By Jeff Burdick for the Sacto Politico
This story was produced by the Sacramento-based political publication SactoPolitico.com and co-published here with permission.
The term “circular firing squad” describes the internal self-destruction of a group or organization. This past week, the power struggle that has consumed SEIU Local 1000 since last May’s leadership elections morphed one step closer to that metaphor by officially becoming a triangular firing squad.
This started Monday when the union’s three vice presidents announced their suspension of underdog presidential victor Richard Louis Brown, locking him out of the union’s Sacramento headquarters, and installing VP David Jimenez to lead day-to-day operations. It continued Saturday, when Brown joined a group of supporters who first picketed and then occupied the union headquarters while the Board voted on his suspension.
“We haven’t damaged anything. We are protecting the members’ voices of Local 1000. We are protecting the vote,” Brown said in a video from inside the building. “I am the president of Local 1000. I suspended those VPs first. They locked me out of the building, locked away my email access, and they are doing things that only the president has the power to do. All of this will be handled.”
He added, “Membership is dropping because they feel their voice is not being heard through their votes. Voting matters in this country. It always has, and in my opinion, it always will.”
The legality of the VPs’ suspension of Brown is in question as it came days after Brown suspended them for allegedly providing confidential information to the third point in the triangle. That was board member Bill Hall, who leads a faction of opposition board members. At a disputed board meeting in October, Hall’s faction voted to overturn the members’ May vote by stripping Brown of presidential powers and putting Hall in charge of day-to-day operations.
Brown has not recognized the October meeting or those votes, and at least two of the VPs recently said they didn’t support that meeting or votes. Hall is currently suing in California circuit court.
Brown Supporters Counterprotest
Saturday started with 20 Brown supporters arriving outside the Sacramento headquarters to picket. Board member and Brown supporter Jack Dean said they gained access into the building by following a maintenance worker in.
“One of our members walked in behind him and just sat down,” Dean said.
“There were some heated words a couple times [with opponents], but other than that, it was very peaceful. We aren’t in here disrupting anything. We aren’t tearing the building up or doing anything crazy like that. This is our union and our building.”
The police were called, but no arrests were made. Dean said the police mediated between the parties and told the VPs that they would not arrest anyone. Dean said the police explained, “We can’t get involved in this. This is a civil matter. They have just as much right to be in this building as you guys do.”
Dean added that now that they have restored access to the building, they plan on staying and returning to work as usual on Monday. “This is our union, and they aren’t taking our union away from us,” he said.
Murky Board Meeting
When the emergency board meeting convened Saturday, the board reportedly acted on the VPs suspension of Brown. The board comprises 65 members, and according to the Sacramento Bee, Jimenez said “the board voted unanimously in executive session to change the union’s bylaws to allow the hiring of an independent hearing officer to handle complaints against top union officers.”
Unknown is if this hearing officer will also review the suspensions by Brown of the three VPs. Also unknown is how many board members voted in the executive session. The Bee reported a later vote in “open session” involved votes from 36 board members. That vote concerned the Hall faction’s October bylaw changes to eliminate presidential powers and create the position of board chair to run the union day-to-day. The vote for that was reportedly 25 to 11.
This means, if not overturned at some later point, just 25 of 65 board members (or 38%) succeeded in nullifying the members’ presidential vote last year and stripping members of their future right to directly elect its own union head. Local 1000 is the largest state employee union in California representing nearly 100,000 members with a $47 million annual budget.
Two sources from inside the union said Hall was also elected chair and now serves as day-to-day head of the union. But neither Hall, Jimenez nor the union communications department would confirm this or any part of the Bee’s story. None of the VPs responded to questions earlier in the week either. When reached by text Saturday, VP David Jimenez directed all questions to his communications department, but the head of communications emailed back that he was on vacation and unavailable until Feb 14. No one else from his team responded to calls or emails.
“Everything I have said about these people has been 1,000% true,” Brown told SactoPolitico.com prior to the board meeting. “[Union members] wanted someone totally different, who would rock the status quo, and that is what I have done. And that’s why the [VPs and opposing Board members] are trying to run me out of here.”
Equally Pugnacious President and Opponents
The seeds of this power struggle were first planted in May when dues-paying members clearly voted to end the 13-year reign of Yvonne Walker. However, they did so without giving Brown (left) an equally clear majority. He received 33% of the vote to just 27% by Walker. This left 40% voting for other candidates and a board of directors filled with divided loyalties.
This was Brown’s third attempt running to lead the union, and as a brash, long-time outside critic, he accumulated many opponents among entrenched board members who opposed his platform of change. Still Brown did not apologize for his winning tactics, believing he gave as good as he got: “I was exercising my freedom of speech. I was competing in this great country.”
Post-election, the chance for détente and healing disappeared almost immediately when the very night of Brown’s election, someone anonymously called 9-1-1 and falsely reported female screams coming from Brown’s home. Police officers roused Brown at 5 a.m. and searched his home. Brown said like most black males he found being confronted by the police in the middle of the night a scary situation. But he said he was polite and calm throughout, and the police were professional and found no one else there.
At the time, he told SactoPolitico.com, “Since I’ve lived at this address going back to November 2012, the cops had never come to my house before. It is this great coincidence that after I pull off the largest upset in Local 1000 history that the cops are at my doorsteps.”
“I feel strongly in my heart that someone in my Union is behind this. I believe they thought given the way I do my videos that I would be perceived as angry if the police came to my house and that I would lose my temper” and things would escalate, he said.
The source of the 9-1-1 call has never been discovered, but Brown’s opponents did not unite behind him or condemn anyone who may have made the call. Instead, multiple opponents petitioned to have Brown disqualified from taking office for allegedly attempting to buy votes and other charges of unethical behavior. These petitions were rejected, and Brown’s victory stood.
Also prior to Brown assuming office, the lame-duck Local 1000 board called an emergency closed-door session to approve giving $1 million to fight the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom. This was done given Brown’s pledge during the election to end all such partisan political donations. (The governor would later win the recall by nearly 24 points.)
Since being sworn in June 30, Brown and opposition board members have continued a mutually ugly war of words that ground most board work to a halt. One Local 1000 board member, Theresa Taylor, even said Brown could “suck a d***” and refused to apologize. Others spread false rumors that Brown was a Republican, is anti-union, and is controlled by the conservative Freedom Foundation.
In turn, Brown regularly charged his opponents as racist and homophobic, and for attempting to “lynch and castrate” him for being “an outspoken black man.”
“When someone tells you to go suck a d*** and you are the president, and they sit on the Board and the rest of them won’t do anything, what more information do you need?” Brown said this week.
Still Brown instituted transparency reforms that included releasing how every board member voted on past issues and five years of union credit card bills. The bills showed tens of thousands of dollars spent by past leaders on questionable trips, spa visits and other activities. He also suspended monthly stipend payments to himself and the three VPs that had been instituted under the past president. These totaled more than a half million dollars since 2016.
Brown summed things up this past week: “There was a concerted effort [to remove me] before I even took the oath of office. Several days after I was elected, I was told they were looking for anything to remove me. So it doesn’t really matter what I say or what I do, but people who know [my opponents] know they are lying through their teeth.”
Role of Three VPs
Brown said he considers Saturday’s board meeting to be illegitimate for several reasons. Because he suspended the three VPs on Friday, Feb. 25, he believes they had no authority to suspend him or call the board meeting. He also said he believes their charges against him to be exaggerated and baseless.
On Tuesday, the three VPs appeared on a Facebook live Q&A session with members. Jimenez said Brown was suspended in part for suspending them. He also said Brown failed to hold board meetings, interfered with the ability of the executive committee to make decisions on lawsuits against the union, and committed financial malfeasance.
“This is not a happy day in Local 1000,” VP Anica Walls said during the live stream. “Nobody is relishing in what is being done. This was a very, very hard decision for the three of us to make.”
None of the trio addressed Brown’s specific suspension charges against them about improperly sharing confidential union information. Instead, they claimed Brown’s suspension was not binding due to a technical mistake Brown made. They claimed he did not suspend them from their officer duties but as union members. However, suspension documents provided to SactoPolitico appear to contradict this by showing the three VPs were suspended only from officer duties (below).
Jack Dean – a Brown supporter and board member from Lassen County – said, “The suspension letters they received look almost identical to what they served Brown.”
Dean added he wants to know who made the determination to consider the suspension of Brown binding but not the VPs earlier suspensions.
“Was it [chief counsel] Anne Giese who decided that the suspension by the VPs were legit but not Richard’s? Who made that call, or did the VPs just make the call on their own?” said Dean, who did not participate in the Saturday board meeting. “I’ve asked that question multiple times, but have not gotten any answer on it.”
Brown said he ran his letters of suspension for the VPs through Giese before issuing. Giese did not respond to questions on this, but by email Friday, Local 1000’s communications director said, “Notwithstanding Mr. Brown’s comments, our legal counsel is confident that any legal challenges will be rebuffed.”
This did not answer many questions from Brown supporters.
Said Dean, “Let’s not pull any punches. This whole thing with Bill Hall, Theresa Taylor and the VPs, it all comes down to money. Everyone wants to control the purse strings.”
Coming Contract Negotiations
Dean said he’s seen evidence the endless in-fighting is weakening the union. He said he personally has heard this week about a couple dozen dues-paying members in his region who are considering opting out of paying dues.
A rank-and-file Local 1000 member, Youlanda Williams of Los Angeles, contacted SactoPolitico to express how troubling Brown’s suspension is, especially with the union’s contract expiring next year.
“CalHR is probably high-fiving. They see that the largest union in California has suspended the new president who was committed to fighting hard for our next contract. They probably feel we aren’t going to get it together by the next negotiations. They feel they got it,” Williams said. “But we should be trying to change our contract. Our contract is basically for management.”
She also said any decision about who should lead the union should be ratified by a vote of the membership: “This is a member-run union. We should have a say.”
As for Brown, he wouldn’t share his next steps, but it appears the courts will be needed to make a final determination on suspension questions and who leads the union and its $47 million annual budget.
Still Brown maintained some of his trademark positivity that perhaps only a three-time underdog candidate could. It came in the form of a message to the union membership.
“Don’t stop believing that we can create a union that is going to represent everybody,” Brown said. “Don’t ever stop believing. That is my message. They make fun of me, but that wheel in the sky keeps turning.”