Greenlight: Sunday was a sad day for the Service Employees International Union 1000

Photograph by Ernest Karchmit
Jeff vonKaenel

Sunday, December 19th was a sad day for the Service Employees International Union 1000. Their Board of Directors meeting was originally planned to be held at the Sacramento Downtown Holiday Inn. Last Tuesday, SEIU International President, Mary Kay Henry, sent a letter to SEIU 1000 Local President Brown stating that she was worried about possible violence at the union meeting after Brown urged members to come armed to the meeting. Due to these concerns, as well as concerns about downtown power outages and COVID safety, the meeting went totally virtual.

While there was no violence at the virtual meeting, the mike was totally controlled by President Brown. It was a sad day for the SEIU Board members who wanted to express their frustrations with Brown and present their plan to reduce his powers. With Brown controlling the meeting, he spent the entire time speaking and answering callers, rather than starting the Board meeting, leaving Board members helplessly complaining in the chat window. 

It was a sad day for Brown, who might feel that he won the day using his virtual powers to control the online meeting (which ran from 8:00am to 3:00pm, with a two hour lunch break), but his performance was not presidential. During most of the four hour Sunday Zoom call, much of Brown’s rambling stream of consciousness remarks were attacks on his opponents and efforts to explain why he was mentally sound enough to be president. While he was not asked about his family’s mental history, he volunteered that his mother was a paranoid schizophrenic, and that other members of his family have struggled with mental health issues. However, he said his mental state was good enough for the Air Force and good enough to get a college degree. It was unsettling to see Brown keep repeating that he was “calm” and that he was “smiling.”

A major theme of Brown’s remarks was that people were opposing him because of their racism. He repeatedly stated that his opponents want to lynch him and castrate him. He complained that he was being called an out-of-control Black man, implying that any Black man doing their job will be considered out of control. He also suggested that given everything that he and the African American community have experienced, he should be expected to be angry. It should be expected that he lashes out. Especially if people are trying to crush him, or as he fears, lynch and castrate him.

It was a sad day for nearly 100,000 SEIU members, mainly state government employees, who are now represented by a warring leadership team. A leadership team that soon will be going into difficult contract negotiations and 2022 statewide elections.

And it was a sad day for the people of California. The SEIU 1000 has been such a progressive force in our state politics – supporting worker rights, income equality, more housing and numerous other progressive issues – but they have lost much of this power due to internal conflicts.

In a stunning May 2021 union election upset, Brown, who had never held a major union position before, defeated longtime SEIU President Yvonne Walker in a very low turn-out multi-candidate election. Walker, who served for 13 years as SEIU President, was a California progressive powerhouse, who fought for and won increased state worker salaries and benefits, while also playing an active role in California politics. Brown ran on a campaign to reduce union member fees and to remove the union from politics. He opposed the union giving one million dollars to fight Governor Newsom’s recall. Brown may be the only California union candidate ever warmly received by Fox News.

Brown’s victory was an extreme shock to the “union status quo,” as he called it. Many staff people were fired or quit. The Democratic political establishment, which depended on the SEIU 1000 for support, was in shock. Many longtime union members were rightly worried about their positions.

N&R Publications, our publishing division, worked with Yvonne Walker on union communications prior to the COVID shutdowns. [] Although we have met with Brown at his staff’s suggestion, we have not done any work with the SEIU during the Brown presidency. Let me say that while I personally support Yvonne Walker’s vision of having unions work hard for their members as well as the wider community, I certainly recognize that many successful union leaders support Brown’s view that the union’s primary or only interest should be their members and that support for community issues like housing or tax reform takes away needed resources from the union’s primary duty to represent its members.

While Brown won the union’s presidential election, he certainly did not win over all of the SEIU’s elected Board of Directors. In October, half of the 65 SEIU 1000 Board members had a meeting without Brown, voting overwhelmingly to strip Brown of many of his presidential powers. [] The opposition to Brown lies in both his politics and in concerns that he may be too erratic to be the president of such a powerful and complicated organization. 

Nothing was resolved at Sunday’s SEIU 1000 “Board meeting.” While Brown was able to prevent his opposition from being heard, his handling of the meeting only increased those concerns about his leadership. This impasse will likely continue unless Brown changes his approach. Brown clearly cares deeply about the union and its membership. He is a man of principle who has put himself in the public arena at a high personal cost. He ran on a platform of shaking up the status quo and on transparency, which he certainly has accomplished.

But leaders, especially leaders of organizations with 100,000 members and a $46 million dollar budget, need to present a vision for the future. The presidency of the SEIU is an extremely high pressure, emotionally tasking job that few have the ability to do effectively. Leaders put the interest of others over themselves. I believe that is why Brown ran for the union presidency. But real leaders are also willing to leave the public arena when it is needed. Ironically, leaving leadership often is a greater test of character than joining it.

SEIU 1000 is being weakened by this ongoing infighting. Brown needs to resign in order to enable the union to remain strong. He has the power to create a better day for the union and for himself. He should resign.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.

11 Comments on "Greenlight: Sunday was a sad day for the Service Employees International Union 1000"

  1. Public employee unions, the bane of California. Lot that in with an impossible and wholly unstainable retirement and pension system, California is truly CalUnicornia. Time to live in the real world.

  2. Brown had two opportunities to hold SEIU Local 1000 Board Meetings, however, what the dues paying members got was his mentally warped version of Festivus. He aired his grievances AND he never called the meeting to order thus continuing to violate Policy File. He is a credible threat to organized labor, because of his on going actions/deeds. He should resign – but voices he listens to (real or imaginary) won’t let him. I’m looking forward to 2022 when he is no longer the leader of SEIU Local 1000, is stripped of his stewardship, and most importantly stripped his membership.

  3. Richard Brown won the election fair and square. If the members don’t like him, they can vote him out next election. When you look at the outlandish spending (and gifts) by the former officers, it is a sickening waste of member dues monies.

    If SEIU Local 1000 implodes, it is a cumulative effect of decisions over the last five years. Members wanted a change, let them have it.

  4. Perhaps instead of the recent, democratically elected President resigning, the Board of Directors could accept new leadership and a new vision for the union. It may be time for the Union to go to work for the employees they represent. Perhaps the low turn out in the election was due to political fatigue.

  5. It was not a sad day for SEIU local 1000 members at all as the article indicates. On the other hand it was a great day for the members because President Richard L Brown listens & represents the Union members interest.
    The local 1000 members wanted CHANGE that’s the reason president Brown was elected. The former president Walker did not listen, care nor represented the members interest. I disagree with president Walker’s fraudulent spending with members dues money.

  6. “…possible violence at the union meeting after Brown urged members to come armed to the meeting.” Brown is a convicted felon associated with a Glock handgun. That, combined with his status as having paranoid schizophrenia running in his family, makes for a volatile situation. For the people who say he won the election and we should all just unite under his leadership, it’s up to him now, as the party of the first part, to convince the members there is a path to unity and that he is fit for the job. Unfortunately, he divides instead, so there will always be those on the other side.

  7. Let’s be real, the man keeps talking about this presidency being his divine destiny, dreams from angels, and numerology. Paying attention to just the 6 months of his presidency, what has he accomplished? Besides violating the policy file by not calling a Board of Directors meeting? He spends more energy grandstanding than leading.

  8. 1 of the 65 board members | December 22, 2021 at 6:51 pm | Reply

    Why would they publish lies like this.

  9. Published lies? Nah… I’m a long-time job steward and witness to this stuff. The article got it 90% right. I’ve known RL Brown for years. He informed everyone last weekend that schizophrenia runs in his family. That explains why I wondered about his rambling answers to my questions years ago…the answers were unrelated and made no sense.

  10. What has he accomplished? He’s opened up everything to the public. Local 1000 is now transparent.

  11. As a long-time SEIU member, I was grateful to Yvonne Walker and her negotiating team for continuing to secure wage and benefit increases (or hold the line) each time our contract was up. At the same time, I became fed up with the arrogance of her team and Walker in particular. Most folks don’t remember she got her hand caught in the cookie jar re: travel expenses, etc. So, I was happy to see regime change. President Brown is an unmitigated disaster. And this last Board meeting is a glaring example of his megalomania and authoritarian tendencies. The next election can’t come soon enough!

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