SEIU 1021

SEIU 1021 members fight for free speech and a ceasefire in Gaza


Speaking up in the workplace can be difficult. In fact, that’s one of the things our bosses count on: that we as working people will be afraid to speak our minds and bring our values into our workplaces.

Recently, SEIU 1021 members have been calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, as did the SEIU 1021 Executive Board in November of last year. That was followed by their resolution of December 16, demanding a ceasefire, humanitarian aid, and an end to the occupation of Palestine.

However, our bosses won’t always respect our rights to free speech, so it’s crucial to make sure that when we speak up, we speak up as union members, whose rights to concerted activity are protected by law.

In general, according to the California Office of the Attorney General, “Employees of federal, state, or local government entities are generally protected when they are speaking as a private citizen on a matter of public concern,” but “Whether a public employee’s speech on a matter of public concern is protected is fact specific and subject to a balancing test weighing the public employee’s First Amendment speech right against the public employer’s interest in restricting the speech.”

This means that it’s important to check your contract and know your specific rights: Some SEIU 1021 contracts, for example, contain protections for academic freedom, protecting those members from facing discipline or censorship for private speech.

While some employers may try to take action against workers who speak out in private or on social media separate from their work, a few of our members have actually faced retaliation for their speech in the workplace. SEIU 1021 is defending those members and their rights aggressively, including grievances and filing charges with the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB).

Cadelba Lomeli-Loibl is a nurse practitioner at Highland Wellness Clinic, which is part of Alameda Health System, and has been there for two years. She was taking part in a somber gathering in Highland Hospital’s courtyard, in which she and her co-workers were kneeling on the ground, writing on a drop cloth the names of children who had been killed by violence in Gaza. At that time the number, she remembers, was already in the thousands for Palestinian children and nearly a hundred Israeli children.

“I deeply care as a medical provider about what’s happening in Gaza right now,” she said. “It impacts my day-to-day work to know that thousands of children and families are being bombed and are without access to food and healthcare. I think about that every day when I’m in clinic.”

Security demanded they stop their activity and even threatened discipline, up to and including termination, without recourse to the progressive discipline procedures in their contract. The AHS workers moved their activity to a more public space, out in front of the hospital, where they found a supportive group of patients and members of the public.

Cadelba said, “I want to show AHS that as union members and healthcare providers, our work is entwined with the struggle of healthcare providers in Gaza and with the humanity of the families in Gaza, who are being killed with our tax dollars.”

Those members are now fighting to get AHS to hear their calls for divestment from Israeli products and to make a public statement of solidarity with healthcare providers and families in Gaza, while honoring the right of the workers to mourn the lives that have been lost.

Similarly, in San Francisco, workers in the Department of Health have handed out buttons and stickers, talked to colleagues, gathered signatures on a letter asking DPH leadership to make a statement, and more.

One member in HSA, Mark Ostapiak, who goes by Osta, had put up a poster in their cube at work, reading “End the War in Gaza.” Their supervisor actually took it down, then called for a meeting and sent a document implying they had somehow violated a “Fair and Equitable Workplace policy. Later, they were told to take down a black and white photo of a watermelon, a common symbol for Palestinian rights, matching the colors of the Palestinian flag.

Osta said, “I’m an eligibility worker who provides food and health benefits to our clients. I’m also someone whose grandparents survived Nazi labor camps. For me, ‘never again’ means ‘never again for anybody.’ Being pro-ceasefire and pro-Palestine is not anti-Semitism. It is a just position adopted by the government council of San Francisco, which is also my employer.

“Expressing these views in my personal workspace is not only a democratic right but aligns with the mission of HSA, my workplace, to ’support and protect people, families, and communities.’ For me, people, families, and communities include those in Palestine.”

These workers, like all of us, deserve to be able to speak their minds and fight for peace and justice in their workplaces and everywhere else, and SEIU 1021 as an organization will continue to fight for these values. As the old union saying goes, “An injury to any of us is an injury to all of us.”