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SEIU's on the money 

Is that labor organizing we see in Raleigh? Yes.

Every election, the Independent comes out the Wednesday before (and now with early voting, two Wednesdays before), and it's like it's a cue for the campaigns to start mailing their stuff. Especially in local races, where it's assumed that voters won't pay any attention until they absolutely have to, all the important materiel--the slick pitches, the nasty "comparisons" and the outright slams--goes out at the very end, timed to arrive on the last possible Thursday, Friday or Saturday.

Which means we write about the campaigns without seeing any of it, after which we publish again the following Wednesday (going to press the prior Tuesday evening) without knowing who won.

Thank goodness for our new Indy blogs. Go to www.indyweek.com and click on "dent" (Indepen-dent--get it? I didn't either), and you can read one Citizen's opinion of the mailings fired into the torpor that was the Raleigh City Council campaign by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The first one featured a cigar-chomping developer, ironically a virtual twin brother to the cigar-chomping labor boss so often featured in past mailings that came from developer-backed candidates. It was followed the next day by a stretched-out "taxpayer" whose plight was blamed on developers not paying their fair share of the costs of growth.

The message of both mailings--that Republican Council candidates John Odom and Tommy Craven were on the side of the developers, not the taxpayers. The second one added the idea that taxpayers who agreed should vote for Democratic candidates Russ Stephenson and Joyce Kekas (not Odom) in the at-large Council race, and Democrat Paul Anderson (not Craven) in the District A race.

I'll save you a click. The mailings were right on the money, as it were, despite The News & Observer's characterization of them--by its reporters, not the editorial writers--as a "smear." I think of smears as untrue, unfair or both. These were neither.

Craven, in particular, objected to the mailings because they said his (and Odom's) opposition to higher developers' fees in Raleigh meant that he was necessarily for higher property taxes instead. But--you could almost see him stamp his little foot--he was not. And no "carpetbagging union" was going to get away with saying otherwise, Craven told his N&O interlocutors.

Oh? According to a study done for the council by its consultant, Duncan Associates, Raleigh's development fees (or impact fees, as they're called in most places) cover only 20 percent of the infrastructure costs (roads, parks, sewers and such) imposed by growth, which means the other 80 percent is thrown back on the existing tax base--and taxpayers.

Other places don't always get 100 percent from developers, but they get a lot more than Raleigh, where the fees essentially have remained unchanged since 1987. The average charge for a new single-family home, for example, is $7,635 nationally, $4,038 in North Carolina, and $1,152 in Raleigh.

Craven can say he'd cut spending rather than vote for a tax increase, but it is unavoidably true nonetheless that, whatever the tax rate is, it would be less if impact fees were higher. That was the point of the mailings, and--again, notwithstanding the N&O's dismissal of it as a "low-profile debate"--that contention was at the center of the campaign in the at-large race especially, with Stephenson pushing for higher fees, Odom opposed, and Kekas unwilling to venture an opinion before all the votes, er, facts are in.

A better question about the mailings, and the combined efforts of 30-35 SEANC and SEIU volunteers over two weekends, is whether they worked. They certainly gave Craven--and his Karl Rove: ex-Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer--a chance to yell "union, union, union," which is an old favorite song that Fetzer learned from his mentor, Jesse Helms.

On the other hand, they did wake the N&O up to the issue of impact fees, forcing them for the very first time to actually report what Stephenson had been saying about the issue for a year.

Then, too, there's the question of whether a pair of gauzy, pro-Odom and Kekas mailings from the Triangle Community Coalition worked better.

What, pray tell, is the TCC? I perhaps unkindly characterized it as "the Sprawl Lobby" on our blog. (Blogging is so, well, blunt.) A more considered description would be that it's the developers and the homebuilders and the real estate sales industry working together for their common political interests, which heretofore has meant, of course, sprawl.

Another interesting question is, what was the SEIU doing in a Raleigh council campaign? The answer is, creating a beachhead for its entry into North Carolina and the South.

The SEIU is the biggest union in the country with 1.8 million members, and its leader, Andy Stern, is the guy who led it and four other major unions (the Teamsters, UNITE HERE, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the Carpenters) out of the AFL-CIO recently and into a new labor organization called Change to Win. Stern was also behind the creation of America Coming Together (ACT), the army of political organizers who almost won the election for Kerry-Edwards last year despite Kerry.

To say the least, Stern's aggressive. And in North Carolina, he's teamed SEIU up with SEANC, the State Employees Association led by another aggressive fellow, its executive director Dana Cope.

The two signed a partnership agreement last year, which leaves in SEANC's hands the job of getting a better deal for state employees while opening the door to what SEIU does, which is primarily to organize municipal government employees and health-care industry workers.

Their long-term goal? Collective-bargaining rights for government employees. And near-term? Something called "meet and confer," which would obligate public employers--like Gov. Mike Easley--to at least talk about their employees' pay and benefits with the groups that represent them.

So, can we expect local government organizing campaigns soon from SEIU? Well, Cope didn't want to talk for his partner, but did allow that "it doesn't take a rocket scientist to make that leap."

Saying Cope's excited about working with Stern is like saying Jerry Lee dug being with cousin Elvis. The two sat together at dinner last weekend when they were in Chicago for a conference, and Cope came back psyched. "Not to push the comparison too far, because he's way above my pay grade, but I think of myself as almost like a junior Andy Stern--we're both risk-takers, and more radical and more aggressive than the other labor leaders that people in the South are used to seeing."

Last year, Cope said, SEIU's political action committee spent $1.4 million on legislative election campaigns in North Carolina, helping SEANC-backed candidates win 47 of 55 targeted seats. The biggest win was House Rep. Linda Coleman, D-Wake, a retired state official (27 years in SEANC) who ousted Republican incumbent Sam Ellis with the help of $45,000 from the SEIU.

Coleman helped make state employees' pay a major issue in the recent General Assembly session, though finally Easley was able to thwart her--and Cope.

On the other hand, SEANC had endorsed Republican gubernatorial candidate Patrick Ballantine instead of Easley, which goes to show how much of a risk-taker Cope really is.

Raleigh city elections were important, Cope says, because the thinking behind campaigns like Craven's and Odom's--that development doesn't have to pay for itself, and taxes can be cut anyway--"can have a major effect ultimately on what public services are provided, and whether and how they're paid for."

That's something the SEIU cares a lot about, since it represents municipal employees.

And it's not just Raleigh, or even North Carolina, Cope says. The bad ideas coming out of local governments in the South--like more vacation time for government workers instead of a raise--eventually percolate throughout the country, which means unions up North can no longer afford to avert their gaze from Dixie.

  • Is that labor organizing we see in Raleigh? Yes.

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