It was a palace civil war and nobody in the break-away group even bothered to ask their members what to do.
By Jim Miller
Last week I outlined why the ill-conceived Mickey Kasparian-driven split in San Diego labor was such a bad idea, citing the recent history of the failed attempt of several national unions to form a break-away organization outside of the AFL-CIO called Change to Win (CTW) that eventually fell apart under its own weight accomplishing not much of note in the long run.
As I observed in that column, CTW cited a bold new organizing strategy as its justification but the split was really more about big egos in leadership and ended up dividing the labor movement while not doing anything to increase organizing or unions’ political power. In fact, the long decline of the American Labor Movement continued unabated on both sides of the split in the midst of much ado about nothing.
An educated appraisal of that history might lead one to shy away from such folly again, but that is not the case with those intent on following Kasparian over the cliff by leaving the Labor Council without any consultation with rank and file union members. For instance, SEIU 221 President David Garcias sent an email to his membership on the same day as my last column (a week after the split was announced) citing the failed CTW endeavor as a precedent for taking his union out of the Labor Council.
In that message, Garcias accuses the unions in the Council of not sharing “core values” with SEIU 221 or understanding the “real attacks” faced by public sector, low wage workers, and fellow community members. This despite the fact that the Council he attacks for failing to grasp these issues was led by the same people he is currently aligned with now.
Somehow he equates blindly following Kasparian, a leader who fires or seeks to punish anyone who disagrees with him and has three pending lawsuits against him brought by his Latina former staffers, as part of a movement fighting for “equality for all, racial justice, and fighting for the most vulnerable in our communities.” He ends by claiming that his union will be “blazing a new trail that I believe will be a model to other unions on how worker organizations should be structured.”
The great irony of all of this is that the next day, Local 221 was decertified by the bargaining unit of rank and file workers in the City of Chula Vista. As one SEIU 221 member noted in an email to me, those workers joined others who have left 221 over the years from the County of San Diego Probation Officers, the City of La Mesa, the City of San Marcos, the County of San Diego Crafts Unit, the County of San Diego Construction and Maintenance Unit, Poway School District, and the Maintenance and Operations workers in the San Diego Community College District. Thus Garcias’s talk of creating a “new model” for other unions might be a bit premature.
What all of these decertification elections speak to is an ongoing problem with not just 221 but the entire union movement that has lost touch with its rank and file members. Indeed, the way Garcias pulled out of the Labor Council with no significant consultation from his rank and file workers no less a formal vote on such a serious matter is evidence of the kind of top-down boss unionism that looks a lot more like the problem labor is suffering from than any kind of “trail blazing” solution.
More specifically, Garcias, who claimed that “it wasn’t a tough decision” to leave the Labor Council at the unceremonious Working Families Council press conference, waited a full week to communicate with his members about how the decision to leave the Council “was not an easy one to make.” Clearly he thinks he can say whatever he wants whenever he wants without being checked by troublesome rank and file democracy.
This kind of disregard for the rank and file didn’t sit well with a number of SEIU 221 folks such as Executive Board member Melody Godinez who contacted me and noted that, “this abrupt decision without any real consultation with the membership is a disservice to our members. It’s more about egos and personal politics than County workers.” Godinez also made the case that it was not internal strife inside the Council but intense pressure to support Kasparian at any cost that is the real problem.
And on the subject of recognizing the “real attacks” faced by labor and the subsequent need for new and better organizing, it must be noted that the Labor Council’s former Secretary-Treasurer Richard Barrera saw the need to address the current crisis and held a noteworthy labor-wide meeting on organizing in advance of what we all rightly anticipated would be a devastating ruling on public sector fair share rights in the Friedrichs case from the Supreme Court before Antonin Scalia died.
Frequently it was not the official processes of the Labor Council that mattered but whether you were at the “meeting before the meeting” and sided with Kasparian’s personal choice.
After Barrera left, however, all talk of the coming crisis vanished as Kasparian soon eclipsed the role of both the political director and the Secretary-Treasurer and engaged in a year’s worth of destructive internal and external battles with other union leaders and local politicians almost all of which resulted in more turmoil and/or political loss.
While my local (AFT 1931) sided with Kasparian rather than the Trades in many battles in recent years from the Chargers stadium initiative to supporting Sarah Saez for City Council, it became increasingly evident that the issues were less about the big picture for Kasparian and more about personal political power. Frequently it was not the official processes of the Labor Council that mattered but whether you were at the “meeting before the meeting” and sided with Kasparian’s personal choice.
Going back even further, in retrospect it is clear to see how principle and/or even political coherence flew out the window as Kasparian veered wildly from seeking to destroy Lorena Gonzalez to anointing her to sainthood, spending over a million dollars out of labor’s war chest on David Alvarez to demonizing him, running a social justice unionism campaign and talking about “core progressive values” in the race against Nathan Fletcher and then supporting the formerly Republican mayor of National City right after that.
After a while anyone actually paying attention in the Labor movement started feeling like Winston Smith in 1984 trying to discern who the enemies and allies were on any given day. In sum, it all went back to Mickey Kasparian’s ideologically moorless and, at times, unprincipled personal politics.
His speeches at endorsement meetings frequently morphed into long diatribes about how this or that politician succeeded or failed to do what he had asked her or him to do and how that made them either a hero or a zero in his book. It wasn’t high-minded or even politically sophisticated stuff. It was boss unionism from a leader who once told a fellow union representative that the Labor Council didn’t even need a political director because he should be the one taking care of those responsibilities.
…the “Building Trades versus Mickey” narrative turned into a cartoon and political conflicts ossified into deep personal hatred with Kasparian completely unable to see beyond his animus towards the Trades.
I could go on ad nauseam, but the fundamental point is that this top-down style started to create an in-group/out-group dynamic even before Barrera (who served as a check on Kasparian’s worst impulses while there) left and devolved into total dysfunction from former Secretary-Treasurer Bankhead’s election on. As things continued to decline, the “Building Trades versus Mickey” narrative turned into a cartoon and political conflicts ossified into deep personal hatred with Kasparian completely unable to see beyond his animus towards the Trades. And every time they poked him, it got worse.
While I was more often than not on his side of the issues, what became clear was that Kasparian’s leadership style made him incapable of dealing with opposition, a quality that, even when one agrees with the leader, is a fatal flaw for any diverse organization. With Bankhead unable to provide even a modicum of ballast, it soon turned into a nightmare, not because there was any rank and file conflict, but because leaders didn’t like each other.
Truth be told, none of this had anything to do with the majority of union members in San Diego. It was a palace civil war and nobody in the break-away group even bothered to ask their members what to do. That issue was, as Garcias’s email illustrates, an afterthought.
Thus, Garcias’s attempt to paint this as a dispute over “core values” just doesn’t hold any water. Many of the unions still in the Labor Council such as my local, AFT, the United Domestic Workers, and many more were always ready to come out and support Fight for $15 actions and share SEIU 221’s broader progressive political agenda.
And the constant “reactionary Building Trades versus progressive unions” narrative falls apart upon close inspection when one considers that it was the Trades who supported Alvarez along with other unions who argued that we needed a City Council President who would aggressively resist Mayor Kevin Faulconer while Kasparian advocated for Faulconer’s choice, Myrtle Cole, as president who then appointed Republicans to several key positions.
In fact, at the Labor Council delegates meeting where I stood up and argued that in the age of Trump we needed a “street fighter not triangulation,” it was Richard Barrera of UFCW who called my position “irresponsible” and forcefully argued for compromising with Republicans rather than resisting them.
I might also throw in that it was Carol Kim of the Building Trades who introduced Bernie Sanders at his National City stop last spring and trades unions like IBEW 569 joined AFT 1931 and CNA in endorsing Sanders for President. So, it’s just not that easy to draw the lines.
The anti-Trades narrative is also complicated by the inconvenient fact that Garcias’s new group includes the Laborers Local 89 as a founding member, the same union that broke with the Council to support Fletcher over Alvarez and fiercely opposed Sarah Saez’s progressive Labor Council-supported run for City Council, siding instead with the de facto candidate of the GOP. Local 89 is also a union that did everything it could to undermine the work of the Labor Council’s Environmental Caucus while in the Council and is quite reactionary and hostile to SEIU’s agenda on climate justice at the national level.
Meanwhile, the Building Trades as a whole joined the Quality of Life Coalition of labor and environmental organizations to oppose Measure A while Kasparian and Bankhead pulled a shady maneuver and rigged a Labor Council Executive Board vote to overturn previously established Labor Council transit policy in order to stay neutral on A. Nonetheless, SEIU 221 which shares AFT’s climate justice agenda, seems to have little problem being allied with THAT member of the Building Trades because they are on the same side (for the time being) of what is essentially an ego driven spat between leaders rather than a principled argument about politics and organizing.
Thus, as Martin Sheen says to Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now when Brando’s character asks if his methods are “unsound,” I would suggest to Garcias that “I don’t see any method at all.”
It’s also a shame to see so many good people on the staffs of these unions who have no choice but to follow their bosses’ lead and be dragged through this miserable conflict.
One can only hope that the members of SEIU 221, UFCW, and the handful of other unions who have left will insist on more rank and file democracy and urge their leadership to rejoin the Labor Council for the sake of the local labor movement as a whole. It’s also a shame to see so many good people on the staffs of these unions who have no choice but to follow their bosses’ lead and be dragged through this miserable conflict.
The movement should not be defined by the egos and the individual calculations of union leaders; it should be about the best interests of our rank and file members because a weaker, divided movement hurts us all.