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Election: San Diego Labor Union Issues


As the recession tightens its grip on San Diego governments, labor unions are trying hard not to lose ground to cutbacks and outsourcing. We'll discuss the role that labor is playing in San Diego's June primary races.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Labor issues are playing a significant role in San Diego County’s June primary as cities within San Diego grapple with issues of outsourcing, project wage agreements and whether to require the hiring of local workers for public projects. Labor unions are fighting hard not to lose ground. We’ll talk about the role of labor this morning as our series of programs on the June primary continues. And joining me is KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner. Good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And we’re taking you calls about the power of labor unions in San Diego politics. If you’d like to call with your questions or comments, our number is 1-888-895-5727. Well, Gloria, let’s start off by talking about some of the local candidates who are getting the endorsements of labor unions.

PENNER: Absolutely. The San Diego-Imperial County Labor Council that represents 192,000 members in the County of San Diego, and that includes teachers and firefighters, construction workers, nurses, hotel workers, office workers, Kaiser, etcetera, etcetera, and many, they have vetted some of the candidates for the primary and they came up with their list of endorsements. I won’t go through all of them but some of the names are kind of key names. Let’s talk about the Assembly. There, they’ve endorsed, for District 74, Crystal Crawford, who is currently mayor of Del Mar, and in District 76, Toni Atkins. Her name will be familiar to people who follow the San Diego City Council.

CAVANAUGH: Certainly.

PENNER: She was termed out by the council after 8 years. And Ben Hueso, who just served as the—actually is still serving—as the president of the San Diego City Council, he’s been endorsed, as has Mary Salas, a Chula Vista City Councilwoman who is running for District 40. So those are four of the endorsements that they made. Interestingly, you know, in the County of San Diego there are two supervisors running for reelection, Ben – rather, Ron Roberts and Bill Horn. They had no endorsement in the District 4 race, that is Ron Roberts’ race.


PENNER: But in District 5, that’s the one that Bill Horn is currently in, they are endorsing Steve Gronke. For sheriff, they’re endorsing Jim Duffy, not the incumbent. So that’s very fascinating that Bill Gore’s not being endorsed. Very quickly, in the city of San Diego, District 2, which is Kevin Faulconer’s district, they’re not endorsing anyone and I asked why. And basically Lorena Gonzalez, who heads up the Labor Council, says that District 2 is not a priority, there’s no one who’s particularly strong there. She says we’re pretty realistic, very few incumbents have been out at midterm. So she’s saying Kevin Faulconer’s probably a shoo-in and so they’re not going to spend a lot of time or money in a district that they have a lot of work to – that they’re doing a lot of work with but they don’t have extra money for that. And, actually in District 8, they’ve made no endorsement, and that is the district that Ben Hueso is vacating where his brother is running for the race and also the uncle of a former city councilman, Nick Inzunza’s running, and they’ve made no endorsement there either. And the reason is there are a lot of qualified candidates according to Evan McLaughlin, who is the political director for the Labor Council, and they’re just waiting for the primary to kind of sort out who the two will be unless one goes to the general election. Of course, if only one wins more than 50% of the vote, that’s the winner. In District 6, where the replacement for the – Donna Frye’s seat, they’re endorsing Howard Wayne, and they’re endorsing the incumbent in District 4, Tony Young.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Well, in addition to candidates, there are some issues on the upcoming ballot that are of great interest to unions. KPBS reporter Allison St John brings us a feature story on some of the ballot measures that are of crucial interest to unions. She starts with how Proposition G might affect new construction projects in Chula Vista.

ALISON ST JOHN (KPBS News Reporter): The sound of construction will be much more common when all the talk of new public buildings becomes a reality. Chula Vista is a city with big plans for its waterfront when the economy picks up, and that’s what makes Proposition G on the June ballot important.

SCOTT CROSBY (Spokesman, Associated Builders and Contractors): It’s no secret what’s at stake. Jobs are at stake.

ST JOHN: Scott Crosby of Associated Builders and Contractors, or ABC, spoke at a recent forum on Prop G.

CROSBY: Proposition G will simply insure a fair and open competition which allows for the best quality work at the lowest price possible.

ST JOHN: Prop G would ban project labor agreements which require contractors to pay all workers at union scale wages and benefits. That, Crosby says, reduces competition. But Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego’s Labor Council says the initiative is designed to knock companies that hire union workers out of the competition for construction bids.

LORENA GONZALEZ (Spokesperson, San Diego-Imperial County Labor Council): And the ABC want to use Chula Vista as an ideological ground zero for their nonunion movement.

ST JOHN: Proposition G comes down to a choice between developers offering more jobs but with fewer benefits and protections or fewer jobs but better jobs. Ruben Morales of San Diego’s Chamber of Commerce says the business community is divided on the issue.

RUBEN MORALES (Spokesman, San Diego Chamber of Commerce): It’s important because the issue of project labor agreements really has a real economic impact in terms of workers, in terms of job creation, and in terms of development, where we want to see San Diego and cities like Chula Vista, Oceanside, how we want to see them develop.

ST JOHN: Oceanside has its own version of the debate. On its June ballot is a new city charter that would free the city from state rules that require prevailing wages on city projects. People who live in the City of San Diego may vote on similar issues in November if enough signatures are gathered for an initiative called “Competition and Transparency in City Contracting.” Phil Blair is head of Manpower Services, a temporary employment agency. He says he’s convinced project labor agreements that require certain standards and guarantees from construction companies will be a drag on development.

PHIL BLAIR (Owner, Manpower Staffing Services): I think it makes all of our projects more expensive and, therefore, their – the taxpayers dollars or the construction dollars will go less far, meaning fewer projects.

ST JOHN: Blair points to the San Diego Unified School Board which voted to spend its school bond money on contractors who operate with project labor agreements. He says city schools could’ve made the money go further if they hadn’t been beholden to unions. But school board member Shelia Jackson say going with project labor agreements is not just about low bids but about good jobs and, she says, it’s not necessarily about union jobs.

SHELIA JACKSON (Member, San Diego Unified School Board): And that’s what people get caught up in when they hear project labor, they get that labor mentality. Really, this is about our working families and one thing that I really – I stand for and I push for is if the neediest families that receive these lower wage paying jobs, if those jobs come with benefits and pay them a living wage, then they’re able to contribute back into our tax base, which raises our city.

ST JOHN: San Diego County Supervisors don’t see it that way. They recently passed an ordinance to ban project labor agreements from their public works projects. However, they stopped short of putting the issue on the ballot. Supervisor Greg Cox says the board can change its position with another vote, whereas a voter initiative is much harder to reverse.

GREG COX (San Diego County Board of Supervisors): The devil is always in the detail and I think in California we’ve seen so many initiatives that it’s made the state almost ungovernable.

ST JOHN: Pamela Bensoussan, a Chula Vista City Councilwoman, says she’s afraid Prop G would have unintended consequences and disqualify the city from certain state or federal funding for bayfront projects.

PAMELA BENSOUSSAN (Chula Vista City Council): Why tie our hands? This Proposition G creates uncertainty. It’s not good for Chula Vista.

ST JOHN: Agencies around California are wrestling with this issue. Orange County has come out against project labor agreements; Riverside decided to protect them. The outcome of the votes in San Diego will make a difference to how many construction jobs are created, who gets those jobs and what kind of jobs they are. Alison St John, KPBS News.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m Maureen Cavanaugh here with KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner. We’re inviting you to join the conversation about labor unions’ role in San Diego politics, 1-888-895-5727. So, Gloria, Alison’s report outlines how crucial some of these votes could be to labor unions in San Diego County. She focused on Prop G in Chula Vista. Tell us more, if you can, about the labor issue facing Oceanside voters.

PENNER: Certainly. Oceanside City Attorney John Muller (sic) analyzed the proposition which would basically make Oceanside a charter city, giving Oceanside a lot more control over everything from city council pays – pay raises or no pay raises to how much they do pay people for city contracts, and he concluded that the section of the charter that prohibits the city from paying prevailing wages, which is what the charter would do, typically union wages as we’ve been discussing on city projects, it’s under review by the State Supreme Court and it’s likely going to be decided today – this year. He says that the charter would allow the city to pay prevailing wages if required by state law or if the council chooses. So he’s saying it’s not a done deal, that if the charter passes that they would not be paying prevailing wages. You would have to leave it up to the city council.

CAVANAUGH: I see. I see. And speaking of the city council up in Oceanside, whoever is elected to that position could make a big difference in the power of the unions in Oceanside. Tell us a little bit about the stalemate on the Oceanside City Council now and about the candidates…


CAVANAUGH: …and who’s supporting them.

PENNER: Yeah, it is interesting because they tried a recall in Oceanside. The Firefighters Association financed, with a great deal of money, a recall against one of the city council members, Councilman Kern, just at the point where a contract is up for the Firefighters Association, they felt that Councilman Kern was not a friend of the firefighters and so they went for a recall and it lost and it lost by a big number. So right now what we have are five candidates running in a special election because there was a vacancy that was created in December when Rocky Chavez resigned to become Undersecretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs. So the people who are running are retired sheriff’s deputy Ken Crossman, a retired bakery owner, Charles Lowery, a retired state supervisor and somebody who’s run often is Michael T. Lucas, a financial planner, Ward O’Doherty and a retired Marine Colonel, Lloyd Prosser. And the candidates are backed by the council’s two warring factions, sort of labor and business, and then there are three independents who say Oceanside needs to change its political direction. At this point, what we have is council members Kern and Feller backing Mr. Pross – I’m sorry. Yeah, Mr. Prosser. And council members Wood and Sanchez openly backing Mr. Lowery as the replacement for Chavez.

CAVANAUGH: We have been asking people to join the conversation, 1-888-895-5727. There’s a caller on the line. Mel is calling us from Hillcrest. Good morning, Mel. Welcome to These Days.

MEL (Caller, Hillcrest): Morning. Could Gloria tell us where the unions are on the strong mayor ballot measure?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call, Mel.

PENNER: Mel, I cannot. I have – I did speak to Lorena Gonzalez this morning and we did not discuss the strong mayor initiative so I’m not even going to hazard a guess.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, that’s fair enough.

PENNER: I could hazard a guess but those guesses always get me into trouble, Mel, so save me and don’t ask me the question.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we will be covering the – that ballot…


CAVANAUGH: …measure in coming weeks and we’re sure to have a answer for you there on where the unions stand on the strong mayor measure. Mel, thank you so much for the call. You were – explain to us just about Oceanside and not only the candidate – the struggle between business and labor on the city council election there but also of course there the idea of whether or not they’re going to ratify that city charter that has the prevailing wage provision or does or doesn’t and that’s going to have to be read very closely. San Diego voters, it turns out, may actually be voting on an initiative in November. It’s called, as Alison mentioned, it’s called the “Competition and Transparency in City Contracting” measure. Now if it does reach the ballot in November, what is that about?

PENNER: Okay, get ready for this. First of all, it came to pass led by city council member Carl DeMaio. And it is called, as you said, the “Competition and Transparency in City Contracting.” There a coalition of business groups that, along with Carl DeMaio, launched the campaign to hold city government accountable for following fair and competitive bidding rules for all city contracts. The charter amendment is trying to get qualified for the November ballot, not for the June ballot.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

PENNER: And they still have to get some signatures for it. What happened was Carl DeMaio filed the ballot measure on the heels of the city council not implementing the voter approved managed competition reforms. Remember, that was passed by the voters back in 2006. And it was expected that they were going to let out city contracts to private industry to compete with city workers for these contracts and it sort of has been limping along and not making a lot of progress. And so the group, led by Carl DeMaio, went ahead and they decided to try to collect more than 96,000 signatures of registered voters. So far that hasn’t happened but they’re still after it. Now this is what it does according to the measure that’s on the ballot, it would request accountability for efficiency reforms. What that means is that city leaders—I’m not sure which city leaders—would be held accountable for implementing those outsourcing reforms. It would have open and fair competition as the charter – not charter, the measure indicates, and that would mean that city contracts would be awarded using clear rules for fair and open competition and provide equal opportunity for both union and nonunion workers to apply for jobs. So that’s where the whole union thing comes in because it would open it up to nonunion as well. And the transparency part, the City would be required to post all of its taxpayer-funded contracts online and list the number of bids received on the contracts as well as the justifications made for any sole source contracts, those that were selected without bidding. And so you can see where it’s accountable and transparent.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I can see where the language says that, yes. But…

PENNER: I wanted to add…


PENNER: …one thing. When I spoke to the head of the Labor Council, and I said tell me about how the city council is weighing on labor issues, Lorena Gonzalez said, well, seven of them are sensitive to labor issues, one of them isn’t. And I said, Carl DeMaio? And she said, yes. I said, what is the issue there? She said, Carl DeMaio cares about himself.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, I see, so…

PENNER: That’s a direct quote.

CAVANAUGH: And that is a direct quote from…?

PENNER: Lorena Gonzalez…


PENNER: …head of the Labor Council.

CAVANAUGH: We have a phone call now. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Diego is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Diego. Welcome to These Days.

DIEGO (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Good morning. I just have a question for you guys. Why is everything being talked from the perspective of just San Diego and not talk about – I mean, the whole United States is being put under this kind of pressure, you know, the economics are putting pressure on all the cities and – It is not only California but it’s the whole United States. I mean, why – My question is just why is this whole thing happening?

CAVANAUGH: Sure. I appreciate your question, Diego, and we’re actually going to talk about that.

PENNER: We are. Diego, thank you. You’re sort of asking me the question that I think Maureen was going to ask. On a federal level, there is a bill that’s coming before Congress, actually it’s in Congress now, and it’s called the “Employee Free Choice Act.” Bob Filner and Susan Davis, two members of Congress from the San Diego area, are signing onto the bill, have signed onto the bill, as co-sponsors. Now, the group behind it is American Rights at Work, and it’s an organization they say that’s dedicated to promoting the freedom of workers to form unions and bargain collectively. And this group is basically saying that one of the – it is one of the most hotly contested pieces of legislation in recent memory. What it would do is, it would allow workers to register their desire to join a union by simply signing a card…


PENNER: …as opposed to an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. The co-sponsor of the bill is Representative Hilda Solis, who is President Obama’s pick for Secretary of Labor, and I think that’s what her current job is now. Employers are trying to defeat the measure claiming it would essentially eliminate secret ballots. The proponents contend that the current system is broken because employers, through intimidation, effectively have veto power over whether workers can join a union and that a card check system would put the choice to unionize back in the hands of workers rather than the employer.

CAVANAUGH: So we see that, nationally, the unions are moving politically. I’m wondering, though, to bring it back to San Diego, Gloria, when we say that local unions are backing a candidate or they’re working for or against a political initiative, what precisely are we saying? Are we saying that they’re going to be donating lots of money? Are we talking about volunteers that have to do with – How do unions actually weigh in politically here in San Diego?

PENNER: Well, again, the Labor Council says that they do not provide direct money to the campaigns but, of course, there are the independent expenditures and unions certainly can do that and create ads and direct mailers on behalf of issues and send those out. Of course, the whole campaign financing situation is kind of in flux. A lot of different laws have been passed that could, indeed, loosen that up and we may very well see that there could be direct contributions to campaigns from unions. But the strongest thing is, is getting people out to vote. Labor has been very effective in the county. They have thousands and thousands of volunteers and they work all year to educate them, to give them information on the issues, to get them involved and to motivate them so they become a very strong volunteer force. Now this year, labor has put, especially the SEIU, which is a major labor union, has put a great deal behind the drive to place a term limit proposal for the County Board of Supervisors on the June ballot. And it’s really pushed this initiative to establish the limits on how long a supervisor can stay in office. They were required to get 77,000 signatures to get this thing on the ballot. They got far more than 77,000.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And so that’s a mirror of getting out the vote.

PENNER: Very powerful.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much, Gloria. Thanks for speaking with us.

PENNER: You’re welcome, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And next week, I want to let everyone know, we’re going to be discussing the race for San Diego County sheriff as our talks about the June primary continue. Gloria Penner is the host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. Now coming up on These Days, we’ll hear from an author who coined the term denialism to describe America’s new fearful scientific skepticism. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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