The typical criticism of unions is they only look out for themselves – they want pay raises and more benefits for their members, everything else be damned.

Service Employees International Union Local 221, which represents 11,000 San Diego County government employees, is trying to change that. Its current labor agreement with the county expires this summer. Yes, it’s asking for raises — about 20 percent over the next three years, versus the county’s offer of a 14 percent raise over five years.

But the union is also using labor negotiations to push a broad set of policy goals: It wants to vastly expand the county’s welfare program, reform the criminal justice system and create a countywide “sanctuary” policy for immigrants.

And, for that, it is facing another set of criticisms: trying to change policies that affect everyone in San Diego during what would otherwise be routine, closed-door negotiations over working conditions.

SEIU is also backing two seemingly unrelated bills in the state Legislature that would change how supervisors’ districts are drawn and when elections take place, both of which could help Democratic candidates get onto the all-Republican County Board of Supervisors.

The effort represents a wide-ranging assault on a county government that liberals have longed complained is too stingy at the expense of the county’s neediest residents.

The union is doing much of its work under the umbrella of the Invest in San Diego Families Coalition. The group is a who’s who of progressive activist groups, including the ACLU, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, the Center on Policy Initiatives and the City Heights-based Mid-City Community Advocacy Network.

“We’re not about just us, we’re about our community, and we are the community and we are the taxpayers,” said Gerrell Howard, a county social worker who is part of the union’s negotiating team.

Howard said that social workers get blamed for providing bad service. That isn’t the social workers’ fault, she said, but the Board of Supervisors’ for not hiring enough staff. To fix the problem, the county needs to expand its social services net in a big way, Howard said.

For the county, the union is making its case at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

“SEIU is attempting to negotiate policy initiatives which are inappropriate at the bargaining table,” county spokesman Michael Workman said in a statement. “Attempting to bargain a policy decision during labor negotiations, which are not open to the public, deprives citizens of their right to participate in important public policy decisions and circumvents the intent of open meeting laws.”

Public employee unions often ask for things that seem unrelated to their jobs but that they ultimately benefit from. For instance, teachers unions always lobby for smaller class sizes. Their argument is that smaller classes are good for kids. Smaller classes also mean more classes, which means more teachers, which means more teachers union members.

SEIU is following a similar theory. Take the experience of a low-income San Diegan trying to apply for welfare benefits who gets a bus across town, waits around all day and then goes home without seeing a social worker.

According to the union and its partners, the county government uses experiences like that to justify not raising employee pay or not expanding services because it blames social workers for being bad at their jobs.

Now, the union and its partners are trying to make the case that it is county government’s fault that there aren’t enough social workers, which leads to bad service, low morale and eventually high turnover. In other words, blame Supervisors Dianne Jacob, Greg Cox, Ron Roberts, Bill Horn and Kristin Gaspar for the terrible experiences you’ve had, rather than the 11,000 employees who are doing everything they can.

Kyra Greene, deputy director of the Center for Policy Initiatives, said for years the center has been told by the county that “county workers are very greedy, all they care about is their pay and their benefits and that is what the whole problem is.” But then when the workers try to ask for something that is not just a raise, the union gets criticized for trying to do too much.

“How could you win in this system?” Greene said. “If you just negotiate about pay and benefits, you’re greedy. If you try to really bring your heart and your values and use it every place that you can, then you’re wrong and doing something bad.”

David Garcias, the union’s president, said the county does try to pit people seeking county services against county workers and that the union’s effort to challenge that tactic scares the county.

“One of the things that could be intimidating the county is they’ve always had us separated,” Garcias said. “They’ve never had the public included with the county workers to go and speak on these things.”

The county denies dissing county workers that way.

“SEIU’s allegations and arguments are completely false, and we recognize that our county employees work hard to meet the needs of the community,” Workman, the county spokesman, said.

There are some deeper issues that the union realizes can only be sorted out by the Board of Supervisors or even by voters, so it’s trying to turn people out in force to pay attention to the county’s latest budget proposal.

There’s also a reason this is all bubbling up now, besides just the fact that the labor agreement is set to expire soon.

“Part of it is 2018 and 2020 is coming,” said Paola Martinez-Montes, director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

Because of term limits, four longtime board members will be leaving after the next two elections. Horn and Roberts are termed out and cannot run for re-election in 2018, and Cox and Jacob will be termed out in 2020.

The coalition supports and has spoken out in favor of Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s bill to overhaul the redistricting process for supervisors, and Assemblyman Todd Gloria’s bill to make every candidate for supervisor face voters in November, when most voters – and most Democrats – show up.

But not everyone in the union approves of this new strategy. At least a few county workers allege the union is ignoring its most basic purpose: getting workers better working conditions.

Garcias said the majority of Local 221’s members are in favor of his approach, but acknowledged some dissension is possible, though the union suggested that is being stirred up by the county itself.

Howard said the county employees focused only on negotiating wage increases are stuck in the past, but that’ll change.

“They have been with the county for a while, and they are in this little box and that’s all they see,” she said. “But you have a lot of county workers who see past that box and see the bigger picture and are not just stuck in that frame, and that is where we are. Eventually the ones that are in the little box do get the picture.”

As with any tense negotiation, there are different interpretations of nearly everything, disputes over arcane bits of labor law and moments of utter absurdity.

SEIU hoped to get representatives of the outside groups seated at the table during negotiations. That alone has spawned two complaints filed with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board – one from the union that says the coalition partners should be allowed in the room during negotiations, one from the county that says they should not be.

During a day of negotiations last week at the Marina Village conference center on Mission Bay, the county had a room, the union had a room and the third-party groups had another room.

That same day, the union negotiating team showed the county negotiating team a video presentation that featured members of the third-party groups.

“So the county was watching a video of them while they were 20 feet away in the other room because they weren’t comfortable being in the same room,” said David Lagstein, SEIU’s political director.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled David Garcias. 

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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