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Organizer out of work after bucking SEIU 790's Willie Brown lovefest

Criss Romero suspected he might ruffle some feathers around the union hall when he went to work for Tom Ammiano's mayoral campaign last November, but he didn't think he would lose his job.

When the supervisor made the runoff against Mayor Willie Brown, Romero, one of the few openly gay organizers in the Service Employees International Union Local 790, volunteered for the Ammiano campaign in his off hours, bucking the union leadership's official endorsement of the incumbent. Three days after he began working for Ammiano, however, Romero says Josie Mooney, the union's president, assigned him to help with an organizing drive in Sacramento, essentially banishing him to Siberia. "I made Josie look bad," he says. "It was embarrassing for her that I couldn't be kept in line."

Romero, who had been an SEIU organizer for 3 1/2 years, tried to get out of the assignment. He says he told Mooney the two-hour daily commute would interfere with his union duties. When that didn't work, he requested an unpaid leave of absence. But after a couple of weeks of going back and forth with his boss, Romero says Mooney told him that she would take his refusal to accept the Sacramento assignment as a resignation. "I had never lost a job before," he says. "This was the first time in my life, and what's weird is that it was while I was working for a union."

Mooney declined to comment on Romero's status, citing complaints he has filed over his dismissal.

Three months after Ammiano's wild ride came to a halt, Romero is still out of work and wondering why he was punished for supporting one of the labor movement's favorite sons. After all, SEIU Local 790 had previously endorsed Ammiano in his run for president of the Board of Supervisors, and had packed City Hall when Ammiano organized rallies for a living wage ordinance that would have required businesses with city contracts to pay a minimum of $11 an hour.

But that was before Ammiano entered the mayor's race as a write-in candidate, posing a sudden threat to Brown, whom the city's union leadership had endorsed more than a year before the election. Once Ammiano made the runoff, Romero says, the union would not tolerate any moonlighting in the upstart supervisor's camp. "I was not the only labor person supporting Tom, but I was one of the only ones out of the closet," he says.

Most union members for Ammiano kept their opinions to themselves while in earshot of the shop steward. A few very quietly lent support to the supervisor, while participating in voter registration drives for Brown to keep their jobs. "All Criss had to do was go through the motions," says one union member from his local. "Just work the phones a little or walk a few precincts. If he had just put on a good face, he wouldn't be in this position."

But Romero says he couldn't do that. He had served for two years as president of the Harvey Milk Gay and Lesbian Democratic Club, which endorsed Ammiano. Pretending to be for Brown was not an option, he says. "I didn't want to be remembered as a coward."

Romero insists he did not quit his job, and has filed two grievances against SEIU Local 790, one internally and one with the state's Department of Industrial Relations, accusing the union of discriminating against him based on his political affiliation.

Since then, his relationship with the union has only grown more nasty.

When Romero applied for unemployment insurance payments in January, the union denied his request, claiming he was not fired. Romero won an appeal for the money through the state, and is now receiving approximately $230 a week, but the union has dug in its heels and is now appealing the state's decision.

"By this point, the union is looking simply vindictive," says Ammiano. "Here's this competent, gay man of color. He comes to work for me and he ends up on the trash heap. The timing looks really bad."

Meanwhile, Romero won a spot on the Democratic County Central Committee March 7, perhaps one of the first candidates to win a seat while collecting unemployment. Of course, while it's an honor to win the seat, Romero notes, it's also an unpaid position.

He would like to work for a labor union again, he says. Judging from the support he has received from his former colleagues, he says he is optimistic. "I would be distressed if I thought I were alone, but I'm not," he says. "Josie has an institution behind her, I have the people who actually make up the union."

 
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