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Union Divisions on Vaccines


This story from SEIU in California says a lot both about anti-vaxxer politics and about how too many unions operate.

The newly elected president of California’s largest state worker union acted on his own this week when he sent a letter challenging Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order directing public employees to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19.

Facing criticism from California state workers who favor Newsom’s order, SEIU Local 1000 President Richard Louis Brown said at a meeting this week that he did not consult the union’s board of directors before drafting the cease-and-desist letter the union sent to the California Department of Human Resources on Tuesday.

“No, I did not consult the board. I think the board is probably too busy right now,” Brown said Wednesday evening.

Brown on several occasions told members that he views the union’s primary job as enforcing and defending its contract. He contends Newsom overstepped the contract when he announced the order directing state workers to show proof of vaccination or else accept regular testing for COVID-19.

Too busy. Huh. Yeah, I don’t think that’s it. This is union dictatorship, a union president acting on his own, which happens all the time in the labor movement. Someone achieves high office and they rule over it like their fiefdom. Unions are supposed to be democratic (well, I think they should be anyway), but usually they are not. This is a great example of this. A lot of his members are pissed.

Public employees who back Newsom’s order say they worry about their safety returning to work during the ongoing pandemic.

“I just wanted to attend this meeting to vehemently oppose any efforts to impede getting this vaccination mandate in place,” said member Brendan Quinn.

Quinn, who said that he spent seven months working as a COVID-19 contact tracer for the state, said that anything that delays the state from making sure employees are either vaccinated or else masked and tested “is just going to cause death and public health risks to everyone.”

Quinn added that while he voted for Brown, he might reconsider his vote if the union keeps getting involved in public health decisions.

Member Rona Johnson echoed Quinn’s sentiments.

“I think it’s the union’s job to provide a safe workplace,” Johnson said.

One member, Francesca Wander, said she not only objected to Brown’s actions, but also to his tone.

“This is not a freedom of choice issue anymore than having a driver’s license is or any more than getting your children vaccinated and showing proof of vaccination before they can attend public school,” Wander said. “It’s a public health issue, period, end of story, plain and simple. And your personal liberties end where the public good and potential harm to the public begins.”

Unions need to do a lot more than just defend the contract. That is very common, but it’s also unionism at its most inflexible and base. It’s certainly not going to organize anyone, externally or internally. Unions need to be about more than just the contract. The contract is very important, I agree. I believe strongly in defending the contract. But I also believe in the idea of collective solidarity. Ultimately, this is the union’s higher job. What is best for the members of the unions and for the larger society? In this case, there’s no contradiction–it’s supporting a vaccine mandate. I can think of no higher goal for a union than keeping its members alive. Alas, that is not the highest priority of far, far too many union heads and even more rank-and-file union members who think that the vaccine is a conspiracy for a corporate invasion of their DNA or whatever batshit insane conspiracy theory of the day is. Another part of what unions are supposed to do is a program of political education, but they fail completely on this point, nearly every damn one of them. This stuff really makes me angry.

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