Dear CSEA GC Delegates: With this election … stop digging

I want to take you back three General Councils ago. This was when I was first getting involved on a statewide basis. Like all first-timers I came to GC not knowing what to expect but it was a profound experience in a number of ways. Like now, back then CSEA was divided. There was a terrible feud between the leaders of the day. Within one division was a ray of hope. After all, they had the word democracy in their name. Some of you may remember the noble cause of the Caucus for a Democratic Union. I joined them and worked hard on what I thought was a solution. But it turns out the opposing sides were too much alike; new sides were formed and the discord continued. But then, at GC, one leader stood up and proposed a compromise. Jim Joska from the then CSU Division, in a passionate speech that made a lot of sense, offered us a way out. But, alas, it was an opportunity lost. This body, and some very stubborn leaders, chose to continue along the same path.

At the next GC, I got further involved in trying to find a solution out of our morass. I brokered a meeting between the CSU Division’s leaders and SEIU President Andy Stern at a time when the CSEA president was probably hoping such a meeting would not ever take place. Our division had little to no relationship with SEIU and that just didn’t make sense to me because, like it or not, we were affiliated. Maybe that effort failed, but I like to think that it started something. That work certainly needs to continue. As an aside, I want to say here that we need to give credit to SEIU for supporting the Committee On the Future of CSEA. I’m convinced now SEIU does not want CSEA to fail. For that, I’m thankful.

But here’s the lesson. This is something I was trying to get across to my seven year old recently: when you are in a hole the first thing you should do is stop digging. To do this you have to do two things: recognize your position and take some responsibility for the shovel in your hands. Only then can you hope to get out of that hole. Only then can you ask for help, to get someone to throw you a rope. We can all agree we’ve been in a hole, but some of our leaders have continued digging despite this knowledge—all the while pointing the finger at the shovel the other guy is holding. Continuing like this, together we will reach China someday.

Like many of you, I’m tired of the infighting, the petty one-up-man-ship. Many people think this is politics. It doesn’t have to be. There is no doubt politics can be nasty. Point of personal privilege: my father died a few months ago. When he heard I was running for an elected office he warned me, it’s “too political,” he said. But my dad was not seeing the whole picture. The best of politics is when you have a leader who listens and follows what’s best for the group and then works like hell to empower those lagging behind to catch up and join in the fun. We’ve seen some of the worst of politics in this divided CSEA house. Together we can turn back the grave challenges facing us in attacks on our healthcare and our pensions—but only if we stop digging.

Over the summer I read a depressing book called “Labor’s Untold Story.” The labor history of our nation is not a pretty story and certainly not a hopeful story. Unfortunately, the internal struggles some of us have lived through in CSEA is not all that uncommon past or present. In the last chapter, the author tries to insert some hope that he probably felt wouldn’t be there otherwise. It seemed odd. But when you think about it, we are all a bunch of oddballs. What are we doing here? We should be home watching football and scheming up ways to work the system to enrich ourselves. Isn’t that what America is all about?

Well, for some it is. For us there is another vision. We are blessed by that vision in two ways. Not only do we get to be in the union movement to better the lives of working folk and force this nation live up to some of its promises, but we get to stand up for public service. “Labor’s Untold Story” starts with the wise words of President Lincoln, who said: “All that harms labor is treason to America. No line can be drawn between these two. If any man tells you he loves America, yet he hates labor, he is a liar. If a man tell you he trusts America, yet he fears labor, he is a fool.”
In Lincoln’s terms, we’ve seen a lot of treason in America, and it’s not the threat from labor but from the work of dangerous fools that should concern us. This movement can rescue the best promise of America but it has to remain small “d” democratic. To achieve that, we have to remember to talk too each other and not at each other. At least half of talking is listening. Also, we need to remember that the longest journey is made up of the tiniest steps. The real journey is in those steps. The goal will always be there but the ends never justify the means—the ends are the means. In other words, how we get there is just as important as arriving. From what I see, we need to treat each other better on this journey together. We don’t like bullying behavior in the work house; we shouldn’t tolerate it in the CSEA house either.

Lincoln also said a house divided cannot stand. With this election, let’s take this opportunity to un-divide our house. We missed it the last time it came around. My simple message is, when opportunity knocks, answer the door. Stop pretending nobody’s home.

Elect anyone you want but keep this in mind. With this election, let’s leave the shovels behind and start climbing together to higher ground. The change in scenery is long overdue.

—Russell Kilday-Hicks, “GC Times” editor, chair of the CSUEU Communications Committee, Chapter 305 president, SF State

(Written for the over 1,000 delegates at CSEA’s 64th General Council conference, Oct. 6-8 in San Jose, Calif.)


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