David Garcias, center, takes part in a Labor Day march with SEIU Local 221 members. / Photo courtesy of SEIU Local 221

Service Employees International Union Local 221, which represents about 11,000 San Diego County government employees, made a lot of noise this year.

It formed a coalition of progressive interest groups to try to get the conservative County Board of Supervisors to loosen its purse strings.

All this was led by union president David Garcias.

In labor negotiations this year, he took the position that the union should be arguing for more than just raises for its members. Instead, he used the bargaining table to urge the county to vastly expand its welfare program, reform the criminal justice system and create a countywide “sanctuary” policy for immigrants.

Garcias also argued the county tries 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 earlier this year. “They’ve never had the public included with the county workers to go and speak on these things.”

The strategy mostly failed, but it shaped the debate and formed a rallying cry for Democrats in 2018 who hope to elect a liberal supervisor.

Garcias also helped splinter San Diego labor. He led SEIU to leave the San Diego Imperial-Counties Labor Council and join a new entity, the San Diego Working Families Council. That new group is led by Mickey Kasparian, a local labor leader who has been accused of sexual harassment.

While SEIU has been making all this noise, some members question whether the union has lost sight of helping workers get raises, benefits and good working conditions. This summer, for instance, city workers in Chula Vista voted to form their own union rather than rely on SEIU’s representation.

Garcias has acknowledged differences among members about how the union should be run, but the course he’s charting has repeatedly put SEIU in headlines and the middle of the region’s major political debates.

This is part of our Voice of the Year package, profiling the people who drove the biggest conversations in San Diego in 2017.

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

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