What Did SEIU Hope to Gain Via Quixotic Quest to Change Newsom's Mind?

Categories: Labor, Politics
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As SF Weekly and others reported yesterday, the SEIU convinced eight supervisors to borrow nearly $2 million -- from funds already earmarked for workers' salaries -- to stave off layoffs, pay cuts, and job reassignments in the Department of Public Health.

And, because San Francisco's governmental system works this way, Mayor Gavin Newsom said he doesn't give a damn. Eight supes, 11 supes, even God descending from heaven and casting a 12th vote -- it doesn't matter. The supes can allocate all the money they like, but the mayor is under no obligation to spend it. Those layoffs are going to happen.

Everyone knew this going in. So it prompts the question of why the SEIU mounted a loud and public campaign to urge San Franciscans to browbeat the mayor and supes into staving off those cuts -- when the one person who needed convincing had already made up his mind.

When we put this question to SEIU spokesman Carlos Rivera, he reiterated all the arguments the union made about why these cuts were unfair: Money is ostensibly on the way from the state, the affected workers were low-paid women and minorities, the...

Carlos? I may comb my hair back in the morning, but I'm not Gavin Newsom. Everyone knew Newsom wasn't going to spend this money. Why mount a public campaign when that was a fait acompli? Rivera then reiterated something he'd said to other reporters -- a hope that "Gavin Newsom has a heart..."

Carlos? He doesn't.

Surely the SEIU -- which has butted heads with Newsom for years -- wasn't counting on the mayor's goodwill? Was it? 

Our calls to union and political insiders didn't reveal an obvious reason why the SEIU would wage a public campaign to attack an intractable private battle. But here are some ideas:

  • The idea of publicly shaming Newsom is a holdover from his time running for governor, when this kind of pressure could be more effective; SEIU workers had been known to leaflet outside Newsom's town hall meetings. Still, Newsom dropped out of the gubernatorial race. It was sort of big news;
  • This is all about the next issue, just as a baseball manager rushing out of the dugout to argue a blow call is hoping for future concessions, not a reversal of said blown call;
Supervisor Bevan Dufty was also uncertain what, if anything, the SEIU gained by going to the mattresses in the manner it did. Dufty, along with Supervisors David Chiu and John Avalos, recently met with Newsom, and Dufty proposed a compromise measure to save those SEIU jobs. The District 8 supe suggested cutting around 10 percent from the nearly $40 million in budgetary add-backs approved by the supes to glean $3.5 million to preserve the health workers' jobs.

"The mayor just wasn't open to it," said Dufty. "Clearly the mayor at this stage has a lot more control over the fiscal situation" than the board. When asked what he thought the union hoped to gain by adopting the strategy it did, Dufty noted that SEIU's "internal politics is very complex" and "volatile." In any event, if the mayor was willing to dismiss out of hand an offer by Dufty and others to pull money away from their pet causes and incur those people's wrath, it was a pretty safe bet he wasn't going to be swayed by a slick mailer urging city residents to call his office.

Veteran San Francisco political consultant Jack Davis saw the SEIU's recent campaign as part of an ongoing battle to convince the public to stave off job cuts -- which Davis sees as doomed. It's not hard to enrage the public by comparing public sector union employees' salaries to their private sector colleagues'. Davis also adds that big, public campaigns like the SEIU's are a great way for folks who run campaigns for a living to earn lots of money. Hmmm.

And yet, others hold out hope -- somehow -- that the final card has not yet been dealt.

"There has to be a way where everybody saves some face. I really do believe the funds are there; it's just a matter of political will," said Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a staunch labor supporter. "The mayor is not invincible. He's not infallable. He's not the pope."

He sure ain't. But even the pope can't make Newsom spend that money.

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