Love her or loathe her, and she gets a lot of both, Yvonne Walker is one of the most influential leaders in Sacramento.
As president of Service Employees International Union Local 1000, Walker, 58, runs state government's largest union. Of its 96,000 members, roughly 40,000 of them live and work in the Sacramento area.
The sheer size of her responsibilities makes Walker, a former U.S. Marine, a big deal around here. The list of executives in the region with a reach as expansive as Walker's is short. Yet Walker is little known outside of circles related to public-sector union politics, where she has loomed large for the past decade as the leader of Local 1000.
Her lack of greater name recognition in Sacramento is odd, really. It's not unreasonable to wonder if Walker would be more widely known, and less criticized, if she were a man.
She is the first woman to head Local 1000, and from that position, she has cultivated a leadership team of women. She also has secured big raises for her members that would be the envy of private sector employees whose companies have slashed compensation and benefits.
Beyond that, her union has pushed hard on causes with impact beyond its members. SEIU nationally was the force behind the Fight for $15 campaign that has raised wages for fast food and other low-income, non-union workers. The union also is one of the key organizers behind a proposed rent control ordinance here in Sacramento that currently is collecting signatures in a run to make it on the November ballot.
After starting out as a legal secretary for the state in the early 1990s, Walker ascended to the top of her union with her tenacity and without a college degree. Who else in Sacramento has achieved such a prominent position while raising three children and confronting political attacks against her, her union and unions in general?
But perhaps the more pressing question is this: What other local leader faces the prospect of having everything she has built in her professional life decimated?
“We’re going to take a hit,” Walker said in a recent interview in her midtown office. “We’re being attacked by folks that are afraid of our collective voices.”
Walker is not exaggerating.
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that could strip public employee unions of their ability to collect fees from non-members to help cover the cost of the collective bargaining from which they benefit.
Janus v. American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 will decide if laws in 22 states and the District of Columbia that allow unions to collect what's known as "agency" fees or "fair share" fees violate employees' free speech rights.
The Janus case hinges on an Illinois public employee named Mark Janus who sued to keep an Illinois union from deducting dues from his paycheck. He said the union's politics were not his and the collection of his money was a violation of his First Amendment rights.
Some have tried to frame this case as one individual pushing back against power public unions. That's not quite the story. As The New York Times reported, Janus is backed by “a web of conservative donors.” Leading the way is Richard Uihlein, an Illinois industrialist who is a major donor to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Walker’s claim to fame is barring public workers from collective bargaining in his state.
President Donald Trump restored a conservative majority in the high court after his 2016 election, and now that court is poised to further weaken public employee unions. Justice Anthony Kennedy of Sacramento may cast the deciding vote for an issue that could adversely affect his own hometown.
To be sure, this ruling will affect Sacramento. State employees have been the backbone of the city for generations. State employment has been the gateway to the middle class for countless families. Those families bought homes, cars, sent their kids to college and enhanced their neighborhoods.
Walker’s Local 1000 represents various career fields including custodians, nurses, information technology specialists and various classifications of office workers. In 2017, Local 1000 secured for its members base pay increases of 11.5 percent over 42 months, with some classifications of workers earning raises as high as 19 percent.
Those raises are a boon for Sacramento. But would they have been as lucrative - and would Walker and her leadership team be as effective when going toe-to-toe with Gov. Jerry Brown - if the union didn’t have $60 million in dues to finance its activities?
Over the years, opponents have tried to decertify Local 1000. Politicians, such as former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, have gained public traction by blasting Yvonne Walker - and other state union leaders - for unfunded pension liabilities facing the state.
In response to attacks and opposition, Local 1000 grew secretive and hostile to the press, to its own detriment. By her own admission, Walker is not entirely comfortable as a public figure. "I'm a natural introvert, " she said. "I'm not a social person, but I'm in a public role, and I'm more exposed than I want to be."
In the past, Walker has frozen out some media members, excoriated others. When opposing voices have spoken out against the union, Local 1000 leaders have been quick to discredit them, even if those dissenting voices are within their own ranks.
This has left the union too often isolated at a time it needs to remind people why its existence is so important to its members and to the community at large. Walker's own personal story, rarely told if at all, is an inspirational example of what solid employment and professional empowerment can do for someone.
“The power of everyday people is real,” Walker said. “The union is a way for people to be a part of something that is bigger than themselves.”
On Monday, Walker took her message to a national audience by writing a fiery commentary in The New York Times, a sign of her growing national stature and her understanding that she and her union have to communicate to an audience far beyond its members - because its work is for more than its members.
"Please do not be deceived if the Supreme Court, as seems likely, decides against unions, " Walker wrote. “We ask the public to stand with us: to support working families, union members and public employees, and to fight for workers’ rights as we combat the epidemic of income inequality. Help us protect our ability to take care of our families and retire with dignity."
You may feel that SEIU and Walker's fight is not yours. But if you live and work in Sacramento, you might want to reconsider.