenue wouldn't pass in November," he said. Newsom, in Haaland's view, should have then worked hard to find other ways of raising revenue.

Haaland's view doesn't sound unreasonable. But If you're going to charge the mayor with being lazy and disengaged -- well, get in line and take a number. It's not the same as saying he broke a promise.
Haaland, incidentally, has plenty of ideas on how to bring in revenue without laying off union workers. There are fees on goods like sugar or alcohol and a just-passed Assembly measure, AB 1383, that Haaland claims will bring $34 million in Medicaid funds to the city.

The mayor's office, however, seems content to take this money and save the $7 million from laying off the 500 workers.

Meanwhile both before and after the SEIU's May pact with the city -- in which the union agreed to roughly $38 million in give backs -- a consortium of "stakeholders" met in hopes of crafting a ballot measure that would bring in some dough. The SEIU and Chamber of Commerce were there, as were representatives from the mayor's office, and Supervisors David Chiu and John Avalos, to name a few. Yet once the SEIU's pact was in place and talk turned serious, Haaland says the other side suddenly didn't want to meet anymore.

But just as the SEIU accuses the mayor of failing to work up a sweat when looking for revenue generators other than taxes, Steve Falk, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, says the union was not interested in reforming the long-term cost problems that menace the city's labor future.

"I wasn't against considering revenue measures as long as they were tied to some significant reform measures," said Falk. "We all knew the two had to go hand in hand. This isn't the business community we're talking about, this is the voters. The voters are not in the frame of mind to tax themselves unless they see a real benefit."

Note: Slight editorial changes were made regarding the timing of the "stakeholder" meetings.

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