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SF Unions Warn Rank-and-File City Employees of Tough Times Ahead

Union group sends out 11,000 flyers explaining why Prop. B was only the beginning

Updated Feb. 16, 2011 at 5:39 p.m. with a quote from union member Cathy Helton

When the city's unions united in November to soundly defeat Proposition B, a controversial ballot initiative that would have required city workers to contribute more toward their pension and benefits costs, their mood was jubilant.

City Public Defender Jeff Adachi, Prop. B's chief proponent, said the measure would have saved the city $120 million a year.

Now, city employees are being told to prepare themselves for another onslaught.

Adachi is preparing yet another ballot measure for November, and he said in an interview last week that he now thinks $200 million in savings are necessary. Edwin M. Lee, the city's newly appointed mayor, said in an interview with The Bay Citizen yesterday that a far greater figure — $300 million to $400 million — is in the ballpark of what will be necessary. If nothing is done, Lee said soberly, the city could be bankrupt five years from now. 

So the unions spent well over $1 million defeating Prop. B, only to find three months later that Adachi and other major political figures are calling for cuts far in excess of what Prop. B proposed.  

At a meeting yesterday of Stand Up For Working Families, a consortium of city unions, 11,000 copies of "A Report to City Employees" were given to leaders who are charged with distributing them to members. The city's unions feel strongly that their members have made financial concessions many times in recent years to enable the city to close annual budget deficits, so they can be expected to greet the news from their unions that more will be required with considerable wariness. 

The language on the slickly produced, full-color flyer eases into the news that further financial concessions will be likely. "Even though employees did not create the problems we are facing, we now have a profound interest in fixing them" the text reads, and "it's time for us to step up and make sure San Francisco remains in good fiscal health."

A few weeks after the election, union leaders began meeting, under the aegis of investor and philanthropist Warren Hellman (who is chairman of The Bay Citizen's board of directors), with city controller Ben Rosenfield and Sean Elsbernd, the most fiscally conservative of the city's supervisors, to come up with their own plan to address city pension- and benefits costs. The group has gradually allowed in more participants, and in early February, Lee and Board of Supervisors President David Chiu were invited to join. 

As the working group hurries to produce a money-saving proposal in time to get a measure on the November ballot, the unions appear to be prepping their members to support whatever the plan ends up being. "We are working with the mayor and the supervisors to craft legislation that will address these problems in a sensible way," says their missive to members. "But it is crucial to our continued progress that we have input and support for our union members."

Cathy Helton, a rank-and-file SEIU member who works for the San Francisco Rent Board and was active in the campaign against Prop. B, is pleased with the effort.

"I am very happy that the Stand Up for Working Families group has rolled up their sleeves, pursuant to the trust that San Francisco voters showed us at the polls in November, and that they are now working toward real solutions," she wrote in an e-mail Wednesday afternoon. "We certainly owe San Franciscans a solution based on facts, not political rhetoric. I have faith in this group. I look forward to hearing their findings and solutions."

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