Drama stews as labor orgs push to unseat Rotkin from public transit board

Former Santa Cruz mayor Mike Rotkin
Mike Rotkin served five terms as mayor of Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

An effort to replace Mike Rotkin, an incumbent director on the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District board, has gained backing from some of the most powerful labor organizations in the county.

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The social media post making the rounds among local labor organizations wastes no time. A headshot of UC Santa Cruz politics lecturer and former Santa Cruz mayor Mike Rotkin is painted over with a slash and red text that reads, “NO ON MIKE … DO NOT REAPPOINT ANTI-LABOR MIKE ROTKIN TO METRO BOARD!”

For Rotkin, a longtime negotiator for the UCSC lecturers union and a teachers federation organizer, to find himself the target of ire from local labor might come as a surprise for many. However, representatives for some of the largest labor organizations in the region are accusing Rotkin of repeatedly coming out against labor unions and striking workers. The organizations are now urging the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors to deny Rotkin a four-year reappointment to the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District board of directors, in favor of their own candidate.

On Tuesday, supervisors are scheduled to either reappoint Rotkin or choose between labor-supported Daniel Dodge, former Watsonville mayor and president of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, and Jack Brown Jr., an engineer tied to the failed Measure D effort earlier this spring.

The Monterey Bay Central Labor Council has turned up the heat on a twofold campaign to deny Rotkin a reappointment and give Dodge the seat on the METRO board, which acts essentially as the city council for the local public transit system. In a clearly organized effort, several people representing local unions — from the MBCLC and SEIU 521 to the SMART Local 0023 union that represents transit bus drivers — spoke strongly against Rotkin’s reappointment, and in favor of Dodge, during the Dec. 6 board of supervisors meeting.

James Sandoval, head of SMART Local 0023, expects dozens of labor representatives to speak out against Rotkin ahead of the supervisors’ final Tuesday vote on the reappointment. Sandoval declined to comment any further before the supervisors’ vote.

Cesar Lara, executive director of the MBCLC, said the organization has gotten behind SMART Local 0023 — a member of the MBCLC — as animosity toward Rotkin has grown.

“Rotkin has been on our radar for a while,” Lara said. “We see this as an opportunity to have change on the METRO board. Public transit is key for working families and we want to make sure the seat goes to someone who has a voice for working families.”

Rotkin did not return Lookout’s multiple calls for comment for this story.

Lara echoed many of the criticisms made against Rotkin during the Dec. 6 meeting. He referred back to 2005, when Rotkin, as a member of the METRO board of directors, reneged on a labor contract approved by the bus drivers union. Bonnie Morr, a longtime activist who led the bus drivers union at the time, said Rotkin’s vote drove the union to a strike for nearly 40 days.

Morr and Lara further criticized Rotkin for crossing the picket line during the 2005 strike to help strikebreakers clean the METRO buses. They added that Rotkin took a strong stance earlier this year against allowing transit district employees to be protected by the Public Employment Relations Board, a state agency that works to mediate grievances of staff against management.

More recently, local labor organizations have come out against Rotkin for criticizing striking UCSC academic workers. Rotkin wrote an op-ed, published by Lookout in November, in which he criticized the strikers and questioned their motivations, while also highlighting his own labor acumen as chief negotiator for UCSC lecturers for more than 25 years.

MBCLC has distributed a form email for people to send to county supervisors ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

“Unfortunately, Mike is insincere regarding his political stance on labor, and we cannot in good conscious [sic] allow someone to call themselves ‘pro-labor’ while standing in the way of labor peace,” the email reads. “... It is imperative we appoint leaders on the METRO Board of Directors that will focus on labor relations so we can work towards a more robust transportation system for our community. We need change and we need it now. Please appoint Daniel Dodge to the METRO Board of Directors.”

Dodge, who formerly chaired the METRO board, applied for the appointment and says he would better represent South County and working families in the county.

“The current representative has accumulated a voting record that doesn’t put him in favor with working families in the area,” Dodge said. “Public transit is access to health care, to work, to a better way of life. I believe that.”

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