Conflicting interests: City unions wage lobbying war to stem cuts

Photo by Mikey Parrata

San Francisco’s budget fight has swung into high gear, with two heavy weights – public safety and health – sparring over money and launching intensive campaigns to sway public and supervisorial opinion any way they can.

While lobbying is typically connoted with big business using money and power to influence legislation – think tobacco, auto and pharmaceutical industries – this season’s coalitions of interest groups include police officers, healthcare workers, firefighters and city attorneys, and all are hitting the streets and City Hall corridors hard to get their message out.

The stakes couldn’t be much higher: The city is grappling with an estimated $438 million deficit with no fresh revenue measures on the horizon. Advocates for police and fire services have squared off against social service providers, with each claiming that cuts will have disastrous and immediate consequences. With a month to go until the budget must be signed, a majority of the supervisors are going head-to-head with Mayor Newsom over where and how to spread the pain.

Photo by Steven Damron

From fire fighters facing temporary station closures (known as brownouts), to nurses threatened with staff reassignments, city workers and unions have been angling to put a human face on the looming department cuts. And with 1,600 staff layoffs up for grabs, public safety and social service agencies have been pitted against each other to protect their turf.

“Every year it’s a dog and pony show,” said James Keys, health program director for the Senior Action Network, an umbrella group of senior organizations in San Francisco. “It takes seniors, the poor and people who work, to ask, to beg, that these cuts don’t occur.”

In early June, 600 seniors took to City Hall to oppose cuts that would decrease in-home support services and other programs run by the Coalition of Agencies Serving the Elderly, or CASE.

“It’s gotten absolutely worse for seniors every year,” said Keys, who is active in CASE. “[It’s] too expensive for the elderly to live in San Francisco anymore.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Firefighters Union Local 798 has been waging  “an aggressive and offensive strategy to keep firehouses open and fully staffed,” writes the International Association of Fire Fighters, since the beginning of the year in preparation for a budget fight. They have a lot to lose – the Board of Supervisors has threatened to slash $24 million from their budget when they vote on the official budget this month. 

In the first three months of 2009, the union spent $75,858.81 to influence political action – more than any other registered lobbying group, according to the city’s ethics commission. Local 798 is the only union in San Francisco to voluntarily register as a lobbyist; unions are currently not required to do so.

Money spent in the second quarter will not be reported until the middle of this month. But part of the unions reported spending includes payment for political consultant Eric Jaye, founder of the consulting firm Storefront Political Media and consultant for Newsom’s bid for governor.

Local 798’s media campaign has included placing ads on – the San Francisco Chronicle’s Web site – and in English, Spanish and Chinese language neighborhood papers. Posting on Facebook and more low-tech moves, like driving trucks outfitted with loudspeakers through progressive districts, also has been part of the fire fighters’ campaign.

“Don’t let politics get in the way of our neighborhood safety,” reads one ad that encourages residents to join its 6,000-member strong Facebook page.

The labor group representing healthcare workers, Service Employees International Union – SEIU – Local 1021 has staged protests against Newsom’s proposed cuts and packed board meetings with its supporters. The group’s 11,000 San Francisco members, including 1,800 in human services and 3,500 in the department of public health, have been rallying against service cuts for the last year and a half.

SEIU members protest at City Hall. Photo by Robert B. Livingston

The hours of public comment mobilized by the service union may be paying off.  On Thursday, the Supervisors’ Budget Committee backed recommendations from the board’s Budget Analyst to cut $6 million from the fire department and nearly $4 million from the police department. The cuts, however, were only a fourth of what supervisors had threatened to make in early June.

A majority on the Board of Supervisors – not quite a veto-proof bloc – is set on making budget cuts more “equitable” in the face of Newsom’s proposed $169 million cuts to health and human services and may take out the scalpel for deeper pain when they vote on the full budget this month. The fire fighters aren’t taking any chances and pledge to continue their pressure tactics.

“I think they (local 798) have a role to play and are doing what a union has to do,” San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said. “If there’s $6 million in reductions” the fire department will continue “working with the legislature” to exhaust all options before implementing brownouts, she added.

Board President David Chiu has met twice with John Hanley, president of the local fire fighters union, since the budget process began.

“Obviously, we have different perspectives on how the budget should be laid out,” Chiu said. “It was a productive meeting, but we have a ways to go.”
Hanley and the head of the police officer union led a fiery rally in front of City Hall June 16 to attack a number of supervisors who had called for public safety cuts. Since then, the public safety groups have stepped up their orchestrated campaign to discredit supervisors who called for trimming fire and police spending in order to reduce deep cuts to public health programs. One tactic: driving trucks through some supervisors’ districts outfitted with loudspeakers and demanding they be recalled.

District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, one of the budget and finance committee members whose district has been visited by the fire department’s loudspeaker ride-throughs, said, “It’s all smoke and mirrors.”


Reach the reporter at mpistorio[AT]










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