Milly Silva’s SEIU is nation’s most politically active union, but how much will it help her?
Barbara Buono’s choice of Milly Silva to run for lieutenant governor adds a charismatic young Hispanic woman labor leader who shares her working class background to the Democratic ticket. And it potentially brings the nation’s fastest-growing and most politically aggressive union into the New Jersey race for governor.
Silva serves as an executive vice president of Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, a 2.3-million-member union that pumped more than $100 million into Democratic campaigns in the 2008 and 2012 election cycles. It played a major role in Barack Obama’s two presidential victories not only with its fundraising, but also by sending thousands of volunteers into key states.
For Buono, who has struggled to raise the millions of dollars needed to cut into Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s substantial lead, SEIU’s political warchest and its proven ability to mobilize volunteers could potentially get the Democratic hopeful back in the game. That is, if the national union decides to make a major effort in what is one of only two governor’s races in the nation this year.
But Silva’s union is also one of the most controversial in the country. SEIU President Andrew Stern split the labor movement in 2005 when he led seven large unions out of the national AFL-CIO to create the Change to Win coalition, arguing that the shrinking labor movement wasn’t putting enough money and effort into organizing low-wage service employees, especially women, minorities, and immigrants.
“Local 1199 is renowned for its political operation, more in New York than in New Jersey,” noted Adrienne Eaton, president of Rutgers University’s American Federation of Teachers union and director of the Labor Studies and Employment Relations Department. “And certainly, SEIU has been in the top 10 nationally in campaign spending in every cycle for the past 10 years, and probably longer, so they have a record of heavy political involvement.”
On the Ticket
Putting Silva on the ticket, Eaton said, “can attract support from SEIU at least, but I don’t know that it’s going to attract much more from the labor movement as a whole because of SEIU’s past actions.”
“The problem is that it’s a divided labor movement in more ways than one,” she explained. “SEIU has this difficult relationship with the AFL-CIO, particularly nationally. And in New Jersey, you also have the public sector and building trades union divide, and I don’t think Silva will bring the building trades unions around.”
The legislation pushed through by Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), an Ironworkers Union official, required that public employees contribute more toward their pension and health benefits and suspended bargaining on health benefits for four years split the New Jersey labor movement, and the wounds have yet to heal. Sweeney and the state AFL-CIO are backing Buono, but Christie has collected the endorsements of a half-dozen building trades organizations.
Still, the power in the labor movement has always been in the unions themselves, rather than the federations. And the full backing of the SEIU, a perennial fixture on the “Heavy Hitters” campaign funding list compiled by the Center for Responsive Government, could give the Buono-Silva ticket the financial viability it needs to convince other Democratic donors that it has a chance and is deserving of their support.
For the SEIU’s national leadership, making a major play in the New Jersey governor’s race is an opportunity that could be hard to resist. Silva is the face of the modern labor movement — a woman of color who made it from a Bronx housing project to Columbia University, but never forgot her working-class roots, joining the SEIU and going back to unionize the healthcare agency where her mother had worked for $5.25 an hour without health benefits.
“We share the same background, and she has dedicated her life to lifting up the middleclass and the disenfranchised,” said Buono, who has emphasized how the availability of government programs helped her own rise from working class roots in Nutley in a campaign whose major theme has been restoring opportunity for the middleclass. “She has negotiated contracts on behalf of more than 14,000 workers, and she is a consensus-builder and a problem-solver with a really good reputation and a track record for bringing labor and management together,” Buono said. “She’s a great candidate with a husband who’s a stay-at-home dad with three kids in Montclair. We share a vision and we are the right team for New Jersey.” Buono, who will formally introduce her running mate today at a press conference in East Rutherford, said Silva was “the best choice.” She said potential national SEIU support “honestly didn’t enter into my equation at all” in choosing Silva, whose selection was a closely guarded secret until Buono started calling party leaders last Thursday.
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