The SEIU has spent tens of millions — a Reuters report on SEIU filings with the Labor Department put the number at $24-$50 million — on its fast food unionization and $15 minimum wage campaign. The latest battleground is California, where the SEIU has begun a signature collection effort to put a statewide $15 minimum wage to the voters.
That has brought the SEIU into conflict with…the SEIU. Or rather, it has brought the SEIU California State Council into conflict with the SEIU United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), which is pushing a similar measure with the backing of several members of the state’s Democratic Party establishment. The conflict reveals a major fault line in the union ahead of the scheduled 2016 election for SEIU President, and provides yet more evidence that the “Fight for 15” is more about political power than employee empowerment.
Dave Regan, the president of SEIU-UHW, is seen as a rival to incumbent national SEIU president Mary Kay Henry. There’s evidence that Henry is worried about a possible challenge from Regan—the national union ordered a conveniently timed reorganization of UHW earlier this year, which took union official proxy votes away from Regan and gave them to a Henry ally by cutting off a chunk of UHW members and assigning them to a new local union.
This continues a pattern established by Henry’s predecessor, Andy Stern. Stern reshuffled the membership of SEIU-UHW to give Tyrone Freeman, a Stern protégé, a bigger local of his own. That backfired when Freeman was convicted of numerous federal crimes and then-UHW boss Sal Rosselli went off and formed his own new AFL-CIO affiliated union.
So Henry’s gambit against Regan is clear: If her—rather, the SEIU State Council’s—ballot measure passes, she’ll claim credit and prestige in her bid to retain union office. Meanwhile, Regan’s effort gets undercut. And union members are on the hook for the costs of this internecine squabble: Signature-gathering campaigns in California can be very expensive. With the typical campaign exceeding $1 million just to qualify for the ballot, SEIU members are on the hook for an easy $2 million if both measures get signatures (Regan’s measure already claims it can qualify). And if Regan and Henry decide to fight at the ballot box, that cost will only go up.