June 27, 2007

Region's Locals Merge: SEIU 721 Seeks to Protect Interests of Public Employees in Southern California

The dwindling number of union members in Southern California has recently been offset by a labor-friendly progressive majority in the local political scene. SEIU 721, a result of a recent reorganization of the national structure of the union, represents employees of publicly-funded agencies and organizations. Considering the union's unique perspective on local fiscal policies, MIR was pleased to speak with SEIU 721 President Annelle Grajeda about the balancing act that local and state fiscal policies require of this reinvigorated union.

Annelle Grajeda

Why don't you begin by providing our readers background on SEIU 721-why did SEIU locals merge into 721, and what are your leadership responsibilities for the union?

Consolidation of locals into SEIU 721 isn't something that happened overnight. This has been a process that's been occurring in SEIU since our 2000 convention in Pittsburgh. There was a lot of reorganization on the East Coast, and after our 2004 convention in San Francisco, reorganization began in California. The reason for the reorganization is to gather our strength and our resources in order to better deliver for our members-win for our members and win for the community.

Look at the labor movement today. In the 1960s and the 1970s, 35 percent, roughly one in three workers was in a labor union. Today, if you take out the public sector, it's down to eight percent. It's pretty dismal. The manufacturing sector is pretty much gone, steel, the garment industry, the auto industry. In the public sector we've seen a lot of organizing, but we've also seen, since the '80s, and increasingly in the '90s, employers looking for ways to get this work done cheaper. It's a service economy-the kinds of jobs that we're growing are low wage, service sector jobs. So, the challenge is: how does labor make sure that workers in this country have a chance at the American dream?

We've got to figure out a way to organize ourselves for strength and for power so that we can grow. That's what we've done in California. We began with a series of hearings back around the spring of '06. There were hearings held up and down the state. Locals were encouraged to come forward, participate in the hearings, and provide their own plans for how they thought they could help grow our union. The hearing officers were appointed by President Andy Stern, and the hearings were open to all members, to staff, to come in and make a presentation on behalf of a local, on behalf of members.

Clearly, your union has successfully organized. And with reorganization, SEIU 721 now consolidates seven county and city employee unions in Southern California. What 721's membership size and what's the union's agenda and priorities?

We're about 85,000 strong now, and that includes San Luis Obispo County, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles County, Riverside, Orange County, and we're organizing for San Bernardino. Everything public sector and publicly funded is in our SEIU 721 jurisdiction now.

We want to defend our base. But it's not just about defending our base; how do we deliver public services? How do we create an organization that delivers quality services and wins for workers? By reorganizing ourselves, by harnessing our resources, by partnering with our employers around innovation and quality.

For example: temporary employees are not represented in Riverside County. We're organizing temporary employees who work for Riverside County. Why are we doing that? Because those temporary employees have been abused. They're not temporary; they're there for five to ten years; they work a full week. That's the way that government agencies get around decent benefits and decent pay.

It's a gathering of our resources, raising standards for everyone, sharing best practices. That's what this is about. Are wages really going to keep up with the cost of living or rising health care costs? Every time there are negotiations, we're faced with the question, is the employer going to pick up the increase in the health care plan? Or is it a raise? The days when an employee working in public service could say, "I've got secure retirement, I'm here, I may make a little bit less money than the private sector but I know I've got a pension plan, I've got security in my job,"-those days are over. We saw the attack made by Schwarzenegger on public employees in November of '05. And that was about secure retirement.

SEIU's national president is Andy Stern. Many commentators have said that SEIU has the most dynamic labor leader in the country. What is Stern's vision, and how does it impact the members and leadership of SEIU 721?

Stern is the most dynamic labor leader in the country! (Please make sure you get him a copy of this, would you?)

Being a part of SEIU is a challenge. We are always stretching. We're ambitious and we're willing to take risks, and that's what Andy Stern encourages us to do. The labor movement was 35 percent organized and we're now at 8 percent. Something is wrong. And how do we change that? I have been appointed to a national committee that will review our relationships with our employers.

President Stern has been criticized because he believes we need to partner with our employers, so that we don't lose more work. This is a global economy. In Bakersfield, for example, in Kern County, if I call into the Department of Public Social Services to get food stamps, someone in Pakistan is answering the phone. The traditional public sector jobs we thought would be here forever aren't here forever.

Whom does 721 actually bargain for? What are the job categories represented by your locals in Southern California?

The distinction here is that the work our members perform is publicly funded. We represent private non-profits-the American Red Cross, we represent some small clinics, and a couple of mental health agencies. There are city employees, county employees, water district employees, sanitation district employees. The Department of Health Services, DPSS, Children and Family Services, Department of Public Works, animal care and control, you name it.

What motivates the union; what is your highest priority? Obviously wages, conditions, and outsourcing are always on the table, but what objective truly motivates SEIU negotiators?

How we can grow our union, provide quality services, how we can deliver for our members, and make sure that the services they're delivering are quality services. We want to make sure that our members are making a fair wage and that they are contributing to a vibrant economy.

Thirty-six percent of Americans think that they and their families won't achieve the American dream, like owning a home, being able to send their kids to college, being able to take a vacation.


The city of L.A., one of your member jurisdictions, probably has the most "labor" mayor and "labor" council that the city has ever had. How is SEIU's relationship with Mayor Villaraigosa paying off for your members?

I think it's tremendous advantage to have a mayor who comes from labor. there are huge opportunities for our members, for the community, for residents of the city of Los Angeles, and for Southern Californians, to really build a progressive majority. Are we going to agree on everything? Probably not. But this is a mayor who comes from labor; this is a mayor who wants to build a progressive majority, and we want to be a partner with him in doing that.

This MIR interview takes place at a time when the California Legislature is considering the state budget. For years, MIR has covered the challenges and dysfunctionality of state and local finance. Do conflicts ever arise between SEIU state and local affiliates over whether local jurisdictions should have more control over public revenues?

It is an issue that comes up, but I think one of the best things we've been able to do in SEIU is not allow the Legislature to turn us against each other. We understand that we're stronger together and it's not a zero-sum game, and although it's an issue that we have to be vigilant about, we don't allow it to divide us.

As SEIU enters into negotiations with county and city officials in your region, a lack of resources and control over the allocation of these resources obviously affects your negotiations. Is SEIU indifferent to whether the county receives its fair share of public tax dollars?

We partner with the county, we partner with the city to lobby Sacramento for money for critically needed programs. We used to have a saying around here that we partner with the county, we partner with the city, we get the money, and then we fight over it. The fact is, we have to make sure that we get adequate funds for services.

As SEIU 721 goes into negotiations with cities and counties in 2007 and 2008, what are your members' priorities?

We negotiated our contract with L.A. County in 2006, and we won a contract that helps recruit and retain good employees with decent raises, benefits, and training money. We're in contract negotiations right now with the city of Los Angeles. There is money in the budget. The budget is in decent shape. I believe that here's enough money to take care of health benefits and provide wages that help attract and retain employees so the city can continue to provide the quality services that the residents deserve.

Turning to Union politics, what is SEIU's role in the L.A. County Federation?

It is I think, the most active and effective central labor council in the country, led by Maria Elena Durazo. The SEIU, because of our strength here in California, and particularly in L.A. County, plays a very big role in the County Fed. We help to lead it; we're proud of that. We're proud that we can form coalitions with other public sector unions to win for our members. On these issues we unite, and we speak with one voice on political candidates. It's been a process over a number of years, but when we bring that strength and that unanimity into the federation, we win big for our members and the community.

The L.A. County Fed was long dominated by private sector unions: construction trades & retail clerks, now UFCW. Clearly there's been a continuous shift from the private sector trade unions to the public sector unions, of which SEIU 721 is one. What are the practical and political consequences of this shift in union membership and power?

If you look at that shift, it's a shift where unions are organizing. Unions have said that organizing is the most important thing that we can do for workers in America. And we're going to put aside a good chunk of our revenue in order to grow our union, so we can bring the American dream to workers in this country.

Lastly, there is little coverage of labor in our mass media in Southern California. What explains this omission? What stories are not being told that would give better insight to the public about the work and role of labor unions?

In general, organized labor does not get the type of media that it deserves. The only time we get media attention is when we're out on strike, whether it's with the Red Cross, or supermarkets. Strikes don't occur very often. It's not sensational, it's not sexy, to know that, every single day, unions sit down with their employers, represent their members, and negotiate contracts. It's not the kind of experience that sells a newspaper or makes people watch the television. And that's too bad.

I think the media are missing the good work that goes on every single day throughout Southern California around organizing, around the stories that each of our members has. We are willing to work for a better life; we want to raise our kids in a neighborhood free of crime; we want a decent home; we want to send our kids to college. Those are our members' stories, and they're struggling to make ends meet every single day.

Seventy-eight percent of Americans think their children will be worse off than they are. This is the first generation in many generations to believe that. That's not the country my grandparents knew; that's not the country my parents knew. Each of our members has a story to tell, and those stories don't get told in the press.



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