Half of Oakland's city union workers are precarious and can be fired at will. If SEIU wants to bargain for better wages for all, they need to start by getting their own house in order. Half a union is no union at all.
I'm an employee of the City of Oakland and member of our union, SEIU 1021. I like what I do. I work with kids and adults teaching them basic skills and fun activities in our parks and rec system. But unlike regular permanent part and full time city workers, I have very few rights. That's because I, along with a large proportion of the city's workforce, are designated as Temporary Part Time workers [TPT].
Most of the workers that run after school programs at Oakland's rec centers, staff the pools, the lakes, the sports programs and even Oakland's libraries, are TPT. We take care of people's children, young people with learning disabilities and the handicapped. We teach and care for. Despite being precarious positions with less workplace security than a McDonald's, these temporary part time jobs aren't easy to get. The hiring process is lengthy and can take up to six months from application to being placed in a position at a site.
Regardless, people who apply for these jobs are people who want to work with their fellow Oaklanders, want to help residents enjoy the city's wealth, and want to help and develop the capacities of the city's children. Its shocking then that such workers can be, and have been, fired for reasons they are never told about, without a systematic warning process or feedback on their performance. TPT workers can't exceed 960 hours in a fiscal year and can be fired for any reason. We get no benefits, we don't accrue a pension with the state's pension investment fund, Calpers. And when all this is taken into account, its beyond belief that we make up roughly half of Oakland's city workforce from public works to libraries to parks and recreation.
Robbing City Workers to Pay Police
Most of the blame for this sorry precarity can be laid at the feet of a city government that has prioritized police services to such a great extent that it can't adequately staff city functions with fairly paid and well-treated workers. The city prides itself on cutting corners in exactly the places residents need most while always increasing funding to the ever-problematic Oakland Police Department. And the only way to cut those corners, is to create precarious workforces, like so many other federal, state and private enterprises have.
But the responsibility is not the city's alone. Another lion's share of the guilt goes to SEIU 1021, which has allowed this situation to continue by failing to use direct action and strikes to remedy it—the city's temporary part time workforce went up from thirty percent several years ago, to nearly half today as 1021 enters contract bargaining.
Half a Union
While SEIU 1021 will rightly call on the people of Oakland to support them as they ask for better conditions and fair cost of living increases for the city's regular workforce, they will again fail to take into account the one factor that continues to hobble their ability to demand workplace justice. They will talk a good game, but again back-burner the rights and situation of the city's precarious workers, workers who pay their dues in full expectation of representation that never comes.
That would be bad enough. But clearly, a perhaps even greater disservice is being done to the city's part time and full time permanent workers, who are not able to count on the full power of the membership when it comes time to flexing their labor power. Even as SEIU talks of a strike for permanent position pay increases, it will have to do so without the participation of half its membership, because they can be fired for any reason and will hesitate to trust the union to fight for their jobs during a walk-off.
This is not the first time this issue has come up. Through the years, one local paper or another has focused on the scandalous plight of Oakland's TPT, but nothing is ever done. The city, of course, has no interest in rectifying the situation. Indeed, as we have seen in the past years, their only goal is to increase the number of TPTs on the payroll, as a way to cut costs and hobble the union. But SEIU 1021 again and again fails to put this situation to the front, where it should be. And in doing so, they've weakened their bargaining power and set the predicate for the city to continue to hack away at the bare minimum of union-membership benefits.
A Perilous Future for Unions
1021 faces a grim future this year. It goes into negotiations with little organizing power and the city of Oakland knows it. Further challenges will come in the form of “right to work” assaults in the courts this year, which will likely succeed. This means that down the road, SEIU won't even be able to count on its full permanent membership, as members themselves opt out.
That leaves SEIU with very few choices. They can bring their TPT workers in from the cold to form an integral stronger union. They can fall apart completely. Or they can watch helplessly as their TPT workers actively seek to break away from the crumbling union and form their own through the power of strikes and direct action.