SEIU: Off to the Races, Backwards

The Service Employees International Union gave $20,000 to the political action committee to save long-time Miami Dade county commissioner Natacha Seijas from recall and political oblivion. Seijas is facing the second recall by petition in less that three years. The Hialeah commissioner– it is well known– is the de facto chair of local government in Florida’s most populous county. She has carved out a permanent incumbency in a Cuban American district that seethes with resentment against Fidel Castro but enforces political orthodoxy with the same exact ferocity. Seijas is a battle axe in defense of untouchable fiefdoms: mainly contracts at Miami International Airport, near the end of a $4 billion rebuild that is notable for chronic cost overruns– and zoning for development in farmland and outside the urban development boundary.

But why does SEIU– one of the most powerful unions in the nation– allow itself to be joined at the hip to Seijas? The unions attract considerable attention from any candidate running for political office. Seijas’ power rests on a three-legged stool. SEIU and the unions are one. She takes care of abuelas, offering free breakfasts and lunch at election time. The most important leg of her powerful perch: Miami’s developers organized through the South Florida Builders and the Latin Builders Association. The reasons for the developers’ support is clear enough: they need an enforcer of a consistent, sustainable majority and Seijas does exactly what she is told. She delivers safe majorities for all important zoning decisions; especially those that put pressure against state authority in growth management issues. Where the state, dominated by secure GOP majorities in the legislature, continually pushes back against federal laws and regulations inhibiting the easy application of Miracle Gro growth of urban sprawl, claiming states rights, the real jujitsu happens when county commission majorities, like those marshaled by Seijas and her merry band of thieves, throw up roadblocks in defense of land speculators, claiming that “local authority” trumps the state interest.

For her enthusiasms, projected with an unremitting mean streak, Seijas is the designated hitter for the team that rules Miami-Dade and by extension, Florida: land speculators and developers whose profits depend on shifting, to the maximum extent possible, the costs of infrastructure development and depletion of natural resources to unwitting taxpayers.

So why would SEIU bend over for Natacha Seijas? Does Seijas offer any protection– other than her bulldog demeanor? No. A favorite SEIU / Seijas story goes back to 2003. As a founding member of the Hold the Line Coalition, I organized citizen advocates at public hearings before the county commission. What we were trying to protect — and have been for decades — is the designation of environmentally sensitive lands through an urban protection boundary. Inside the urban edge, county taxpayers pick up the costs of infrastructure; roadway, schools, fire and police protection, and water. Outside the boundary there are additional zoning restrictions and any infrastructure must be funded by property owners, not taxpayers. During the housing boom in Florida farmland that gained inexorable momentum during the Jeb Bush regnum, the arbitrage between expensive land costs inside the urban protection area and the cheaper land outside deformed the character of local government.

Simple changes to zoning in farmland built enormous land use law practices, like Greenberg Traurig based in Miami, and minted millionaires from land speculators, farmers, and developers of inexpensive, platted subdivisions. They called it, “what the market wants”. History will record this American canard in defense of sprawl as one of the baldest lies of the 20th century.

At one hearing after another, we made the case for protecting the Urban Development Boundary from incursions by the greedy developers who chewed up Miami-Dade and turned the county into a warren of ghost suburbs and foreclosures, with poorly built platted subdivisions gradually going to weed.

Yes, we made arguments on environmental grounds: for example, that Miami-based Lennar, one of the nation’s largest production homebuilders, should not be allowed to violate state and federal laws by exploiting wetlands critical to Biscayne National Park. Not our problem, said the county commission. The same for Shoma Homes– slapped on the wrist for Clean Water Act violations –, or any of the local food chain like the Pino-Rasco cabal at US Century Homebuilders and US Century Bank: all major donors, mainly to the GOP, who defend Seijas with big contributions. But the heart of the argument against Seijas was not environmental. The development pattern of ring suburbs without centers and disconnected from places of work or mass transit, imposed by Seijas’ supporters was responsible, itself, for the poverty of political leadership that traps taxpayers and voters in Miami-Dade today. The big homebuilders, moored up the expensive Wall Street dockages, need the little purveryors of political corruption to make up enough land aggregation to feed the machine that enriches a few at the expense of many. That’s what county commissions do in Florida and elsewhere. We made that case with union members of the SEIU in 2003 and they understood.

When it comes to moving the Urban Development Boundary, they got that the taxpayer trap is on full display: developers ratcheting up the pressure binding land speculators, to mortgage brokers, and the developer feedlot chutes feeding into financial derivatives raining billions in compensation to Wall Street bankers. Sound community planning in Miami-Dade is a dartboard with the Big Cheeses throwing darts. Their cheering section is full of lobbyists and rent-a-crowds at county commission zoning hearings, organized by up and coming young Republicans or Democrats. The arguments we made to protect the urban development boundary in 2003 resonated with blue collar workers, bending under the costs of housing and distant commutes. Union members were absorbing the costs of commuting to work from subdivisions constructed in Kendall farmland and wetlands, far from the workplace. The union members understood: the time and money stuck in cars and poorly designed suburbs deprives their families. At least some members also understood that these costs were the results of political corruption that benefits campaign contributors Seijas represents so well.

At a crucial 2003 public hearing, members of SEIU were with us, Holding The Line. We had educated union members about the need to protect the Urban Development Boundary. Yes to infill development, no to sprawl! Many showed up at a county commission public hearing on the UDB applications. They came to the chambers, wearing SEIU T-shirts. Yes! Environmentalists and Union Members together! But no sooner had the hearing started in the packed commission chambers, when union members disappeared. Later, I learned what happened. From the dais, Seijas spotted SEIU members sitting on the side with citizen advocates. She picked up the phone at her position and rang the local SEIU top dog. Seijas was in a rage. What the fuck are your people doing with my enemies? Within minutes, the SEIU members in the audiences had melted away, never to be seen again.

Now, SEIU is throwing $20,000 of union dues at a county commissioner who represents the worst of the unreformable majority. The reason for Seijas recall is that she voted for a small tax increase, to deal with a $245 million municipal deficit. Part of the money Seijas has raised is being used to hire private investigators. Her lawyers have filed suit against the recall effort and subpoenas have been issued to recall petition gatherers. In the earlier recall effort, police from the city of Hialeah falsely arrested petition gatherers who were obtaining signatures at a local shopping market. It is a mystery why SEIU leadership continues to enable a politician, Natacha Seijas, whose commitments have caused harm to citizens, so of whom are union members. Seijas doesn’t offer any more or less protection to the union, than the union would receive from other politicians. When it comes to Natacha Seijas and the dismal politics infecting Florida, SEIU members in Miami don’t realize what their union dues are doing to their own prospects for a better life.


Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at