Miami labor sees recall as “democracy for sale”

MIAMI – According to polls, Miami-Dade County residents will likely recall both the mayor and a county commissioner. This would be the largest-ever municipal recall in American history. But not everyone – especially not labor – is excited.

Many, especially union members here, argue that the recall is a subversion of democracy in which a billionaire car dealer, Norman Braman, spent enough money to simply remove officials he doesn’t like.

Up for recall are Mayor Carlos Alvarez and one of 13 county commissioners, widely seen as the most powerful, Natacha Seijas. Alvarez is the first mayor since voters changed the county charter to enact a “strong mayor” form of government.

Because of Miami’s bizarre geographic subdivisions – the city itself is relatively small, while large urban unincorporated areas lie right next to it – the county government maintains a high degree of power, in many cases performing functions that would, in other areas, be left up to cities and towns.

At issue is the recently passed county budget. Alvarez’s opponents are upset that it included a rise in property taxes and pay raises for county employees. Local governments have limited revenue-enhancement tools, as the state allows for no income tax.

Some of those supporting the recall are of the same mold as Republicans across the country looking to decimate public employee unions.

Carlos Lopez Cantera, now majority leader in the extreme-right-dominated Florida House of Representatives, joined Braman in a press conference last September announcing the drive by Miami Republicans. In November, then rising-star and tea party darling, now Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, announced support for the effort.

Although many of Alvarez’s supporters see him as far from perfect and some would even vote against him in the next election, they worry about the precedent the recall would set

At last week’s Awake the State rally, a Jackson Memorial Hospital nurse, who is also a member of SEIU Local 1991, explained her local’s support for Alvarez. “It’s scary,” she said. “We don’t want to have a mayor who is always looking over his shoulder, worried that he’s upsetting some billionaire.”

“Democracy,” she said, “is not for sale.”

The local represents doctors and nurses at the embattled public hospital. The union has a particular fondness for Seijas, as she has sided with those looking to save the struggling public hospital. Seijas, for example, fought to save the obstetrics unit at Jackson.

In a national climate where public workers are demonized, Seijas openly supported the raises for the county employees. “She refused,” reads a Local 1991 statement, “to further slash salaries of county workers – who have already given back between 5 and 10 percent of their pay – or support further reductions at Jackson.”

Others, including Republican Gov. Rick Scott, want to privatize Jackson.

The Amalgamated Transit Union local that represents county bus drivers, as well as the police union and other labor groups also oppose the recall.

Braman, the billionaire, has sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into the recall effort. Some have estimated that he has spent $6 for each of the 112,849 signatures on the petition calling for the recall – in violation of Florida state law. Of the signatures produced, less than 100,000 were certified as valid.

AFSCME Local 1542, which represents port workers, is more directly supportive of Alvarez and Seijas. “Every vote counts as we vote for our jobs and support Mayor Alvarez and Commissioner Seijas in their recall elections as they have stood by us,” says an announcement on the local’s website. “It is our turn to stand with them and vote.”

Alvarez and Seijas are expected to be recalled. Braman has pumped money into an expensive get-out-the-vote effort and, like in 2010, the sorry state of the economy is expected to fuel anti-incumbent sentiment.

Image: Mayor Carlos Alvarez. Knight Foundation // CC BY-SA 2.0