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State Employees Assn. Faces External, Internal Battles

Leadership is taking on Prop. 75 and a possible defection by its largest member union.

October 08, 2005|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

State government's largest public employee association is under siege not only from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but also from some of its own members.

This weekend in Anaheim, a convention of the California State Employees Assn. will elect new leadership that could topple the current hierarchy and make way for an independence move by its largest member union. That could effectively gut the 74-year-old organization.

The dissent comes at a bad time for the association, which is also fighting an initiative backed by the governor to change the way state workers' union dues are collected. If the measure succeeds, unions insist that it would dry up their political money.

It's a fight for survival on two levels, said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, an independent research organization. "The timing is really bad for the unions and great for the Republicans. Any time you have dissension in the ranks, it has an impact."

The umbrella state workers' association has 140,000 members, who include government workers and supervisors, retirees and state university employees.

The internal and external fights have consumed delegates of the association's annual convention in Anaheim. Dueling slates of officer candidates are offering different visions for the future of the venerable organization, which helped shape the state's civil service and pension systems.

Elections for the four top association posts -- president, two vice presidents and secretary/treasurer -- will be held Sunday.

The chief challenge comes from Local 1000 of the Service Employees International Union. As the largest of four affiliates under the association's umbrella, it represents rank-and-file state workers. The union provides representation in collective bargaining, which the association cannot.

Leaders of Local 1000 want independence and to take their 87,000 members out of the association. The exodus would have a crippling effect on the association's finances: Of $8.3 million in association dues collected in 2004, $6.6 million came from Local 1000.

Local 1000 leaders argue that the union ultimately would be stronger with only union members -- not association members -- deciding how to marshal its resources.

"The association has little relevance to us except as a hindrance for building an effective union," said Jim Hard, Local 1000 president, as he prepared for Sunday's elections. "Most of us question the value of their services and their effectiveness. I don't see a good reason for them to exist."

Association president J.J. Jelincic said many members feel bushwhacked by Local 1000 leaders, who pledged to stick with the California State Employees Assn. when the union was given more autonomy in 2003. Diluting the organization's clout would be disastrous for both, he said.

"The leadership of Local 1000 has said, 'We're the big dogs and we're going to make all the calls,' " said Jelincic, who is seeking reelection. "No affiliate regardless of size can dictate to the rest."

The battle for control comes at a bad time, both sides acknowledge. Most public employee unions are focused on fighting Proposition 75 on the Nov. 8 ballot, which would require unions to obtain annual authorization from members to spend dues on political activity.

Local 1000 has contributed about $1 million to an alliance of unions fighting the initiative. The association wasn't able to contribute much, Jelincic said, because about $1 million from contributions collected for the association's political fund has been withheld by Local 1000.

The issue is one of several disputes in arbitration that will be heard before an administrative law judge in late November.

In July, an association subcommittee concluded that Local 1000 had no authority to withhold the money and that, without it, the organization had lost clout with the Legislature. In 2003, for example, the association spent $1.5 million through its political fund.

The association hired an attorney to investigate what happened to the money.

"We feel we've been lied to," said Kathleen Collins, Local 1000's political director in Los Angeles who supports sticking with the association. "We thought it would be a partnership with [Service Employees International Union], not that it would become consume and devour. I think everyone knows that this vote [Sunday] is going to determine the future direction of this organization."

Hard said the issue was simple: Political dues and donations were given by Local 1000 members and should stay with the union. He said the money that would have gone to the association was sent directly to the Proposition 75 fight. "As soon as the affiliates became separate, they had no legal authority to collect dues or fees."

Both sides acknowledge that the only reason they're still talking is the association's bylaws. Rules allow affiliates to break off and become independent -- but only if they take neither members nor assets. Changes to the bylaws allowing greater leeway would have to be approved by two-thirds of the delegates.

Besides Local 1000, there are three other association affiliates: Local 2579, representing 15,000 California university employees (not faculty); the Assn. of California State Supervisors, with 6,000 members; and about 30,000 retired state workers. Tim Behrens, president of the supervisors' association, said his group attempted unsuccessfully to become independent last year and supports Local 1000.

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