Union divided

Ideological battles—such as whether to get tough or keep playing nice—threaten to tear the CSEA apart

Rabble-rousers: Cathy Hackett and Jim Hard have locked horns in recent years with their union’s more pragmatic leadership.

Rabble-rousers: Cathy Hackett and Jim Hard have locked horns in recent years with their union’s more pragmatic leadership.

Photo by Larry Dalton

For the better part of the last 10 years, the California State Employees Association has looked like anything but a union. That is, they haven’t exactly been united.

For years the association, which is home to more than 140,000 dues-paying members, has played host to a fractious internal battle between its president, Perry Kenny, and a dissident band of more militant organizers in the civil service division led by its director, Jim Hard.

The conflict has threatened work stoppages and manifested itself in lawsuits and the attempted ousting of Hard and other civil service leaders by CSEA leaders led by Kenny. The division is palpable. Ask Hard or Kenny about the other and they’ll relate a list of abuses that could fill a telephone book.

And when visiting the CSEA offices near the Capitol, it’s easy to pick up on the tension. The civil service group is quick to point to their ramshackle offices on the fifth floor and contrast them to the more palatial digs that Kenny occupies on the fourth floor.

At the root of the conflict is a philosophical difference between the two factions. Kenny, the established union leader, sees working with management and, more specifically, the administration of Governor Gray Davis, as the way to get things done. Hard and his reform movement are more willing to pursue militant methods to get concessions for the rank and file.

It’s the difference between the carrot and the stick. While Kenny has had CSEA contribute big sums to Davis’ coffers (almost $500,000 in the 1998 governors’ race), Hard has brought up the specter of a CSEA strike when facing the Davis administration at the negotiating table.

“You can call it more radical or militant or whatever,” Hard said. “We’re more activist-oriented and we do believe the older, parochial view of CSEA being more focused on legislative lobbying and electoral work is not a successful strategy.”

Kenny said that Hard’s brand of leadership is ultimately not productive within CSEA: “They are pretty far to the left,” Kenny said. “And with them, you either follow the party line, or you’re out.”

The differences were spelled out in late October when the CSEA board of directors, led by Kenny, voted to disaffiliate from the Service Employees International Union. In 1984, CSEA affiliated with SEIU so other unions couldn’t raid its members. But in 2000, SEIU adopted a “New Strength Unity Plan,” which calls for locals like CSEA to contribute more money to the national organization.

Over five years, CSEA members would be expected to pay $65 million—or $13 million a year—to SEIU. Currently, members pay about $9.5 million a year. CSEA would also become more closely identified with the SEIU. Kenny fears that soon the union would lose the CSEA moniker altogether and would be known as SEIU Local 1000 instead.

While Kenny has pushed away the SEIU, the civil service division has embraced the parent union. In fact, Hard and his lieutenants adorn themselves in the SEIU trademark purple T-shirts to such an extent that Governor Gray Davis is rumored to call them “the Barney people,” after America’s favorite purple children’s dinosaur.

Predictably, Hard sees Kenny’s move in a more cynical light. The vote to disaffiliate, Hard said, “has nothing to do with rank and file’s relationship with SEIU, but everything to do with state supervisors and managers and retirees trying to maintain domination of current state workers with CSEA.”

Furthermore, Hard said, Kenny’s move came at what he called a “curious time.” Hard is in the sixth month of negotiations with the governor’s office over a contract for about half the union. Hard has gone so far in the current negotiations to circulate petitions among state workers to gauge interest in a strike if the governor doesn’t meet union demands. For his part, Kenny said that “there’s never a good time to disaffiliate.” The SEIU’s actions, he said, left them with little choice.

Recent events, however, have only heightened the tension between the civil service division and Kenny that’s been there so long, some say the combatants have forgotten what they are fighting for.

“Perry Kenny and Jim Hard are like the Catholics and the Protestants,” said CSEA gadfly Glenn Crowl. “They’ve been fighting so long, they’ve forgotten what they’re fighting about.”

Crowl, who occasionally defends CSEA members in union grievance hearings and is the husband of a CSEA member, maintains a Web site that watches the internal politics within CSEA at www.csea4us.com. Crowl, a Hard critic, said Hard and his activist group don’t truly have the rank and file’s ear.

“They take advantage of CSEA workers’ apathy,” he said. He does concede, however, that the leadership in the civil service division, “had an important role at one time—they caused leadership to be responsible for their actions.”

The history of bad blood between Hard and Kenny goes back to 1992, when CSEA leadership tried to squelch the reform movement within the union. Hard and Cathy Hackett, who is currently deputy director of finance in the civil service division, weren’t happy with the union’s concessions to then-Governor Pete Wilson. In a lawsuit, they accused the leadership at the time of electoral sabotage, surveillance and other means to keep the reform group from getting their message out to the rank and file.

At one point, CSEA banned Hard and Hackett from holding union office for one year, and then days before the suspension ended, tried to have them banned from CSEA elected office for life after members that supported management brought charges of various abuses against them. An administrative law judge reversed the order.

The legal maneuverings made Hard and Hackett well-known figures within CSEA, so when Perry Kenny, civil service director at the time, ran for CSEA president in 1996 and won, Hard, Hackett and a slate of reform candidates ran for civil service leadership positions and also won, setting up the next five years of conflict.

The animus was only intensified in 1998, after Gray Davis was elected governor. While many thought that Davis’ election would be a boon to state workers, who were looking for a raise from the Democratic governor, the good will didn’t last long. In the first months of Davis’ administration, after receiving a 1 percent raise offer from Davis’ office, Hard circulated petitions for a strike vote. For the previous four years under Wilson, CSEA employees did not get raises. Kenny, who opposed the strike vote and saw Davis as a friend to labor, was outraged.

Then a year later, Kenny and the CSEA leadership tried to kick the civil service leaders out of the union because they alleged the group posed a threat to the union. The civil service division was attempting to incorporate on its own—a move that could have a dramatic effect on which group controls the cash that the civil service division employees generate.

Hard and other reform leaders were ultimately not kicked out of the union—they are, after all, elected officials—but the battle for incorporation (after a victory for Hard) is in the appeals courts and will be decided some time early next year. If the civil service division incorporates, it allows Hard and his followers the right to go straight to SEIU as a separate entity and request support in the form of organizers and lawyers, among other benefits.

The incorporation effort is another move by the civil service division to gain control over what they contribute in dues, say Hard and Hackett. They say that since their 90,000 members contribute such a vastly disproportionate amount of CSEA’s yearly revenue—around $34 million out of about $41 million—the civil service leaders should have a bigger say in CSEA decisions. Right now, they say, the power is with Kenny and what they call his core supporters—workers from the California State University system and retirees.

“We’re the cash cow, we’re everything” said Hackett. “Without us they don’t have anything. They want to control all the decisions and use all our money.”

But that could change. Some union watchers say it’s likely that when the next convention meets to elect CSEA leaders in 2003, it’s the reform group’s leaders who will be elected to CSEA posts—a notion that has serious ramifications for how CSEA money is spent in the political process and on the tenor of negotiations between the governor’s office and the union.

Hackett says the civil service division has increased its membership by 10,000, while the other groups—the California State University Division, the Association of California State Supervisors and the Retired Employees Division—haven’t added members at the same rate. More members mean more delegates to the convention.

For Kenny, such a vote would be catastrophic to CSEA. “It would have a devastating effect,” he said. “They don’t have any regard for the system. We’ve been trying to work with the Legislature and the governor. Hard was ready to take on the governor before he was sworn in.”

Responds Hard: “We did succeed at getting several bills passed that were good for state workers, but the governor vetoed every one them,” Hard said. “So we believe we need to be part of the larger labor movement, including SEIU and the California Federation of Labor. Those two groups got many of their bills signed and there’s a reason. There’s strength in numbers.”