Ken Hamidi has been trying to break the grip of SEIU Local 1000 since 2007.
Along the way, the Iranian-born Franchise Tax Board employee has won some admirers for his never-say-die spirit and for winning a landmark California Supreme Court case a dozen years ago. He’s also drawn the ire and the ridicule of SEIU officials, who dismiss him as a self-aggrandizing blowhard and a buffoon.
Now he has renewed efforts to replace the union’s exclusive representation of half of California state government’s organized workforce with an association that he would head.
Hamidi says that he already has 6,000 of the 28,500 or so petition signatures he needs to put SEIU Local 1000’s continued representation to a vote. He acknowledges that merely reaching nearly 100,000 state employees is a daunting task, but he thinks that he can find sufficient support if he is allowed access to state email.
“Four emails,” he said. “That’s all it would take.”
This week Hamidi revealed that he has retained Roseville-based United Law Center, which specializes in consumer law, to knock down any legal blockades that SEIU or the government might erect to keep his campaign from communicating with employees about decertifying the union.
The announcement was significant for Hamidi, a sign that his rough-hewn fight with SEIU has a professional ally in a 13-lawyer firm that has taken on banks and insurance companies.
SEIU leadership isn’t impressed.
“Ken Hamidi is a state worker who relies on televised theatrics, falsehoods and exaggerated claims to attack Local 1000,” Local 1000 President Yvonne Walker said in an email to The Sacramento Bee. “Like his candidacy for governor in 2003 and for Local 1000 president in 2008, his 8-year-long campaign to weaken the union hasn’t attracted any meaningful following.”
Hamidi, 68, worked for Intel Corp. before he joined the Tax Board in 1999. In 2003, he won a landmark freedom of speech case that turned back the tech firm’s charge that he illegally disrupted its business by sending negative comments about the company through its corporate email system.
The case went all the way to the California Supreme Court and garnered a measure of fame for Hamidi, who intensified the spotlight with media stunts. In one instance, he delivered 40,000 printed emails to Intel’s Santa Clara headquarters via horse-drawn carriage to draw attention to the case. Unions, including SEIU, supported his cause for fear that a court-sanctioned email restriction could hamper their ability to organize.
$59.76 million Total SEIU Local 1000 expenses in 2013, according to the union’s latest report
As a state employee, Hamidi’s job is covered by terms negotiated by Local 1000, but for many years he has been disenchanted with the union. Local 1000, he says, spends too heavily on political action and too little representing individual members. He questions how the union leaders spend the nearly $62 million taken in annually from dues and fees.
$15.6 million Local 1000 expenses in 2013 for SEIU and other labor affiliates’ meetings and activities
And Hamidi cites a recent proposal, backed by Walker, that would pay stipends of up to $100,000 to the local’s president and three vice presidents on top of their union-reimbursed state pay and benefits.
“Will that add momentum to the decertification?” Hamidi said. “Absolutely.”
Walker said the local’s finances are “carefully reviewed by neutral, outside auditors who find our accounting sound and fully compliant with our policies.” She said those findings then are verified by an independent arbitrator.
She has said the stipends are appropriate to the task of running the affairs for a local that represents 95,000 state workers. The plan goes to a vote by the local’s board in October.
“The question of a stipend for Local 1000 officers will be decided through the democratic process,” Walker said.
SEIU Local 1000, like other unions, is legally required to publish an audited annual financial statement and distribute it to employees it represents. The report includes how much the local spends in dozens of categories, from contract negotiations and union activities to litigation and lobbying.
The figures don’t delve into details, however, prompting some in the union to question how much dues money goes to things like trips, meals and entertainment for union executives. Hamidi wants a detailed audit of the books, and at least one other union member has sued to see receipts and other financial details.
According to independent arbitration statistics, nearly 6,000 state employees last year filed to opt out of paying fees to the local. Hamidi, who for years has encouraged members to stop funding the union, takes credit for what he says has been growth in the number.
Beyond that, Hamidi said he has a grass-roots network of roughly 1,000 disaffected state employees who no longer support SEIU and back his vision for a new organization that relies less on members and more on professional consultants to manage operations, bargaining and representation.
And like his battle with Intel all those years ago, he and Stephen Foondos, managing partner of United Law Center, believe the underdog movement is on the cusp of a beating a deep-pocketed entrenched organization on the merits of their argument.
“We’re going to succeed,” Foondos said. “I know what it’s like to fight with the wealthiest people and win. We never give up.”
Foondos said no one is paying for United Law’s services, and that the firm is backing Hamidi because it believes in his cause. At the same time, United Law stands to gain business should Hamidi succeed because it would handle employee representation and collective bargaining for the new union. Currently, SEIU members handle those affairs.
“This is sort of a contingency, I guess,” Foondos said. He committed to hiring more lawyers if needed.
Walker downplayed the United Law’s entry into the fray as a bid to “replace a member-led team of member leaders and trained staff with a Roseville law firm with no experience representing public workers.”
Replacing Local 1000 will not be easy.
Dumping an incumbent union requires petition signatures from at least 30 percent of all the represented employees, including those who are not dues-paying members who want to put their continued representation to a vote. A second petition with the same number of signatures is necessary to put a replacement organization on the ballot.
Assuming those hurdles are cleared, ballots go out to all employees covered by the union – 95,000 in this instance – with the incumbent organization and the challenger listed, plus a third option: “no representation.”
The ballot entry with a simple majority of votes cast is declared the winner.
To that end, Hamidi and Foondos co-authored a Sept. 8 notice to Gov. Jerry Brown that a decertification campaign was underway and reminded the administration that the state cannot give preference to either side. The letter highlighted United Law Center’s role and asked for, among other things, an executive order directing all state agencies to remain neutral, “unfettered access” to worksites, state email and other communication resources for campaign purposes, and to provide security during decertification gatherings.
Brown’s Human Resources Director Richard Gillihan responded with a letter this week stating that while the state can’t play favorites, it wouldn’t allow carte blanche access, either.
And while the governor did not issue an executive order, the administration did send out a statewide memo to managers acknowledging it “received notice from an employee organization of its effort to decertify an exclusively recognized state employee organization.” It also reminded agencies that they must “uphold the state’s position of strict neutrality during a decertification effort” and that the state “could be exposed to allegations of unfair labor practice” should any manager take any action that shows bias.
The memo did not name SEIU Local 1000, Hamidi or his alternative organization. Human Resources spokesman Jim Zamora said the administration would have no further comment on the memo, but Local 1000 and Hamidi’s camp both interpreted it as a response to the Sept. 8 letter.
After reading the memo, which explained that decertification proponents have the right to “meaningful access” to employees during “non-work time” in public areas, Foondos said, “This is good news. It shows that if they’re denying access, they’re violating their own policy.”
Daniel Mitchell, a UCLA expert on public employee labor unions, said that the correspondence merely indicates that Brown wants to avoid being dragged into court by either side.
“This doesn’t necessarily mean the administration expects (decertification) will happen,” he said. “They just don’t want some local supervisor doing something stupid.”
$20.6 million Local 1000 spending in 2013 on bargaining, contract administration, employee representation, complaints, appeals and similar matters
Hamidi’s Intel experience has informed his posture as a union dissenter. He has launched a website for his hoped-for union that urges members to file papers that allow them to stop paying union dues. The website also carries news about his lawsuit against Local 1000 over union dues, a quest backed by the National Right to Work Foundation staff. He also hosts a weekly public access show, Shout TV, that rails against Local 1000.
The relationship with the anti-union group has opened Hamidi to accusations that his battles with SEIU aim to dismantle public employee representation under the guise of improving it.
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Hamidi said, and denied accusations that he is a vessel for union-busting interests.
Whether his latest campaign has substance will be revealed soon. State law gives challengers a 30-day window to file their petitions. The window closes approximately seven months before a union’s contract expiration date.
Local 1000’s contract expires July 1 next year. That means Hamidi has from Nov. 2 to Dec. 2 to submit the 28,500 petition signatures to the Public Employment Relations Board, or he’ll miss the deadline.