What’s Up with SEIU and Berkeley’s Measure T?



It’s no secret that public-employee unions have been under siege. During the past several years, they’ve endured widespread layoffs, pay reductions, and pension cuts. And so it’s no surprise that public-worker unions typically endorse ballot measures that raise revenues for the public agencies that employ their members. It’s why numerous unions throughout California are backing Prop 30: The measure will raise revenues and result in fewer cuts to state and local government services and workers. It’s also why public employees in the City of Berkeley, who are members of the union SEIU 1021, wanted to endorse Measure T, a ballot initiative that promises to generate millions in new revenues for city government.

Yet for some reason, those Berkeley city employees were overruled by the union’s county leadership. And so SEIU 1021 may now be one of the first unions in Northern California to oppose a ballot measure that would raise funds for the public agency that employs its members — and thus help that agency, the City of Berkeley, avoid more devastating cuts to jobs, pensions, and pay.

In interviews with the Express, SEIU’s county leadership would not explain why the Berkeley city employees were overruled, nor would the leadership give any reason for why SEIU 1021 was opposing Measure T.

The ballot measure would allow dense developments on six underused sites in West Berkeley. The Berkeley firefighters’ union has endorsed the measure in part because the new development would likely generate at least $6 million in permit-fee revenues for the city alone, said David Ross, a retired Berkeley firefighter who is still active in the union and was part of the local Berkeley endorsement process.

Ross also noted that the housing and commercial growth generated by Measure T would create millions of dollars of new real estate transfer, property, and sales tax revenues for the city. “And Measure T is not going to cost the City of Berkeley a dime,” Ross added. The measure also includes no new or increased taxes for existing city residents.

Ross confirmed that the political committee representing local Berkeley chapters of SEIU 1021 had voted to endorse Measure T, before being overruled. “They all wanted it — they actually endorsed Measure T,” he said.

The county leadership for SEIU 1021 instructed Ariana Casanova, the East Bay political coordinator for the union, to answer questions posed by this reporter on the reasons for the county’s decision. Casanova said that, typically, the county leadership political committee adopts the recommendations made by the local union members who would be affected by the measure.

But Casanova would not comment on why the county leadership committee overruled the Berkeley city employees of SEIU 1021, saying it was internal information. She would only say that the county political committee that makes the final decisions on what to endorse, decided to oppose Measure T.

When asked why a public-employee union would oppose a ballot measure that could help a public agency avoid budget cuts, Casanova responded, “I really wish I understood it myself.”

And when this reporter noted that he could not remember another East Bay public-employee union having ever before decided to oppose a ballot measure that would raise revenues for a public agency that employs its members, Casanova said: “I don’t recall a similar situation either.”

The Alameda County Building Trades Council union also has endorsed Measure T. Andreas Cluver, the union’s treasurer-secretary, told the Express that his union believes the new developments made possible by Measure T will create good union construction jobs. He also said that he received verbal commitments for project-labor agreements from several of the site developers to use union workers.

SEIU’s decision on Measure T also is at the heart of a controversy in the election. Opponents of Measure T have filed an ethics complaint with the city, contending that the measure’s supporters had falsely claimed in mailers that SEIU 1021 had endorsed it. Darrell de Tienne, one of the leaders of the pro-Measure T group, said that they had thought SEIU 1021 had endorsed the measure after hearing that the Berkeley city employee committee had voted to do so. He added that once he was informed that the county union leadership had overruled the three Berkeley SEIU chapters, then he removed the SEIU 1021 endorsement from the Yes on Measure T website, but that it was too late to do anything about the mailers.

It should also be noted that anti-Measure T campaign has repeatedly published false and misleading information about the measure. For example, Measure T opponents have repeatedly put out campaign materials falsely claiming that the measure would allow high-rises next to Aquatic Park. In truth, Measure T excludes Aquatic Park from development.

In addition, opponents of Measure T have engaged in dirty political tricks, defacing and/or destroying pro-Measure T signs throughout the city.

When asked why the pro-Measure T campaign hasn’t filed ethics complaints against opponents, de Tienne said his group thought about it, but “decided to take the high road. We believe in what we’re trying to do.”

So why did the county political leadership of SEIU 1021 do what it did? Both Cluver of the building trades union and Ross of the firefighters’ union said they were surprised by what happened. Cluver added that he believes the decision is connected to the mayor’s race. SEIU 1021 also has endorsed ultra-left Councilman Kriss Worthington over Mayor Tom Bates, and Worthington opposes Measure T while Bates supports it.