SEIU-UHW official Leon Chow's planned run against San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos in District 11 would plunge organized labor into a divisive civil war heading into the critical November elections. While labor unity is needed to pass Governor Jerry Brown’s tax measure and elect progressives statewide, Chow’s candidacy would pit SEIU Local 1021 – a strong Avalos ally – against SEIU-UHW, the health care workers union that would be committing major resources toward Chow’s campaign. Other unions would also join the fight. Chow’s role in the creation and distribution of a flyer in 2009 that called UNITE HERE Local 2 President Mike Casey an “NUHW liar” ensures that Local 2’s rank and file workers would hit the pavement for Avalos. National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) members and supporters will as well, as they are still battling both Chow and his union. Chow’s candidacy would prove a disaster for San Francisco’s labor movement, creating a civil war over a candidate with little chance to win.

I have spoken to several people from different parts of the labor movement who are all incredulous that SEIU-UHW would promote Leon Chow to run against John Avalos. Yet a faction of the Building Trades Council mad at Avalos over his support for local hiring laws, and a Dave Regan led SEIU-UHW angry at the SF Labor Council's leadership, are converging to make this divisive campaign happen.

Labor’s Next Civil War

Leon Chow’s candidacy would pit two powerful SEIU locals directly against each other. SEIU Local 1021, which represents public and nonprofit employees, gave John Avalos its top co-endorsement in the 2011 Mayor’s race. Its leadership and rank and file see Avalos as their leading if not chief voice on the Board of Supervisors.

SEIU Local 1021 members and staff will go all out to ensure Avalos’ re-election. And, incredibly, they will be battling against a candidate running at the behest of another local in the same international union, SEIU-UHW.

There’s a lot wrong with this picture. And SEIU President Mary Kay Henry needs to step in now and prevent this fight.

If Henry does not intervene, labor’s next civil war will prevent the union unity not only needed locally in November, but at the state level. It will mean SEIU locals are investing time and money in a supervisor’s election in San Francisco driven by personal grievances rather than workers’ needs.

Chow’s candidacy will create more than a civil war within SEIU – it will also provoke a battle royal among other unions.

Local 2 President Mike Casey is San Francisco’s most widely respected labor leader. His members and staff proudly wear buttons, “Don’t Screw With Local 2.” Leon Chow screwed with Local 2 when he charged Casey with being a liar back in 2009. Local 2 members fought back against SEIU-UHW then, and, while the union has made peace with SEIU, its members will battle Chow should he challenge Local 2 ally Avalos.

NUHW supporters obviously have no fondness for Chow, given that he originally said he would leave SEIU-UHW when the local was placed in trusteeship in January 2009. But Chow returned to the fold with greater power than before, and you can count on NUHW supporters entering the labor battle royal on Avalos’ behalf.

The Building Trades have been talking about challenging Avalos since he pushed passage of the local hiring law, which they strongly opposed. But I recently saw a lovefest between the Building Trades and Mayor Lee on the steps of City Hall regarding the CPMC Development Agreement, even though Lee is also a strong backer of local hire.

That’s because this labor civil war is not about primarily about Avalos or local hire, but about control of the San Francisco Labor Council.

SEIU-UHW is part of a group of unions that has been trying to replace the progressive Casey as head of the Labor Council. They see a Chow victory as confirming their greater power, paving the way for replacing not only Casey but progressive Labor Council Executive Director Tim Paulson.

Why Chow Can’t Win

Dividing labor during an election where unity is necessary to pass Governor Brown’s tax measure and to elect progressives across the state is about as bad a strategy as there is – and it’s even worse in Chow’s case because he has no chance to win.

The notion of Avalos’ potential vulnerability emerged after the November 2011 election, when Ed Lee handily won the supervisor’s own district. But Lee will not be on the ballot against Avalos in November. The Mayor is too smart to take sides in a labor civil war, and has no reason to be concerned about the re-election of John Avalos.

The Mayor’s top supervisorial priority for November is electing Christina Olague in District Five. Olague is the clear progressive choice in that race. If the Mayor were foolish enough to go all out against Avalos, it would sufficiently alienate D5 progressives to cost Olague the race.

With Mayor Lee having no interest in backing a challenge to Avalos, mayoral allies will be unlikely to squander money trying to defeat the incumbent supervisor. Meanwhile, progressives will take an “all hands on deck” attitude to defend the supervisor who ably represented the city’s left in the recent mayor’s race.

Chow will have to be careful about what corporate and downtown money he accepted in his race. After all, SEIU-UHW claims to be on the side of the 99% against the 1%, and with workers not bosses.

Since district elections returned in 2000, progressives Gerardo Sandoval and John Avalos have represented District 11. SEIU-UHW and the Building Trades members who think Avalos is far too progressive for his district underestimate how the area has changed since the 1980’s, when a well-funded Leon Chow campaign could potentially win.

It is hard to believe that SEIU-UHW will create both a labor civil war and battle royal over a San Francisco supervisor’s race. But unless SEIU President Henry steps in, this labor train wreck will proceed.

Randy Shaw is author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.