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Editorial: Why Labor Unions Must Re-Evaluate Their Political Support

Full disclosure: I am a registered Democrat, labor union supporter, but more important, I am worker supporter and justice advocate.

  Over the years, I have supported many of the past and current Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors with my money, time, and vote, but I am not blind to see the reality. Workers, taxpayers and the general public have been betrayed and treated with contempt. This cynicism has left many of shocked, angered, frustrated, demoralized, and looking for answers and real accountability.

For years I have seen union members go to the Board of Supervisors with the same requests, over and over. Their requests, far from being frivolous, selfish or whimsical in nature. For years County employees have spoken before the Board of Supervisors asking to be paid fair wages; to earn what workers in the private sector in comparable positions are making. Equal pay for equal work. County employees, have, for years asked for a true Just Culture, an end to the perpetual bullying, discrimination and retaliation that for years many County workers have suffered. Public employees unions have unsuccessfully asked over and over for the enforcement of the County's merit system rules, County charter, State and Federal law.

The result is the same: they get patted on the back, but nothing changes, for they keep coming year after year with the same plea. If the elected officials would truly care about workers, these workers would not be returning year after year with the same complaints, pleas, and demands for justice, fairness, and accountability.

I share the view of many of SEIU members: We have an unresponsive Board of Supervisors who has delegated the care of public employees to a County Executive who has a demonstrated record of violating the law, pitting workers against each other, wasting millions of tax dollars paying lawsuits to protect County abuses and corruption, expanding highly paid unnecessary bureaucracy and using his influence to reward loyalists with positions of power in violation of the County’s merit system rules, the County’s charter and state and federal laws.

 

The Truth about the Labor-Friendly County Board of Supervisors

Something that critics of Labor Unions have mockingly pointed at is the fact, that despite County Board of Supervisors Chavez and Cortese, as well as former Supervisor Yeager owed their seat to union members’ money dues contributed to their campaigns and union members’ efforts to get them elected by phone banking and canvassing on behalf of these politicians during election time; all of these elected officials have for years remained silent when it comes to responding and acting on behalf of justice for workers. I am not talking about contract negotiations to give handsome concessions to unions in their collective bargaining agreements, which by the way, it is never the case, as Valley Medical Center Nurses and staff can testify to, and the reason why many of the best qualified nurses and doctors over the years have left the County’s hospital system for better paying jobs.

No, what these labor critics so accurately point out is the fact that the politicians that labor unions and their members have helped get them elected to office, have done nothing to protect public employees from Jeff Smith’s corrupt and abusive Just Culture in all the years they have been in office.

Millions of our tax dollars have been used every year to pay lawsuits brought against the County by public employees who have been reprimanded and in some cases terminated by the County for reporting corruption by some of the County’s Executive Management. Such as in the case of Dr. Dean Winslow who received $1.4 million settlement after he was fired by County Executive Jeff Smith after speaking up about the hostile work environment in Valley Medical Center or the recent $1.5 million lawsuit paid to Valley Medical Center Psychiatrist Jan Weber after being fired for reporting numerous complaints about substandard patient care and unsafe working conditions.

The fact is that just as there is no accountability in the current presidential administration, there is no accountability in the County of Santa Clara. Even worst, in the County of Santa Clara, checks and balances do not exist, as everybody is friends with everybody and no one wants to speak up against their buddies, and the people that have so generously given them public commendations and other sorts of public awards.

 

A Reality Check for Public Employees Unions

 
So, returning to the unions’ support of “labor friendly” candidates, the reality is that despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars, volunteer work, and members voting for “labor friendly” candidates, at the end of the day public union members have not much to show for. Yes, we all have seen years of video footage of SEIU, RNPA, and CEMA representatives going over and over to the County Board of Supervisors advocating for fair wages for their members. We all have seen those union reps appearing before the Board asking for fair contract negotiations, asking for bread and getting crumbs. Over the years we all have seen the plea of their members for better working conditions and competitive wages. We all have seen union members go over and over to the Board of Supervisors to denounce bullying, abuses, wage theft and demotions justified by the County through job reclassifications and expensive labor outsourcing that goes against labor principles. We all have seen union members cry before the Board of Supervisors for real just culture in the County, for Jeff Smith’s “just culture” is defined by nepotism, abuse of power, worker intimidation, silencing dissent, comradery, perverse alliances and promotion of loyalists over qualified individuals, all this at the expense of union workers, the public welfare and Santa Clara County taxpayers.

So, it may be time that the public employee unions reevaluate their priorities and working relationship with the County of Santa Clara. When it comes to the “labor friendly” candidates, the only time when SEIU members are relevant to these candidates is when they are seeking union money, time, endorsement and votes. Once elected, these officials, like Pontius Pilate, wash their hands and delegate the power to the County Executive Jeff Smith, County Counsel’s James Williams and Labor Relations, which every worker knows do not act in the workers’ or taxpayers’ best interest. Yet, interestingly enough, despite the fact that it was thanks to union money, time and vote that some of the Supervisors have their seat, these unions act powerless when it comes to standing up for their members’ rights and the enforcement of the law. Why?


Public Employees Unions’ Place in the Santa Clara County

 
Based on years of hard evidence, it is evident to many that public employees unions have not been taken seriously by the County of Santa Clara. The County’s actions speak louder than words and the message to the unions is clear: regardless of the unions’ self-opinion, the County considers them weak and irrelevant. The County knows they can abuse workers and break the law without any consequences to them, for most of the time labor unions do not protect their workers against such abuses; for some unions’ narrowed scope and main focus are salary negotiations.

To elected officials, even the “labor friendly” ones, the unions are just another organization to pat on the back without actually caring for their members, true justice, and the law. After all, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors have totally delegated the care and oversight of County employees’ working conditions to County Executive Jeff Smith, whose politics has for years created and perpetuated a toxic work environment that favors nepotism, loyalty and comradery as well as a culture of retaliation, bullying, and discrimination of elder County employees.


So, how does all this unrelenting abuse of union workers affect workers’ view of unions?
I was also told that although labor unions, including SEIU, use members’ dues to support certain candidates, at the end of the day, workers vote for whom they see best serve their interests. An example that illustrates this is the case of labor endorsed Dave Cortese, who has ran for Mayor of San Jose and lost twice, and Don Rocha, who SEIU and CEMA endorsed, but failed in a landslide to earn the votes needed to be elected, as well as Shanta Franco-Clausen, who SEIU endorsed for San Jose Councilmember and also lost.

It is also well-known that many of the union members have a neutral to unfavorable opinion of their union, for they feel their political views are not reflected by their union leadership. Regardless of how the unions feel about their members and the general public, they should care, for as things continue to deteriorate in this toxic national political environment in which unions continue losing their rights to the constant conservative attacks and right to work laws that are spreading through the states like cancer, all this is causing union membership to dwindle. And if the only benefit for being a paying union member is to have the union to negotiate wage (mediocre) contracts, why should workers care about paying union dues, if they can obtain such benefit for free under the right to work laws?

 

To Public Employees Unions: Why No Support from WPUSA and South Bay Labor Council?

 
It is very interesting that while unions have for years diligently contributed to the South Bay Labor Council’s COPE and Working Partnerships, where I served as an unpaid interned many years ago, I have yet to see representatives from these organizations to come to a board meeting and speak up on behalf of your union members about the injustices they suffer at the hands of the County. I find it very ironic that WPUSA partnered with the County of Santa Clara forming OLSE to combat wage theft, while turning a blind eye and deaf ear to the biggest perpetrator of wage theft: The County of Santa Clara. Yes, for years the County has deliberately committed wage theft against workers:

  • Through convenient and manipulative use of reclassifications, which either refuse to acknowledge employees working out of class work to get them the right pay; or use reclassification to demote workers to lower paid positions.
  • And as Evan Dowling stated it on March 12, 2019 at public comment to the Board of Supervisors, “when County workers are fired with no just cause, such as Dr. Dean Winslow, Dr. Jan Weber, John Dam and many others, that is wage theft.”
  • “When Jeff Jafari, a SEIU member was driven out of IHSS on a stretcher and taken to emergency because he nearly died due to the toxic work environment at IHSS and never returned to work, that is wage theft.”
  • When Shree Kafle was demoted because of a lie perpetrated by former SSPMII Renae Bhader, that is wage theft.”
  • My husband has been victim of wage theft and hundreds of hours of sick time among many other crimes perpetrated by the County of Santa Clara.

And there are volumes of documented evidence of the County’s wage theft. Yet, sadly, to WPUSA, the SBLC, CEMA, and many others who supposedly fight for justice and workers’ rights, their sense of justice is limited to their own personal agendas. And some of them, like CEMA, have the cynicism to go as far as blaming the County employee for the bullying, abuses, wage theft and injustices they have suffered and continue to endure.

 

The Way Forward

 
As an outsider and workers’ supporter, I want to end this with the following ideas which have the potential to change the current unbalanced power dynamics in favor of the law and justice for public employee union members. The unions’ top priority must be the wellbeing of and true just culture for their paying dues members, who are tired of the cynical politics and patting on the back at the hands of Santa Clara County’s corrupt government. From tackling this, the positive changes trickle down to benefit Santa Clara County's residents and taxpayers.  Here are some suggestions for public employee unions’ leadership to seriously consider:

  • Choose a side. You cannot both serve a government who has a long track record of violating the law and workers’ rights and truthfully represent your members. It is time to reexamine your working relations with the County and play by the law, not by Jeff Smith’s and James William’s unjust and sometimes illegal rules.
  • Get together with the County’s other bargaining unions, instead of fighting each other, together draw the courage to have a direct conversation with the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and demand that they take away the powers from Jeff Smith with regards of employee justice, for as everyone can see Jeff Smith has miserably failed to County employees, the public welfare and Santa Clara County taxpayers, as his decisions have severely dwindled employee morale, forced the exodus of many of the County’s best workers, and favored a culture of abuse, bullying, discrimination, nepotism, which not only hurts County workers, but also tax payers and the public welfare.
  • Demand to the County that after an employee’s Personnel Board hearing, the employee has a right to obtain a free copy of the official transcript. It is disgusting, shameful and pathetic that public employees fighting for justice, among many other things, have to pay out of pocket, if they can afford it, the cost of a copy of the official transcript of the hearing, which County Counsel gets for free paid with our tax dollars.
  • Fight for the creation of a truly independent, outside panel to evaluate worker claims against county and force the County to follow the law to the extent of appealing to state and federal agencies for support in the enforcement of the law.
    Truly learn to prioritize and instead of investing on libel campaigns and fake “labor friendly” candidates, use the union’s resources in defense of your member’s rights and a the implementation of a true just culture.
  • Stop playing and supporting cynical identity politics and their enablers.
  • If your union resources are way too scarce to fight on your own, join forces with other unions to publicly denounce the County’s corruption and abuses in a press conference.
    Understand that the system is broken, corrupt and self-protective. Change will only happen from the outside. Be part of the change or sink with the corrupt system.
  • Expand your scope; unions should care not only for salary increases, but also for quality salary increases that are competitive with the private sector and reflect the high cost of living in Santa Clara County. Care and fight for better working conditions for all your members, as well as start being a public advocate of social and economic justice for all Santa Clara County residents, so that, for once and for all put to rest the selfish and self-serving image a majority of the public have of public employees' unions.

Public employee unions have the power to make things right for members who are fighting against the County’s corruption. At this point the cat is out of the bag and it is no secret how public employees are treated by the County of Santa Clara, especially when they denounce corruption, incompetence, discrimination and nepotism. Santa Clara County’s epidemic of age discrimination and fake just culture is becoming more well-known to workers and the public. More people are realizing that the system is broken and corrupt and that the same lack of accountability and transparency we denounce within the Trump administration is happening here in Santa Clara County.

 
In this fight there are only two sides: Those who violate the law and condone tyranny and abuses and those who fight for justice. I ask the union leaders, what side are you on? Your actions speak louder than words and everyone is watching.


Santa Clara County Exposed
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