Buono’s Running Mate Comes Out of Powerhouse National Union

Mark J. Magyar | July 29, 2013 | Politics
Milly Silva’s SEIU is nation’s most politically active union, but how much will it help her?

Barbara Buono’s choice of Milly Silva to run for lieutenant governor adds a charismatic young Hispanic woman labor leader who shares her working class background to the Democratic ticket. And it potentially brings the nation’s fastest-growing and most politically aggressive union into the New Jersey race for governor.

Silva serves as an executive vice president of Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, a 2.3-million-member union that pumped more than $100 million into Democratic campaigns in the 2008 and 2012 election cycles. It played a major role in Barack Obama’s two presidential victories not only with its fundraising, but also by sending thousands of volunteers into key states.

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For Buono, who has struggled to raise the millions of dollars needed to cut into Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s substantial lead, SEIU’s political warchest and its proven ability to mobilize volunteers could potentially get the Democratic hopeful back in the game. That is, if the national union decides to make a major effort in what is one of only two governor’s races in the nation this year.

But Silva’s union is also one of the most controversial in the country. SEIU President Andrew Stern split the labor movement in 2005 when he led seven large unions out of the national AFL-CIO to create the Change to Win coalition, arguing that the shrinking labor movement wasn’t putting enough money and effort into organizing low-wage service employees, especially women, minorities, and immigrants.

“Local 1199 is renowned for its political operation, more in New York than in New Jersey,” noted Adrienne Eaton, president of Rutgers University’s American Federation of Teachers union and director of the Labor Studies and Employment Relations Department. “And certainly, SEIU has been in the top 10 nationally in campaign spending in every cycle for the past 10 years, and probably longer, so they have a record of heavy political involvement.”

On the Ticket

Putting Silva on the ticket, Eaton said, “can attract support from SEIU at least, but I don’t know that it’s going to attract much more from the labor movement as a whole because of SEIU’s past actions.”

“The problem is that it’s a divided labor movement in more ways than one,” she explained. “SEIU has this difficult relationship with the AFL-CIO, particularly nationally. And in New Jersey, you also have the public sector and building trades union divide, and I don’t think Silva will bring the building trades unions around.”

The legislation pushed through by Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), an Ironworkers Union official, required that public employees contribute more toward their pension and health benefits and suspended bargaining on health benefits for four years split the New Jersey labor movement, and the wounds have yet to heal. Sweeney and the state AFL-CIO are backing Buono, but Christie has collected the endorsements of a half-dozen building trades organizations.

Still, the power in the labor movement has always been in the unions themselves, rather than the federations. And the full backing of the SEIU, a perennial fixture on the “Heavy Hitters” campaign funding list compiled by the Center for Responsive Government, could give the Buono-Silva ticket the financial viability it needs to convince other Democratic donors that it has a chance and is deserving of their support.

For the SEIU’s national leadership, making a major play in the New Jersey governor’s race is an opportunity that could be hard to resist. Silva is the face of the modern labor movement — a woman of color who made it from a Bronx housing project to Columbia University, but never forgot her working-class roots, joining the SEIU and going back to unionize the healthcare agency where her mother had worked for $5.25 an hour without health benefits.

“We share the same background, and she has dedicated her life to lifting up the middleclass and the disenfranchised,” said Buono, who has emphasized how the availability of government programs helped her own rise from working class roots in Nutley in a campaign whose major theme has been restoring opportunity for the middleclass.
“She has negotiated contracts on behalf of more than 14,000 workers, and she is a consensus-builder and a problem-solver with a really good reputation and a track record for bringing labor and management together,” Buono said. “She’s a great candidate with a husband who’s a stay-at-home dad with three kids in Montclair. We share a vision and we are the right team for New Jersey.”
Buono, who will formally introduce her running mate today at a press conference in East Rutherford, said Silva was “the best choice.” She said potential national SEIU support “honestly didn’t enter into my equation at all” in choosing Silva, whose selection was a closely guarded secret until Buono started calling party leaders last Thursday.

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A Political Force

Silva’s candidacy could establish her — and the SEIU — as a political force in New Jersey if the SEIU jumps into the race and the Buono-Silva ticket does better than expected. Buono will undoubtedly get the blame if Christie’s gigantic lead holds up.

For the SEIU, the Silva race is a rare opportunity. Few labor leaders get to run on a major party ticket for statewide office. Eaton could not think of one in recent years, and the last labor leader to run statewide in New Jersey was state AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Vincent Murphy, the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for governor in 1943. That, of course, was at the height of the labor movement, when more than 40 percent of New Jersey workers and 31.1 percent of all U.S. workers belonged to unions, compared to just 16.1 percent and 11.3 percent last year.

Buono already has been running as an unabashed pro-labor liberal, and Silva’s candidacy will provide an opportunity for her to make a case in two of the nation’s top media markets that labor unions that organize low-wage workers are the solution to what ails New Jersey’s and the nation’s economy, rather than the problem – a message that ties in with the Democratic push for passage of a constitutional amendment on the November ballot raising the minimum wage.

Further, Buono is running against Christie, who first made a national reputation with his YouTube videos bashing public employee labor unions and is one of the front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination if he wins big in November. That possibility might give the SEIU an incentive to spend a few million dollars helping the Buono-Silva ticket reach its matching-fund target and attacking Christie now, rather than having to spend tens of millions later.

The Local Connection

While the SEIU’s national political action fund would be subject to New Jersey campaign contribution limits, the union has 150 locals representing 1.1 million health care workers, 1 million government employees and 225,000 building property services workers throughout the country. Silva is a New Jersey executive vice president of the multi-state Local 1199 Health Care Workers East, reputedly the world’s largest union local with 300,000 members.

The union has a history of spending heavily on state races. Last year, SEIU’s California unions spent more than $4 million on several public questions and Democrat Jerry Brown’s successful gubernatorial candidacy.

Further, the Citizens United case has opened the door for unions, like corporations or wealthy individuals, to make unlimited contributions through independent-expenditure committees.

In addition to providing contributions directly to the Buono-Silva campaign that would be eligible for 2-to-1 state matching dollars, the SEIU could put unlimited amounts of money into an independent-expenditure committee such as the Garden State Forward fund set up by the New Jersey Education Association, which already has raised and spent $584,897 on this year’s election.

The SEIU emerged as a major national political force in the years after SEIU President Andrew Stern, under whose leadership SEIU’s membership had grown to 1.4 million, led seven major unions – SEIU, United Food and Commercial Workers, Teamsters, Carpenters and Laborers, along with UNITE and HERE (the needle trades and hotel workers unions that later merged) — in breaking away from the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win coalition.

In a speech that echoed John L. Lewis’s 1935 call for the AFL to put its money into organizing the automobile and steel industries, Stern argued that the union movement needed to put its money and effort into organizing low-paid service sector workers because it could not survive representing less than 12 percent of the nation’s workforce.

“SEIU organized 350,000 home-based workers around the country, mostly in home healthcare and some in childcare,” Eaton said. “They certainly invested more money than any other union in organizing, and organized a lot of immigrant groups and low-wage service workers in a very focused and strategic way. The creation of Change to Win probably helped the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Teamsters in their organizing too.”

Backing Obama

On the political front, while the AFL-CIO sat out the 2008 Democratic primary fight between Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards, SEIU and the Change to Win coalition endorsed Obama early, providing critical organizing in caucus states and door-to-door campaigning in primary states.
It is hard to calculate the full campaign expenditures provided by SEIU and its various locals at the federal, state and local levels, but Stern told the Las Vegas Sun in May 2009 that “we spent a fortune to elect Barack Obama — $60.7 million to be exact — and we’re proud of it.”
SEIU provided equally critical get-out-the-vote staffing in targeted states in the 2012 presidential campaign, and is estimated to have spent more than $100 million overall on campaigns during the 2008 and 2012 cycles.

The U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in a California case brought against the SEIU, last June barred the union and all other labor organizations from taking automatic deductions for political action, but about 300,000 SEIU members subsequently signed up to donate an extra $7 per paycheck to continue SEIU’s political activities.

The SEIU’s political involvement as a “well-funded” union didn’t escape the notice of the Christie campaign, which lost no time attacking Buono’s selection of Silva.

“In the most important decision a gubernatorial candidate makes, Barbara Buono chose someone who is wholly unqualified to be governor, which is really the only requirement,” Kevin Roberts, Christie’s campaign spokesman said in a statement issued last Thursday. “Instead of picking a qualified Democrat for lieutenant governor, in a blatantly political, Jon Corzine-era move, she has chosen an activist from a well-funded labor union.”