The typical criticism of unions is they only look out for themselves – they want pay raises and more benefits for their members, everything else be damned.

Service Employees International Union Local 221, which represents 11,000 San Diego County government employees, is trying to change that. Its current labor agreement with the county expires this summer. Yes, it’s asking for raises — about 20 percent over the next three years, versus the county’s offer of a 14 percent raise over five years.

But the union is also using labor negotiations to push a broad set of policy goals: It wants to vastly expand the county’s welfare program, reform the criminal justice system and create a countywide “sanctuary” policy for immigrants.

And, for that, it is facing another set of criticisms: trying to change policies that affect everyone in San Diego during what would otherwise be routine, closed-door negotiations over working conditions.

SEIU is also backing two seemingly unrelated bills in the state Legislature that would change how supervisors’ districts are drawn and when elections take place, both of which could help Democratic candidates get onto the all-Republican County Board of Supervisors.

The effort represents a wide-ranging assault on a county government that liberals have longed complained is too stingy at the expense of the county’s neediest residents.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

The union is doing much of its work under the umbrella of the Invest in San Diego Families Coalition. The group is a who’s who of progressive activist groups, including the ACLU, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, the Center on Policy Initiatives and the City Heights-based Mid-City Community Advocacy Network.

“We’re not about just us, we’re about our community, and we are the community and we are the taxpayers,” said Gerrell Howard, a county social worker who is part of the union’s negotiating team.

Howard said that social workers get blamed for providing bad service. That isn’t the social workers’ fault, she said, but the Board of Supervisors’ for not hiring enough staff. To fix the problem, the county needs to expand its social services net in a big way, Howard said.

For the county, the union is making its case at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

“SEIU is attempting to negotiate policy initiatives which are inappropriate at the bargaining table,” county spokesman Michael Workman said in a statement. “Attempting to bargain a policy decision during labor negotiations, which are not open to the public, deprives citizens of their right to participate in important public policy decisions and circumvents the intent of open meeting laws.”

Public employee unions often ask for things that seem unrelated to their jobs but that they ultimately benefit from. For instance, teachers unions always lobby for smaller class sizes. Their argument is that smaller classes are good for kids. Smaller classes also mean more classes, which means more teachers, which means more teachers union members.

SEIU is following a similar theory. Take the experience of a low-income San Diegan trying to apply for welfare benefits who gets a bus across town, waits around all day and then goes home without seeing a social worker.

According to the union and its partners, the county government uses experiences like that to justify not raising employee pay or not expanding services because it blames social workers for being bad at their jobs.

Now, the union and its partners are trying to make the case that it is county government’s fault that there aren’t enough social workers, which leads to bad service, low morale and eventually high turnover. In other words, blame Supervisors Dianne Jacob, Greg Cox, Ron Roberts, Bill Horn and Kristin Gaspar for the terrible experiences you’ve had, rather than the 11,000 employees who are doing everything they can.

Kyra Greene, deputy director of the Center for Policy Initiatives, said for years the center has been told by the county that “county workers are very greedy, all they care about is their pay and their benefits and that is what the whole problem is.” But then when the workers try to ask for something that is not just a raise, the union gets criticized for trying to do too much.

“How could you win in this system?” Greene said. “If you just negotiate about pay and benefits, you’re greedy. If you try to really bring your heart and your values and use it every place that you can, then you’re wrong and doing something bad.”

David Garcias, the union’s president, said the county does try to pit people seeking county services against county workers and that the union’s effort to challenge that tactic scares the county.

“One of the things that could be intimidating the county is they’ve always had us separated,” Garcias said. “They’ve never had the public included with the county workers to go and speak on these things.”

The county denies dissing county workers that way.

“SEIU’s allegations and arguments are completely false, and we recognize that our county employees work hard to meet the needs of the community,” Workman, the county spokesman, said.

There are some deeper issues that the union realizes can only be sorted out by the Board of Supervisors or even by voters, so it’s trying to turn people out in force to pay attention to the county’s latest budget proposal.

There’s also a reason this is all bubbling up now, besides just the fact that the labor agreement is set to expire soon.

“Part of it is 2018 and 2020 is coming,” said Paola Martinez-Montes, director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

Because of term limits, four longtime board members will be leaving after the next two elections. Horn and Roberts are termed out and cannot run for re-election in 2018, and Cox and Jacob will be termed out in 2020.

The coalition supports and has spoken out in favor of Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s bill to overhaul the redistricting process for supervisors, and Assemblyman Todd Gloria’s bill to make every candidate for supervisor face voters in November, when most voters – and most Democrats – show up.

But not everyone in the union approves of this new strategy. At least a few county workers allege the union is ignoring its most basic purpose: getting workers better working conditions.

Garcias said the majority of Local 221’s members are in favor of his approach, but acknowledged some dissension is possible, though the union suggested that is being stirred up by the county itself.

Howard said the county employees focused only on negotiating wage increases are stuck in the past, but that’ll change.

“They have been with the county for a while, and they are in this little box and that’s all they see,” she said. “But you have a lot of county workers who see past that box and see the bigger picture and are not just stuck in that frame, and that is where we are. Eventually the ones that are in the little box do get the picture.”

As with any tense negotiation, there are different interpretations of nearly everything, disputes over arcane bits of labor law and moments of utter absurdity.

SEIU hoped to get representatives of the outside groups seated at the table during negotiations. That alone has spawned two complaints filed with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board – one from the union that says the coalition partners should be allowed in the room during negotiations, one from the county that says they should not be.

During a day of negotiations last week at the Marina Village conference center on Mission Bay, the county had a room, the union had a room and the third-party groups had another room.

That same day, the union negotiating team showed the county negotiating team a video presentation that featured members of the third-party groups.

“So the county was watching a video of them while they were 20 feet away in the other room because they weren’t comfortable being in the same room,” said David Lagstein, SEIU’s political director.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled David Garcias. 

    This article relates to: Corrections, Government, Politics, San Diego County Government

    Written by Ry Rivard

    Ry Rivard is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about water and power. You can reach him at or 619.550.5665.

    Nathan Wollmann
    Nathan Wollmann

    Working conditions, staffing levels and policy are intertwined. It may be easier for us to wrap our heads around if they were compartmentalized as some are suggesting, unfortunately it's not that easy.

    bgetzel subscriber

    Let's be clear, union contracts have to be approved in a public meeting of the Supervisors. At that time, they can debate the merits of the specific provisions, including those related to service reforms. The public will then have a say. In a world where "everyhting is negotiable" (just ask the President), raising social justice issues, or any issues for that matter, should not be forbidden. The County negotiators could always tell the union negotiators"no". 

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Our County is run by a Board of Supervisors who are all Republicans. There are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the County. Those Democrats would probably endorse expanding welfare and reforming the criminal justice system. It would seem that the union is pushing for the Board of Supervisors to rule in a manner which is more reflective of the desires of the populace, rather than to be reflexively conservative.

    Joe Jones
    Joe Jones subscriber

    @Chris Brewster Say, Chris, here's a thought. Since all 5 supervisors are elected by a popular vote, I'm guessing there's a small, outside chance that they reflect "the desires of the populace." But, then again, actual votes shouldn't count as much as Party registration, since Democratic turnout is traditionally low. You have a future in liberal politics.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Jones: As I imagine you are aware, election outcomes reflect the desires of the majority of those who choose to vote. The desires of the populace can be quite different. For example, it's well documented that a higher percentage of those registered as Republicans vote in primary elections, as opposed to those registered as Democrats. Even so, there are members of the populace who are registered to vote and do not; and others who are eligible to vote, but do not register (or vote).

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Foxes guarding the hen house.

    This is a not only a threat to democracy but an affront to all taxpayers whom are not union members or county employees.

    They get their say just as we all do.

    At the ballot box.

    The county supervisors need to step up and make this abundantly clear.

    Elmer Walker
    Elmer Walker subscriber

    County workers are overpaid and there should not be ANY increase in pay of benefits for 5 or more years. I'm tired of having my taxes increase so frequently so they can live the good life and retire at 55.The Union is not representing me in becoming a sanctuary. I believe we should follow Federal law or change the law. Or maybe I should become a sanctuary household and ignore city and county laws/rules. If the county can ignore laws it is ok for me to do the same.

    Robert Parkinson
    Robert Parkinson subscriber

    @Elmer Walker Overpaid? Are you stuck in the 70's or just believe fake news sources? I'm one of the county workers who works diligently to support our brave officers and the public safety of the community by activating or closing supervised probation cases, copying and distributing court reports, and scanning court orders into the system. We're understaffed, and when we do get someone hired it's at a lower tier and the odds are against retaining them. I'm at the top step of my position doing this full time for a grand total of a three digit paycheck every other week which keeps falling further behind for what I pay monthly to live in one of the the least expensive apartments left in San Diego. We have one person in my classification who had to leave an abusive situation and has been living in her van because her income wasn't enough to qualify her for any vacant rentals in the area. BTW, I'm 63 and know that without exception individuals from the county who can now retire at 55 and live a good life in which their county pensions are a major factor are all in top management. 

    Elmer Walker
    Elmer Walker subscriber

    @Robert Parkinson @Elmer Walker No> I looked up salaries in the County Web site. You are understaffed according to your standards, but overstaffed by non governmental workers standards.  Everyone gets to the top step and if they are not capable of being promoted, just stay there. Just because you need more money to live in an apartment is not justification for a raise. You should have said how long you have been at the county because if you started work at a normal age of say 21and you are now 63 that means you have worked for 42 years and would certainly qualify for  superb pension unless you are in a very unskilled job. My guess is you believe all the distorted info from you union, feel sorry for yourself and had no intention of getting more education to qualify for a better job. Try the private sector and if want to better yourself.

    Robert Parkinson
    Robert Parkinson subscriber

    @Elmer Walker @Robert Parkinson If I were hired at 21, that would have been 1975 and I'd have been grandfathered into the top pension tier. Things have changed since then. I've been at my position with the county for the last ten years. I may not be an officer but my work is necessary for them to be free to do their jobs protecting the public. I don't have anything to say to someone so callous that they don't believe those who provide the services to help keep us safe from crime deserve to be able to have a roof over their head. This is a skilled job, and not one you can just walk and get hired without going through rounds of testing, interviews and an extensive background check.    

    Elmer Walker
    Elmer Walker subscriber

    @Robert Parkinson @Elmer Walker Typical union bully answer. Calling me callous because I don't agree with you. If you have only been there ten years you can't expect to be offered normal exorbitant pay and benefits. You need a reality check on the work you do the training it took to learn your job and what an equivalent job in the private sector would pay.

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    This is open and shut, unions are allowed to negotiate pay, benefits and working conditions, period.  If the County allows them to get a toe hold into policy, they will lose all control.  They will become another Detroit.  Unions want a say, but no consequences.  The County should say "This is not subject to negotiation, next subject?"

    There are numerous NLRB decisions on this.

    Nathan Wollmann
    Nathan Wollmann

    Poor staffing and management decisions lead to poor working conditions for workers, poor service delivery for residents, I think this is great.

    Bob Gardner
    Bob Gardner subscriber

    Worst mistake ever made by government was allowing any governmental workers to unionize. 

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    I guess the county and taxpayers are lucky that Local 221 is not also demanding “truth, justice and the American way….”.Or are they?  To call these demands "overreach" understates the arrogance of this bunch.  Last I checked, no one appointed the SEIU to speak for the voters in general.