In a striking blow to SEIU’s national leadership, the reform “Change 1021” slate defeated Stern appointees and won all of the major offices and near total control of the Executive Board. It was the first election since SEIU’s International Executive Board merged ten California locals into one three years ago, creating one of the union’s largest primarily public employee locals. Longtime SEIU reformer Roxanne Sanchez won the top position of President in a landslide (3054-1458), Sin Yee Poon defeated Stern appointee Damita Davis-Howard 2141 to 1445 for the key position of Chief Elected Officer (akin to Executive Director), and controversial incumbent James Bryant was defeated by Alysabeth Alexander for Political Action Chair.

The one-sided outcome follows staggering SEIU defeats at Santa Rosa Memorial and Kaiser Sunset Hospitals, and reflects growing worker opposition to SEIU’s increasingly top-down, undemocratic approach. SEIU 1021 will now become part of the growing movement toward more democratic unionism in California, joining UNITE HERE, NUHW and other unions in promoting this trend. As Sanchez put it after the victory, “workers will now have real power in this organization that they did not have before.”

While SEIU 1021’s reform slate was expected to do well, few anticipated an electoral tidal wave that would sweep out of office the entire team SEIU President Andy Stern appointed to leadership over three years ago. Campaign reports indicated widespread member hostility toward SEIU’s leadership, with many members not voting in the election – only 5360 ballots were cast out of 42,000 eligible – because they lacked hope in the prospect for change.

Well, the times are about to be changing at SEIU 1021. The winning slate will not be content rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic; this is a veteran group that knows that SEIU 1021’s success requires bottom-up, democratic unionism, and it will not deviate from its mission to empower workers. (Disclosure: Both newly-elected President Sanchez and Political Action Chair Alexander are employees of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which I head and is the publisher of Beyond Chron).

Anatomy of a Sweep

Five factors brought the landslide victory.

First, this election was a referendum on Stern’s decision over three years ago to consolidate ten SEIU locals from Stockton to the Oregon border into SEIU 1021. The transition to the geographically spread out 42,000 member local was poorly handled, and many members were unhappy that Stern appointees – rather than elected leaders – were empowered to run this massive local for three years.

Second, Stern’s selected team never gained the trust of members. Former President Damita Davis-Howard is not a dynamic leader, and would never have reached this position without being appointed. Even had Davis-Howard exhibited greater leadership skills, she was obligated to follow a national agenda that promoted consolidation, deemphasized member input, reduced member services, and left most workers feeling disconnected from their union.

It is easy to understand why 1021 members preferred a leadership team that would put their interests first, and clearly ahead of agendas promoted by Stern and the SEIU International Executive Board.

Third, SEIU’s battles with NUHW and UNITE HERE hurt its standing with 1021 members, most of whom work in San Francisco, Alameda or Sonoma Counties.
Many members share families and/or friends with workers at UNITE HERE and supporters of NUHW, and opposed SEIU’s attacks on both unions (in San Francisco, UNITE HERE Local 2 street protests typically include many SEIU 1021 members, and even staff).

Fourth, the economic crisis elevated the importance of SEIU 1021 having strong and experienced leadership. Members facing layoffs and/or wage cuts have not been happy with their union’s response to the downturn – like John McCain in the fall of 2008, Damita-Howard had a chance to exhibit strong leadership during the economic crisis but failed.

Finally, SEIU 1021’s reform slate included many savvy veterans of labor struggles. Incoming President Roxanne Sanchez formerly headed SEIU’s BART local, where she was closely allied with the late Ray Quan, one of the Bay Area’s great progressive labor activists. Sanchez understood how to put together the broad geographic coalition necessary to win, and her leading vote total confirms the trust she has earned among the membership. Overall, the Change 1021 slate combined a message of worker democracy with personal histories that verified this commitment.

Projecting the Future

With the next round of county contract negotiations soon to begin, the Change 1021 team does not have time to sit back and enjoy its victory. San Francisco faces its worst budget crisis in history, and California’s budget mess ensures tough struggles for SEIU 1021 in every jurisdiction.

I see an analogy between the ascension of Sherri Chiesa to the presidency of UNITE HERE Local 2 in the early 1980’s and the rise to leadership of Sanchez and Poon at SEIU 1021. Chiesa, currently UNITE HERE International Secretary-Treasurer, inherited a local torn by internal dissent and whose leadership had lost the trust of members. She began a transformation of Local 2 that was then strengthened under the leadership of current President Mike Casey, and Tho Do, who is also one of UNITE HERE’s top international officers.

Local 2 is but one example of progressive leadership changing the culture of troubled unions, and if anyone can turn around SEIU 1021, it is the slate of officials who are now taking office. But while reformers like Vincent Sirabella and John Wilhelm at the national level backed Local 2’s transformation, many doubt that the Stern leadership team in Washington DC will look kindly on 1021’s attempt to create a new model for democratic unionism.

At least the Change 1021 team will not have to worry about trusteeship, as occurred when former SEIU-UHW Sal Rosselli voiced opinions that the international leadership opposed. After all, if Change 1021 builds a base of support, any trusteeship effort would be met with a decertification campaign, with workers likely to affiliate with either UNITE HERE or NUHW.

On the verge of losing all of SEIU’s Kaiser workers to NUHW, Stern will not take such a risk. In fact, Stern called Sanchez to congratulate her, and graciously offered the International’s full support for SEIU 1021’s new leadership team. Sanchez hopes that the Change 1021 victory will represent a turning point for SEIU, and that Stern recognizes that a new direction is needed.

Ultimately, the Change 1021 victory is another rejection of Stern’s model of top-down leadership, with its focus on members as dues payers rather than active framers of a labor movement. A union that once attracted top organizers from other struggles now sees a constant talent exodus, with the key organizer of its Houston janitors’ campaign leaving for the UFCW only last week.

The exodus of longtime SEIU organizers goes beyond California, and even some of its most prominent names have been trying to negotiate deals to leave SEIU for other unions. When the organizers who spearheaded many of SEIU’s greatest grassroots victories either leave or attempt to move on, it is clear that this is no longer the forward-thinking union that so inspired academics and the media from the 1990’s until recent years.

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