Membership in SEIU 1000, California’s largest state employees union, falls below 50 percent

Membership in SEIU 1000, California’s largest state employees union, falls below 50 percent

Membership in SEIU 1000, California’s largest state employees union, falls below 50 percent

California may be a Big Labor bastion, with public employees unions backing leftist elected officials who in turn subsidize unions in an anti-taxpayer doom loop, but not everything is fist-clenched roses for government unions in this progressive paradise.

With nearly 100,000 people covered by its collective bargaining agreements, one of the largest unions in the state — and the biggest representing California state employees — is SEIU Local 1000.

The union claims to be a “united front,” but the reality is that it’s been riven by internal drama, schisms and disagreements that have roiled both leadership and its rank and file membership for the better part of a decade.

Until 2018, California law allowed government unions like SEIU 1000 to have public employees fired for refusing to pay union dues or fees, leaving dissenters little recourse. Occasional activist-led attempts to disband the union gained some traction, but not enough to overcome SEIU 1000’s sheer size and resources.

However, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which recognized public employees’ First Amendment right to refrain from unwanted union payments, individual California state employees found themselves empowered to meaningfully express their dissatisfaction by cancelling their union membership.

New numbers obtained by the Freedom Foundation from the California State Controller’s office show just how dramatically SEIU Local 1000’s fortunes shifted after the court ruling and the Freedom Foundation’s relentless efforts to educate state workers, and all public employees, of their newly acknowledged rights.

In May 2018, the month before Janus was decided, 96,229 state employees worked under SEIU 1000 contracts, effectively all of whom had union dues or fees deducted from their paychecks by the state.

The next month, following the Supreme Court’s ruling, the number of represented employees with union payroll deductions had dropped to 58,953 — a membership rate of 61.4 percent — reflecting the loss of fee payments from nonmembers rendered unconstitutional by Janus.

But instead of rebounding from there, SEIU 1000’s membership continued a steady decline. As of March 2024, only 48,350 of the 97,088 California state workers represented by SEIU 1000 paid dues — less than half of the “united front” the union claims to represent.

Adjusted for inflation, the union’s monthly dues collection plummeted from $7.5 million in May 2018 to only $3.8 million in March 2024.

The causes of the union’s membership slide are, to put it delicately, varied.

In December, union officials admitted to the Sacramento Bee that “members are leaving faster than they can replace them” and blamed some of the challenges on the prevalence of remote work by state employees, which makes buttonholing them to join more difficult.

But there’s more to it than that.

In February, union officials acknowledged that members’ personal information, including possibly their Social Security numbers, had been compromised in a ransomware attack it implied, without evidence, was the work of “anti-worker groups” (not surprisingly, the union offered no explanation as to why it needs California state workers’ Social Security numbers in the first place).

And in April, SEIU 1000 conducted the first elections for union officers since 2021, when outsider Richard Brown narrowly beat longtime president Yvonne Walker, who had served since 2008, in a low-turnout election in which only 7,880 members participated.

Writing for a labor publication, SEIU 1000 member and Brown opponent Jonah Paul described Walker’s tenure as “utterly tyrannical” and marked by the union’s role as an “unquestioning partner of the Democratic Party.” Walker herself was described as “self-aggrandizing” and “ruthless,” running “local labor politics with an iron fist.”

Meanwhile, members felt “gaslit,” “dejected” and “cast aside as political undesirables.”

For a time, Walker staved off reformist challengers through “procedural maneuvering.” During the 2021 leadership elections, “Walker’s staff and appointees unceremoniously ran the election while suppressing anything that could allow members to make informed choices.”

“Isolated from their coworkers, ignored by the union, and with almost no information to make their decisions, members voted with their intuitions,” wrote Paul, electing Brown in an upset.

Brown had campaigned on an unconventional platform, promising in part to extricate SEIU 1000 from partisan politics, disaffiliate from the national SEIU, slash dues in half, invite participation by nonmembers in some union decision-making, and take a more confrontational approach to contract negotiations with the state.

Immediately after the election, though, Walker sounded a conciliatory note, predicting “Richard will step up and be the leader he needs to be. I think it’ll be OK.”

But to the chagrin of SEIU institutionalists, the volatile Brown actually tried to follow through on his controversial campaign promises, at one point even posting six years’ worth of union credit card statements online in an act of unprecedented transparency.

This was not to be tolerated. SEIU 1000’s executive committee suspended Brown as president in February 2022 and officially removed him from office in January 2023.

After revising the union’s structure and elections procedure — including a switch to ranked choice voting — leadership elections were held again in April 2024.

This time, only 3,136 votes were cast, a dismal turnout rate of merely 6 percent. Vice president Anica Walls was elected to the presidency with only 1,587 votes, representing only 1.6 percent of those whose employment is controlled by SEIU 1000.

While less is known about Walls than Brown, initial signs suggest she’ll operate as traditional political progressive. Whether she’ll be able to reverse the union’s diminishing fortunes remains to be seen. A reversion to the pre-Brown status quo may not do the trick.

​As Brown noted to labor publication In These Times just after his short-lived victory, “As long as our union spends more than 50 percent on politics, to the Democratic Party, they’re alienating half the union, and this is why they cannot raise their membership.”

Amid the chaos, the Freedom Foundation has been a consistent presence, communicating directly with California state workers about their right to cancel their union membership if they feel poorly served, as so many do, with certain days seeing dozens or hundreds of employees opting out at a time.  

And, unlike SEIU 1000’s controversial leaders, the Freedom Foundation isn’t going away any time soon.

Director of Research and Government Affairs
As the Freedom Foundation’s Director of Research and Government Affairs, Maxford Nelsen leads the team working to advance the Freedom Foundation’s mission through strategic research, public policy advocacy, and labor relations. Max regularly testifies on labor issues before legislative bodies and his research has formed the basis of several briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court. Max’s work has been published in local newspapers around the country and in national outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, National Review, and the American Spectator. His work on labor policy issues has been featured in media outlets like the New York Times, Fox News, and PBS News Hour. He is a frequent guest on local radio stations like 770 KTTH and 570 KVI. From 2019-21, Max was a presidential appointee to the Federal Service Impasses Panel within the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which resolves contract negotiation disputes between federal agencies and labor unions. Prior to joining the Freedom Foundation in 2013, Max worked for and the Washington Policy Center and interned with the Heritage Foundation. Max holds a labor relations certificate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and graduated magna cum laude from Whitworth University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. A Washington native, he lives in Olympia with his wife and sons.