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It’s a bad year to be up for re-election as a California public employee labor leader.
That’s one takeaway from last week’s surprising election for leadership posts at state government’s largest union, SEIU Local 1000. It was the third in a recent string of upsets where outsiders knocked off incumbent labor leaders in elections.
Service Employees International Union 1000’s president, Yvonne Walker, won another term leading an organization that represents 96,000 state workers, but three of her deputies lost to challengers who say they want to change the way the union does business.
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“I knew the potential for this to happen was there,” said Tony Owens, a systems analyst at the California Public Employees' Retirement System. “I heard the stories. I know people weren’t satisfied, but you don’t know if that translates to people actually voting .”
They did, and he won, unseating SEIU 1000 Vice President Margarita Maldonado.
The upset follows underdog wins in last fall’s election for seats on the CalPERS board of administration, and for the two leadership positions at California Professional Firefighters.
At CalPERS, Southern California school administrator Margaret Brown unseated union-backed incumbent Michael Bilbrey. At CPF, 13-year President Lou Paulson lost his re-election bid to Brian Rice of the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire Department.
The next test for public employees will come this fall, when CalPERS President Priya Mathur faces a challenge from outsider Jason Perez of the Corona Police Department.
SEIU 1000 has a reputation as a powerhouse in the Capitol, where it sponsors bills and generally advances Democratic causes. It negotiated a 42-month contract last year that netted a general wage increase of 11.5 percent and higher raises for about a fifth of the workers it represents.
The union is also a frequent target for critics who argue it wastes money and cozies up to lawmakers at the expense of rank-and-fire workers. Right-to-work organizations that aim to curb union power take it to court from time to time.
Owens thinks state workers wanted a union that better connects with their on-the-ground concerns about their workplaces.
“One thing people are upset about is when people felt the politics were placed in a higher priority than actual support of members,” he said.
SEIU is preparing for a Supreme Court decision that could severely cut its funding. The case, Janus vs. AFSCME, asks the court to forbid public employee unions from collecting so-called fair-share fees from workers who don’t want to belong to labor organizations. Most union leaders expect the court to wipe out fair-share fees.
In that case, Owens said, SEIU should “really just go back to the core functionality of what the union is, starting at square one. What we are today – how we function – it’s going to be different. The question is, ‘What do people want with the services we can provide?’ We’re going to be leaner and meaner if what the smart money says happens and the court rules against us.”
Pension wars, UC front
Assembly Democrats have a sweet offer to help the University of California shore up its pension system, but the deal comes with a catch that would block it from offering an alternative plan that's popular with some new employees.
Democrats are offering $120 million toward the UC's unfunded pension liability. To get the money, the UC would have to refrain from offering a 401(k) style retirement plan to tens of thousands of rank-and-file workers represented by AFSCME 3299 and University Professional and Technical Employees.
Already, thousands of workers are opting for the 401(k) plans. The UC system reports that 37 percent of new employees want the 401(k) instead of a traditional public employee pension.
Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Phil Ting said the proposal is intended to ensure that rank-and-file UC employees have a retirement plan that they can count on in their golden years. He's open to retaining 401(k) plans for high-earning UC leaders who earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
"We still believe that defined-benefit program is the best (for) long-term economic security. We're not moving away from that," he said at a press conference on Tuesday. "We didn't think it was appropriate for UC to move away from that model for the bulk of their employees making $60,000 a year."
Assembly leaders put their pitch in the budget proposal, and they'll try to persuade Gov. Jerry Brown and Senate leaders to adopt it.
UC workers represented by AFSCME and UPTE don't have a choice to take a 401(k). That depends on their next contract, and the UC is pressing them to accept a deal that would open new workers to defined contribution retirement plans. The unions characterize the offer as a "risky" one that could weaken the University of California Retirement Plan.
Earlier this year, Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, offered a bill that would have let new state workers choose between a 401(k) plan and a CalPERS pension. Pensions tends to reward career civil servants, but people who don't want to spend decades with a single employer tend to have more to gain from a defined contribution plan.
Glazer's bill died in committee, where SEIU California lobbyist Terry Brennand called it a "disaster waiting to happen."