by Jonah Paul
Jonah Paul is a member of SEIU Local 1000 and veteran housing advocate in Sacramento. This analysis first appeared on Strike Wave.
Rejecting the status quo and reformer factions, members of California’s state workers union, SEIU Local 1000, elected an anti-political firebrand named Richard Lewis “RL” Brown last month. Brown is known to many members for Trump-esque social media diatribes, cyber-bullying, and a strange mix of populist and conservative politics. The repercussions of his election for labor and California politics could be dire, and Brown may have broken the rules to win.
Road to Ruin
Veteran state workers are accustomed to tumult. Since its parent organization, California State Employees Association (CSEA), affiliated with SEIU in the 80s, the union has been beset with rank and file insurgencies, counter-reactions, and internecine politics. As the union matured, its structure hardened around incumbent president Yvonne Walker. The participation rate among workers plummeted.
Walker’s leadership was centrist, politically shrewd, and utterly tyrannical. She styled the local like a humanitarian NGO and unquestioning partner of the Democratic Party. The union’s communications under her reign were self-aggrandizing, making her out to be its self-styled thought leader. Visit the union hall and you can see a historical timeline poster that begins and ends with Walker.
Her vanity was paired with ruthless political elitism and procedural maneuvering that drove away activists and infuriated right-leaning members. She micromanaged her staff and flattened the division of labor, personally commanding every detail, leading to a decade-long hemorrhage of the most talented and experienced staff. Those that remain seem more afraid of disappointing Walker than failing members.
Walker made her support of worksite District Labor Councils—geographic chapters to which members elect 3 to 4 local officers and bargaining unit representatives—contingent upon blind obedience to her program. Any skeptical DLC officers were deprived of member lists and stewards. Only members she controlled were appointed to union committees. The net result: a tightly controlled power structure restricting any attempt at reform.
Meanwhile, Walker was a force in the Capitol’s politics. She leveraged her power and a provision in the local Central Labor Council (CLC) bylaws to command 100% of the union’s CLC delegate votes. Her command of votes won her the presidency of the CLC, which she used to rule local labor politics with an iron fist. Local progressives are still scarred by the backroom deals she conducted with the city’s mayor to get the CLC to prop up a strong mayor ballot initiative.
Eventually, the union, once staffed top-to-bottom with an army of stewards on union leave, took on the staid characteristics of a business union. It outsourced workplace grievances and concerns to a Member Resource Center call center in lieu of shop floor organizing. Many members who used the hotline felt left to resolve grievances on their own. For field staff, organizing was reduced to an appified tracking system with oversimplified metrics. Staff could measure their quotas, but not members’ dejection.
Many members who tried to participate in the union can recall being gaslit by staff and sandbagged for showing too much enthusiasm in organizing. They felt that they were being held to impossible standards and cast aside as political undesirables. Outspoken members were ostracized and cut off from meaningful union activity.
A member of the staff I spoke to on the condition of anonymity shared a grim assessment: Walker’s “mission” was to create a “fee-for service union” by “maintaining the artifice of election through procedural chicanery, internal pressure, and capitalizing on a legacy of outright fraud.” In their view “when a union acts as a service model at the exclusion of all else, it necessarily creates an autocratic leadership privy to that mission, sitting above the mass of members and scapegoated ‘opposition.’”
What does this practically mean for the staff of Local 1000? According to them it means “staff who would usually be assigned to interface with members are provided arcane lists of who we can and cannot call, who is and is not in favor with the powers that be, and what DLCs and vice presidents in elected leadership we are allowed to talk to, under passive threat of firing, especially for new hires or Organizers in Training, who are not protected by our staff union.”
Lack of means to participate brought on disaffection and a resentful and despondent feeling set in. It’s a feeling grounded in the top leader’s denial of members’ issues and energies while touting a political program divorced from members’ experiences and desires. The predetermined union program was delivered to members in official union communications. The message is clear: the president was in it for herself.
In 2016, Walker passed stipends for statewide officers that added generous bonuses to their union leave, resulting in six-figure executive salaries. This sparked outrage and an organized revolt. In the 2018 election, a slate of reformers capitalized on the anti-stipend and anti-political sentiment, defeating all but Walker. Walker retaliated by cutting them off from all power, a move they were unable to outmaneuver or out-organize. For three years they languished while Walker consolidated power.
In this year’s election, the reformers ran a new slate, but their own camp was now internally divided. The majority ran a new slate while one former vice president, Tony Owens, independently ran for president. Concurrently, Walker’s camp fractured into rival slates. Some of Walker’s former core support recognized that Walker was the cause of the mass dissatisfaction that was unraveling the union. However, their realization was too late. Focused on each other, the divided camps tragically underestimated the appeal of RL Brown.
Hung Out to Dry
While Yvonne Walker pursued her own political celebrity, objective conditions violently unsettled state workers’ lives. Donald Trump’s election in 2016 introduced deep uncertainty. His budget assaults on federal, state, and municipal employees produced anxiety in the public sector workforce. Yet SEIU Local 1000’s aloofness towards its members brought small, shallow mobilizations and advocacy when the times demanded more. It put large amounts of resources behind supporting Proposition 15 and opposing Proposition 22, but could not muster member enthusiasm. They lost both campaigns.
In 2019, member discontent reared its head when an entire bargaining unit rejected the next 3-year contract. The local’s response was to throw out the results and re-hold the vote, alleging that members had been misinformed. The vote passed on a second try, but not without sowing seeds of doubt about the leadership’s respect for democracy.
When the pandemic hit, the union was silent. Worksite safety issues offered endless organizing opportunities. As an organizer from another statewide local put it: “The pandemic was a perfect organizing opportunity. How often does the same working condition affect every worksite across the state in the same way? Never.” For months Local 1000 was nowhere to be found. Managers resisted worker demands for telework and rank and file members had to circulate their own petition to be heard.
Frustrations were compounded by the confused and inconsistent approach to the pandemic by state and local politicians. Dizzying orders for shutdowns and openings, mask mandates, mass unemployment, unpaid rent and bills, business closures, childcare burdens, spikes in homelessness, and no reliable guidance from the government brought out Californian’s furies. The final straw came when images of Governor Gavin Newsom unmasked at a fundraiser at the elite French Laundry restaurant were published, laying bare the hypocrisy of the elite and becoming the lightning rod of the recall effort.
Most critically for state workers, the pandemic hit their bank accounts. Walker accepted the Governor’s dismal budget projections of a $54 billion deficit and agreed to a side letter agreement cutting base pay by 9.23% in the form of two flexible furlough days called Personal Leave Program (PLP) days. The agreement also conceded to suspend scheduled annual pay increases in exchange for deferring contributions to the retirement healthcare trust. What incensed members most was how effortlessly an agreement was reached accepting almost all of the governor’s terms.
When Gavin Newsom announced this year that the state has a staggering $75.7 billion surplus, it confirmed his hypocrisy in the eyes of state workers. They were livid to learn their year-long sacrifice was for nothing.
A year into quarantine most workers were disconnected from their union and many from each other. Aside from workers at state prisons and hospitals, most had braved the conditions of the pandemic in isolation, cramming aging state equipment into the corners of their homes and apartments, converting their domiciles into live-in cubicles, and paying rent and utilities on behalf of the state.
These conditions kicked off the union election. Walker’s staff and appointees unceremoniously ran the election while suppressing anything that could allow members to make informed choices. There were no candidate forums or debates, and only skeletal information regarding the timeline and procedures on the union’s website and in emails. Efforts by DLCs to hold candidate forums were sabotaged by the Election Committee.
Walker and union staff refused the local’s statewide candidates lists of members to contact. Aside from the ballot and voter guide that was mailed to members with brief candidate statements, there was no information provided about the candidates. The election closed with just 7,780 votes. Isolated from their coworkers, ignored by the union, and with almost no information to make their decisions, members voted with their intuitions. Because the union uses a first-past-the-post system, RL Brown won with a meager one third plurality.
Voting in a Demagogue
RL Brown has been in state service since 2009 and a steward since 2010. His first run for president was in 2015, and he has since earned a reputation for unhinged confrontation, conspiratorial accusation, and an anti-establishment message. He is notably blocked from the most popular state worker discussion forums.
At first, his popularity grew slowly with dejected and frustrated members. He received 13% of the vote in 2015. In 2018, the same year as the anti-stipend insurgency, his following grew by 357%, netting 2,144 votes and placing him third.
This year Brown ran on a 10-point platform that reads like a mix of gripes inherited from the Koch Family Foundation mixed with some vague nods to the left. He has promised to reduce dues by 50% (currently 1.5%, the national average for unions), open stewardship and voting in union elections to all represented employees regardless of membership, eliminate all politics and political spending, give away free representation to nonmembers, build a six-month strike fund, remove the no-strike clause in the contract, and win a miraculous 21% across-the-board salary increase.
Member activists correctly worry his plan will leech the union’s revenue dry by turning dues into a meaningless fee and institute a “shock doctrine” that would annihilate the foundations of the union. With so much of the power resting in the Local 1000 president, Brown can deliver on some of his right-wing promises immediately—something he has sworn to do in countless videos posted online.
Curiously, despite his internet reputation and vote totals, Brown lacks a large following on social media. Three days after his victory he only has 60 followers on Twitter, 76 followers on Instagram, 34 subscribers on YouTube, 113 followers on his Facebook page, and slightly over 700 Facebook friends. His LinkedIn is deactivated.
Brown’s primary means of contact with members seems to be relentless bombarding of state emails with ranting screeds, large video attachments, and a long PDF brochure. Considering Brown’s relatively low stature within the union and lack of statewide exposure, it is conspicuous how he has such a large list of state employee emails.
Unconfirmed rumors hold that members received print mail from Brown. What we know for sure is that every member encountered Brown through the voter guide provided by the union. His brief voter guide statement was a bulleted list of his platform scattered with all-caps words and exclamation marks. It concludes with his website: createexcellence7437.com. He was the only presidential candidate savvy enough to include a website in their statement.
But there is more to Brown’s win than marginal popularity—he has fessed to breaking election rules against bribing nonmembers to vote by comping their dues (see Article V, Section 2 – No Nonmember Support). On a Facebook post from April 16th, mentioning a state employee by name, Brown said “I have offered to pay for you to vote. And I have offered many people the same thing.” In Brown’s mind, paying for voting was acceptable because he alleges to never tell them who to vote for. It’s not clear whether he condones graft and bribery or can’t admit he’s committed them. In his words it was “offered out of the kindness of my heart because voting is important to me.” Apparently, ethics is not.
On April 17th, he used the state’s email system to contact non-members and encourage them to sign up to vote and then immediately cancel their membership. The email includes a PDF that starts with a membership sign up form and includes a ranting story about how the “socialist” SEIU “seduced” the state workers into affiliating, perpetuating “Forever Frustration of Evilness, Negativity, and Despair (END).”
I met Brown at my DLC’s monthly meeting on May 27th. He vacillated from sympathetic to arrogant and detached, offering sermonizing anti-political clichés, far-off promises, and self-help mantras. When he was confronted with questions that cast doubt on his assertions he simply dismissed members for not understanding him.
I asked him whether he offered to pay people to vote. He responded, “If you were a non-member, I said it’s this important to vote in this election…and if people said ‘well I don’t want to pay’ I said I will pay for you because it’s this important.” Brown brazenly compares requiring union membership to vote in union elections to a modern day poll tax.
He claims that his campaign is entirely self-funded, honest, and transparent despite the fact there is a PayPal donation link at the top of his website. He’s never released financial information on how much he’s taken in donations, spent on his campaign, or handed out to members. There has similarly been no transparency concerning who his donors may be.
Two days after winning, Brown conspicuously chose to make his national television debut on Fox News. It was an uncanny match. The Fox hosts were elated: “You don’t want the union to have any voice in politics. That’s refreshing…to a lot of people probably!” To which Brown replied with a Freudian slip of the tongue: “I’m convicted by my words.”
We needn’t get tangled in his fallacious arguments here. His claims aren’t intended to be sound, they’re intended to tap into the brooding resentment of thousands of employees who have been excluded from the organization that claims to represent them.
What’s terrifying is the way his agenda could be accommodated by jaded reformers who begin to convince themselves Brown can deliver on some of what they need. On the call he related to members’ frustrations, rattling off the type of nuts and bolts promises that stewards and officers want to hear. But if reformers form a compact and he enacts his plan, there won’t be a union left to reform.
Brown speaks as if he’s unveiling a QAnon-like conspiracy by the union to spend half of dues on “politics.” The least confusing explanation is that he considers “non-germane activity” (i.e. lobbying) as politics (his conspiracy theory about the International is too convoluted to explore here). All unions rely on lobbying to combat business interests that are constantly working to create anti-union legislation and increase their own leverage vis-a-vis workers. If the union doesn’t use the advocacy tools available to it, the countervailing forces of the business lobby will eat state workers for lunch. When you point this out to him, Brown pivots, like a college freshman that just learned about the IWW, to the almighty strike as the panacea to fix it all.
Brown’s ideas are grounded in a belief that unions don’t have any business being involved in politics. He regularly scapegoats politics as what divides and deters workers from ever joining the union. Eliminating all politics, he holds, allows the union to focus on bargaining and representation. It’s a throwback to the bygone era of AFL President Samuel Gompers’ pure and simple unionism, but today it’s a shibboleth of conservative anti-union “think tanks.”
This is laughable to modern union organizers: but Brown isn’t an organizer, he’s a figurehead for a mood that is deeply felt in the state service. He isn’t constrained by the realities of organizing and thus he rigidly clings to his grandiose narrative. There is a strong similarity between his anti-politics and the right-wing state worker Ken Hamidi who collaborated with the Freedom Foundation and attempted to decertify the union. Hamidi was a thorn in the side of the union for years, deliberately provoking leaders with incendiary confrontations and producing his own anti-SEIU public access show.
Hamidi claimed credit for getting 6,000 state workers to opt out of union fees as non-germane objectors. He is in the process of appealing a class action lawsuit against Local 1000 on behalf of them seeking repayment for fair-share fees dating back to 2005. If the courts rule in his favor, it could bankrupt the union.
Much of Brown’s success points to receiving help, but there are no obvious clues as to who helped. In a video published on June 1st, Brown went on a tirade where he revealed: “Who was helping me with my campaign? Other than Carmen Ledesma, Havana James, and somebody else that I can’t mention.” Could that somebody be Hamidi or another of the Freedom Foundation’s surrogates? Without a real investigation members will be left with conjecture.
The election of Brown has large ramifications for the union, state, and the labor movement.
To stop some political spending immediately, Brown can pull out of the local’s affiliation with Central Labor Councils and the California Labor Federation. Central Labor Councils are funded by their member unions. In the Sacramento area where the local is headquartered, disaffiliation would reduce the CLC’s budget by roughly $360,000 annually. Such a harsh blow would cause staff layoffs and severely weaken organized labor in the region. SEIU California State Council, a federation of the SEIU locals that campaigns on behalf of every local in the state, could also lose a major contributor. These losses would give a significant advantage to an already emboldened business class in the state.
The prospects for the union itself are also grim. Brown’s dedication to reducing dues while providing services to free riders is a disastrous combination. As chief negotiator, his complete lack of bargaining experience and erratic personality will be relentlessly challenged by the governor he’s already made enemies with. In the long term these weaknesses could be leveraged by hostile politicians and management to dilute worker power by introducing misclassification and contracting out as it does with the University of California. Not only could the union be in danger, but state work as we know it.
California state workers have bravely faced some of the harshest opponents of public sector unionism—from Reagan to Schwarzenegger—but the hardest challenge yet is the one from within. This disaster was years in the making and teed up by immeasurable levels of political incompetence.
Our members deserve much better. We’re in an existential crisis that calls on the civil service to overcome cynicism, clannishness, and ancient feuds. The legacy of Yvonne Walker is in ruins, but it is not too late for independent members and those on all sides to unite in one popular front to defend the union. The Board of Directors, statewide officers, and rank and file activists will be tempted to side with Walker or Brown on every question. Both are dead ends. It will take novel thinking, political savvy, and renewed solidarity to save the union and prevent us from becoming another cautionary tale for the labor movement. The fate of the union is in our hands.