Things I didn’t like about our recent statewide officer elections

Opinion by Russell Kilday-Hicks

My union, CSUEU recently held statewide officer elections. I was a candidate for VP For Organizing. I came in second out of a field of three. The incumbent was retiring her post. Here are a few thoughts on the experience.

Losing. I have no one to blame but myself, of course. It’s still not pleasant. We should honor all our candidates, winners and losers alike, because it’s not easy to put yourself in front of everyone like that. A close race, in some ways, is easier to take. As hard as losing is, it hurts even more to get really low numbers. We ought to have an after-election party or at least a consolation prize. How about a hot tub and massage for the losers to facilitate their ego-healing work? (Putting on my best Bob Barker voice: “Thank you for participating; see the consolation prize clerk on your way out.”)

Two-minute democracy. I know long-winded, repetitive political speeches can be painful to sit through but who decided the two-minute rule on our speeches? It’s the first exposure to many new people; maybe we should rethink this. Even three minutes is an industry standard, so to speak. Can’t we at least do that? Ideally we need a question and answer period or a candidate’s forum. Hylah and I tried to set that up but at least all the other declared candidates weren’t interested. We should seriously think about this. Of course, this doesn’t address nominations from the floor. Last minute, real or pretend spontaneous, stealth candidates don’t have to have their vision and stances questioned.

Relatively un-informed voters. It’s not their fault, really. Voters never exposed to a CSUEU board meeting are choosing the board leaders. We need to fix this one, and we can. We should be pod-casting and or web-casting our board meetings (the open sessions) around the state so that voters and the people they represent can get a sense of who does and doesn’t pay attention, who raises valid points, and who uses the rules to make us all suffer for our sins (and sometimes wish this guy Roberts be drawn and quartered for his sins).

Privileging those with time. Women especially should be sensitive to this one. Many of us sacrifice not only our careers but compromise our family lives to be union activists. Why should those with no diapers to change or partner to bargain for union time with get all the credit for being so involved? For example: The election was on my younger son’s birthday. For example: People said to me about Joseph: how can someone running for VP For Organizing not go to the organizing training? Well, easy. Because he had a family obligation that weekend and sent an apology out to the chapter presidents explaining why he wasn’t there. Some of us have to make hard choices like these all the time. Pay attention sometimes to the time stamp on activist’s e-mail messages; many of us are giving up sleep to do this work. I heard I lost points for not being at the CSEA Women’s Conference. Was it known that I was home with a wife who had major surgery that Friday? (BTW – I did attend the CSEA Committee on the Future the following Monday and Tuesday, sending my wife to her parents for care and my son to his aunt’s. I chose to do that because that work is so crucial to avoid the coming GC train wreck. My partner wasn’t happy but she’s a good sport most of the time and if there was some kind of award for playing the best supportive role, she would surely be in the running.) CSU Division President Pauline Robinson was very welcoming to family coming to our meetings. I haven’t heard this brought up recently and we should. Don’t we want workplaces—including the volunteer union workplace—to be family friendly?

Who shows up — who doesn’t. This is a variation on the item above. They do say that democracy is run by those who show up. We should examine why some people don’t make it to our election. Maybe there are a few simple fixes to getting more people in the room, for example: changing the election time to during the spring semester rather than during the summer when people take vacation time off, and adding daycare so those with children are welcome to participate.

Making a mockery of our elections. Some of us take elections very seriously, others not so, it seems. For some it’s a game with loose and fast rules. Push it as far as it will go. Does this serve democracy well? Some people win elections and some lose. It’s a fact of life. When it’s reduced to a game, we all lose.

Preparing. I thought long and hard about whether I was ready to serve, what makes a good leader (good_leaders.pdf). The truth be told I’m already serving my union, I just wanted to make it more visible and certainly thought I could communicate better from the inside. And I’ve been struggling asking for release time, knowing that we were running out and entirely frustrated that my work on communications wasn’t getting enough support from our union and from myself. I could say forget it. How could they not know what I’ve done already? But it was up to me to tell you. Not making excuses but it been a hard year for me so far. In addition to my wife having health issues my father just died a few weeks before the election and I had a home crisis I had to deal with earlier in the year. And, I put a lot of energy into my chapter to grow by 100 members to get another GC delegate (and came up short, damn it). Plus I read a book on my vacation in Europe (that Pat gave me), “Building More Effective Unions.” Watch for a review in a future University Employee newsletter. I also took Brian Young’s Chapter Development plan and reworked it to be more comprehensive (chap_develop_plan07.pdf). My vision for organizing (one part of the VP job, see below) was to push the Healthy Chapter concept, meaning if you have a healthy chapter (twelve benchmarks) then organizing would be a breeze (Org_Com_plan.pdf).

Misleading title. The name of the office is “Vice President for Organizing” but this is misleading. It should be just plain old vice president because that is what the duties amount to. Truth be told, everything we do is organizing, so why don’t we call it VP for Everything? Here is a list of what our president and vice president do for us (thanks to Hylah):

All statewide offices take an enormous commitment of time and energy, not to mention a good measure of acumen in human relations and negotiating. There are three main fronts, and they are all on full boil, and they all have significant consequences for CSUEU: our relationship with SEIU, our involvement in CSEA, and our continuing efforts to build CSUEU leadership and programs on an impossibly small budget. The four statewide officers are heavily involved in all these things, as well as keeping up with the day-to-day communications and overall management duties.

In addition to the 3 BOD meetings the CSUEU holds each year, there are 3 CSEA BOD meetings per year, and SEIU state council meetings about every other month. There are also CSU Board of Trustees meetings 8 times a year (3 day meetings). There are also CSUEU executive committee meetings (about 8 per year) and CSEA executive board meetings. With the change in the CSEA board after this GC there will be a greater level of commitment and consultation among the affiliates within CSEA.

Then there are the CSEA committee and the other affiliate board meetings (Local 1000, Retirees, Supervisors), which it is a very good idea for the CSUEU president to attend whenever humanly possible, to protect CSUEU’s interests and assure CSEA continues to build and grow.

And, there are the CSUEU committee meetings, at which the president plays a significant role.

The two officers upon which these essential duties fall are the president and vice president for organizing, with the other two CSUEU vice presidents are required to attend meetings as backup (all but the CSEA executive committee, for the president only).

Of course, you are not a potted plant at these meetings. This is the driver’s seat, and as a statewide officer you are responsible for protecting CSUEU’s interests and enhancing our position (requiring lots of prep time and thinking on your feet). That would be great if everyone would just listen to you and cooperate! But alas, it’s messy, and people don’t always behave on the up and up. Occasionally you come across truly power-driven individuals who, believe it or not, do not have the American labor movement at the center of their hearts.

And then you have your own people to deal with, who can sometimes perform at less than the optimum, just not be up to the task or too busy with their lives to get done what they committed to. But because you are a statewide officer you will be required to pick up the slack and remain entirely civil about it. You will be invited to all kinds of chapter meetings and will be expected to know everything because that is what they expect. You will be something of a traveling complaint department, but you will also be amazed and renewed at the commitment and solidarity of the rank and file.

You will be occasionally unhappy with staff and when you try to do something about that you will find it is more complicated than you thought and more time consuming. Meanwhile, you will get blamed for not moving faster. Faster and more efficiently, although a true efficiency analysis would find weak links over which you can exercise almost no control. People will not always understand that you are doing your best, and they certainly don’t want to hear this. Again, you will need to remain loving and civil and creative and tactful.

If there is bargaining going on for us in CSUEU or in CSEA, the CSUEU president will be at the table, and these are sessions involving several days, preceded by several days of prep time. There will, I predict, be layoffs, and the president is at all of those tables as well.

The president is also expected to testify in the legislature and meet with elected officials on a regular basis, understand the California budget process, the legislative process, stay abreast of California politics, and lobby like crazy for our bills and our interests. At the CSU board of trustees the president makes two public speeches every session to the board and all CSU presidents and all vice chancellors and the attendees. After all these fun and games there is a meeting of the presidents, officers and administrators of all the CSU labor unions, at which there is a fine dance of information sharing — but not too much information sharing — and probing for shared ground.

And then! And then there is the governor and are our other enemies who may very well decide to mount another anti-union, anti-public employee attack or go after our pensions again. That will take enormous effort, again, and require a full commitment while assuring the CSUEU remains strong and we don’t drop the other balls that we need to keep in the air.

Oh yeah. If you are a vice president, you get to work your state job while you are trying to do all this other stuff. You will get your expenses reimbursed, but not always as timely as you would like. If you don’t keep up with your expense claims you will find yourself in a hazy financial situation, so keep good records and turn your claims in immediately. Despite your best efforts, you will spend money, time (weekends for weeks on end), and vacation time that you did not anticipate. You will find that you will not want to get away from it all, because it’s like driving the original 20 mule team, meaning you are handling 20 reins and you won’t dare let go.

Not many people can handle it. Some step forward and find themselves in over their head. We should consider the big picture because things will change in the next two years, internally and externally, and this creates new challenges. In California, things will get worse. Budget. Health care. CalPERS attacks. The impact on your friends and family is incalculable. It takes a level of selfishness to voluntarily neglect your friends and family, and you will end up always feeling that either the union responsibilities or your friends and family, by turns, are being short-changed.

Finally, when all is said and done, I will continue to support our statewide leaders and struggle to represent my members and build my chapter, and, if I think my ego can handle it, possibly run again for statewide office. Thanks for your continued participation in union democracy.

Peace.

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One Response to “Things I didn’t like about our recent statewide officer elections”

  1. Joseph Corica Says:

    Hi Russell,

    This is a great piece. Thanks for defending my inability to attend Organizing Training. I know that would be a big problem for me but, as you said, we need to consider family first.

    Anyway, thanks for everything and we’ll get it next time.

    With love and respect,
    Joseph

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