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State employees union fights over its future

A philosophical split over CSEA's structure threatens its clout, some members say

By Rachel Osterman, Sacramento Bee, Wednesday, April 27, 2005

For 10 hard-fought years, J.J. Jelincic and Jim Hard together battled to reform the California State Employees Association, organizing an internal dissident group, waking at the crack of dawn to leaflet rank-and-file employees and, ultimately, unseating the association's old guard.

A little more than a year after their reform movement succeeded, the former allies are locked in a bitter dispute that could determine whether the union group is overhauled once again, a battle that's becoming increasingly public as the largest state employee organization elects new leadership.

This year marks just the second time that California's rank-and-file civil servants have been asked to directly elect their statewide leadership. It's set off a flurry of leafleting, phone banking and mailings sent to state worker households up and down California.

Participants say the outcome could determine the very viability of the CSEA, a 74-year-old political force that helped create the modern civil service and public pension systems, and is a major campaign contributor.

"This is about the future of CSEA and whether we remain strong," said Jelincic, president of the umbrella group.

Feeding into the dispute is the complex structure of the CSEA, which, as an umbrella organization, represents four groups of current and former state workers whose interests sometimes clash. The four affiliates are 86,000 rank-and-file civil servants who work in such diverse jobs as janitors, accountants and analysts; 28,000 state retirees; 15,000 state university employees, not including faculty; and 5,800 midlevel supervisors.

In balloting that began last week, the largest affiliate - the rank-and-file members of Service Employees International Union Local 1000 - is asking its members to choose between slates of rival candidates for the union's top posts. Other affiliates also are holding elections, but none has generated as much attention.

Led by Hard, the incumbent slate believes the civil service affiliate should seek more autonomy from the CSEA. Hard believes that Local 1000, as the largest and richest CSEA affiliate, should have a greater say in how its dues money is spent, to focus more on grass-roots activism.

"It's not functional to have another entity control millions of your dollars," he said. "Local 1000 (dues) pay for 80 percent of CSEA staff, yet we cannot direct those people to do anything."

The challenger slate, led by Employment Development Department analyst Tom Flynn, a Jelincic ally, wants to keep together what he calls the "CSEA family." The more members, Flynn said, the stronger the organization.

"We want to stay in CSEA," Flynn said.

Contributing to the philosophical split are increasingly rancorous relations between the Jelincic and Hard camps. Their differences have been aired in private meetings, public union newsletters and the corridors of the Capitol, where CSEA and Local 1000 now rely on separate lobbyists.

Indicative of the tense atmosphere, a number of political insiders contacted by The Bee declined to comment.

It's a reversal in relations between the former allies, activists who cut their teeth in a dissident group that battled the old leadership of the CSEA beginning in the early 1990s. Organized as the Caucus for a Democratic Union, the dissidents accused former CSEA officials of agreeing to take-back contracts, stifling internal dissent and censoring union publications.

They also challenged the structure of the CSEA itself in a dispute over control of dues and hiring and firing of staff. The infighting was so severe that Hard and others were temporarily kicked out of the labor group.

Ultimately, the dissidents succeeded. With Hard elected in 1996 to the helm of Local 1000, his supporters helped vote Jelincic, a former investment officer for the California Public Employees' Retirement System, into the CSEA presidency in November 2003.

A month later, Jelincic said, he delivered on his main campaign promise, allowing the civil service division to incorporate as an independent entity affiliated with CSEA. As a result, the division began publicly aligning itself more with SEIU than with CSEA, while also collecting members' dues, controlling its own budget and directing its staff.

Today, Hard allies say CSEA's structure, particularly its sprawling 25-member board, remains undemocratic, and he believes Jelincic hasn't done enough to change it. In another dispute, Jelincic says Local 1000 is about $1 million behind schedule in payments owed to CSEA, which he says is forcing the umbrella group to run on reserve funds and threatening its financial security. An arbitrator is scheduled to determine whether Local 1000 is meeting its obligations to help fund CSEA staff who perform legal and accounting services for all four affiliates.

As ballots for Local 1000's state officers go out, the ongoing brawl between Local 1000 and CSEA has become more visible.

Flynn, who said his campaign has received several hundred dollars from Jelincic, is focusing on warning of a possible dues increase, accusing current leaders of silencing members' voices and pledging to keep the CSEA together.

Hard, meanwhile, says he's running on his push to make Local 1000 a more "member-driven" organization. "It's a matter of (determining) what the relationship should be" with CSEA.

As the state's largest employee labor group, CSEA has long used its political clout. In 2002, CSEA ranked as the 16th biggest campaign contributor in the state, donating $1.3 million to various political causes, according to data compiled by the Institute on Money in State Politics.

Meanwhile, Local 1000 has given $750,000 to the Alliance for a Better California, a Democratic-backed group that opposes the governor's ballot initiatives.

The ballot outcome is unclear, but the discord could affect CSEA's future clout.

"The political strength of CSEA is really critical to its membership and to California politics," said Steve Smith, political director for CSEA between 1984 and 1994 and Gov. Gray Davis' labor secretary. "If internal politics were to influence that, if they weakened or lessened their political influence, that would be a huge loss for public employees."

CSEA and its affiliates

The California State Employees Association, the largest state employee labor organization, has four affiliates under its umbrella:

  • SEIU Local 1000, representing 86,000 state employees
  • Retired Employees Division, representing 28,000 retired state workers
  • Association of California State Supervisors, representing 5,800 employee supervisors


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