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Push To Limit Labor Rights Taking Place In San Diego


Could the push to limit the collective-bargaining rights of government workers in Wisconsin come to California? We talk about recent labor battles in San Diego County, and discuss how the nationwide campaign to reduce public employee benefits could affect the middle class.

Could the push to limit the collective-bargaining rights of government workers in Wisconsin come to California? We talk about recent labor battles in San Diego County, and discuss how the nationwide campaign to reduce public employee benefits could affect the middle class.


Michael Smolens, government editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune

Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times

John Warren, editor and publisher of San Diego Voice & Viewpoint

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

So moving to domestic protests now, we have people marching in the streets here in the United States over the threat of losing their right to collective bargaining. The governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, is not just proposing to cut public employee workers' benefits to help balance the budget, he wants to eliminate their right to bargain for those benefits in the future. So Michael Smollens issue bring us up-to-date with what's the latest from Wisconsin with issue what's happening there.

SMOLLENS: Well, it's been a fascinating story, as I mentioned during one of the breaks, they called out a dragnet. Yesterday, they sent out storm troopers to knock on the doors of the AWOL state senators.

ST. JOHN: Democrats.

SMOLLENS: As you know, the democrats in the state senate have left the building, so to speak, to keep to Republicans from having a quorum to act. But the budget bill is moving ahead. But what we have at play here are two things, that we're seeing elsewhere, one is the fiscal problem that just about every state, and local and federal have, and the other is more of a political joust over the collective bargaining aspect. On the one hand, you're seeing governments that are trying to roll back benefits. They've either been too generous or they have been under fund, in that respect, San Diego's has sort of been under the floor. We were one of the first to really start doing that with or without union approval, certainly in the City of San Diego. The collectively bargaining thing seems to be more of a midwest phenomenon at this stage. We talked about in Wisconsin, the governor basically gut the fiscal concessions he wanted from the unions but he wants to peel back on the collective bargaining front, and that's sort of the real dividing line in terms of -- you know, live or die for the unions.

ST. JOHN: What would that mean.

SMOLLENS: Well, it wouldn't allow them to bargain on the benefits as we know them, retirement, I think healthcare, I think salary was really one of the issues that they would still be, allowed to do under the bill. I'm not familiar with all the dealings of that, there's other details floating around in other states. Some predict this is gonna wash across the country. What I am convinced is that we are gonna see throughout the country continuing efforts to try to pull back on public employee benefits because all states have big deficits at this stage. But one thing that keep in mind, that's not going to solve the fiscal problems of any state or any city, it may be a component, in some cases a big component, in some cases. But it's sort of become the focus. And a lot of that is really long term savings, even if they can roll them back, that's not going to get the State of California, out of its $25 million deficit problem at this stage.

ST. JOHN: Well, it has rolled over, I believe, into a couple of other states, but you're thinking that it's not going to -- Indiana and Ohio are already considering similar types of proposals. But you're thinking issue California, we have a democratic governor, it's unlikely to have much in-roads here. On the other hand, San Diego, we have a lot of people here who want to undo many of the benefits and think that will solve that.

SMOLLENS: Well, again, making the distinction between the benefits and the fiscal aspect and collective bargaining.

ST. JOHN: Right.

SMOLLENS: We have Car DeMaio who's a relatively conservative fellow who wants to be our next mayor who's saying he doesn't have any problem with collective bargaining, what his problem was, the people bargaining on the city side have to have the backbone to require a deal that makes fiscal sense and then let the voters decide on stuff. So if you've got conservatives like that, I mean, what he's after, and I think others are after is rolling back the benefits in a serious degree, which the unions certainly don't like, and they view that as a raring call to fight. But the inability to bargain on those things is even a higher calling for them.

ST. JOHN: Okay, and I mean the political aspect is interesting. Even though it may not spread to this part of the world, I read in your paper this morning that there's a union here in San Diego that is inviting the Democrats who've left the building to come to San Diego, all expenses paid.

SMOLLENS: Well, usually, they'd like to come to San Diego. But we've got some pretty foul weather coming up. But in the larger political sense, some of these Republican governors are looking in a partisan way down the line that you weaken the unions there, the big financial supporters of the Democrats, coming in 2012, that could make a big difference, if the unions are on that kind of defense distracting them from the presidential race and the congressional race and so forth so much that's another issue at play here. Again, to the degree that affects California, we do have a democratic governor, and a democratic legislature, but they're not, I don't think gonna coddle the unions in terms of benefits. They're gonna have to do something there. And we just had a report out from the bipartisan little Hoover commission saying [CHECK AUDIO] of existing workers, right now.

ST. JOHN: Right. Uh-huh.

SMOLLENS: Which is a huge legal problem, so what that does is it really kind of gives you the scope of how bad the problem is want.

ST. JOHN: Well, just to stick with the political side of it, from time to time, John, is this a sort of blatant attempt to under cut the funding of democratic campaigns by under cutting unions.

WARREN: Oh, I don't think so. I think what's happening here is, while there are fiscal problems for the states, that this represents a idealogical battle that's taking place in America. A conservative movement which realizes that many of the things we had before are gone, and we have to find a way to make up for it, and we have people in approximate leadership roles that have no sense of history. They have no idea what we went through in 1935 when we created the National Labor Relations act, or the struggles of '70s when the whole system changed, and we did the public employees retirement boards, and the whole system of how we handle benefits came about, the economy was different, everything was different then. Now we have a situation with labor where we have had at least seven million people lose jobs. Those jobs are not coming back for them, many of them. The whole structure has changed. Laborers lose -- has lost members, it's losing dues check off. Labor is willing to negotiate, but this tea party phenomenon that is kind of lurking in the background, this conservative push with that Republican ideology says that it's not just enough that we make some changes. We gotta weapon this area out. We saw it with prop A in San Diego in terms of the whole fight against project labor agreements from the county viewpoint. Now we hear labor saying this effort is gonna wipe out the whole middle class element in America. Wisconsin is making an exception when it talks about firemen, policemen, those kind of jobs being kept in tact. So there's a lot more to this.

ST. JOHN: Right.

WARREN: And I don't think we're really paying close attention.

ST. JOHN: Close attention. 1-888-895-5727. Do you think labor is the problem or do you think we still need unions? Now, Tony, John just mentioned the project labor agreements, and I think San Diego has been the first place in the nation where campaigns -- the voters have voted to ban PLAs, and that campaign is likely to spread around the country.

WARREN: In Oceanside and Chula Vista, there was such a measure was passed, also a county wide although I"m unclear that they'd ever had one of them on county project anyway, so they were abolishing something that had never occurred. Of course, San Diego has had some experience with Petco Park and -- project labor agreement.

ST. JOHN: But do you think -- San Diego is like a sort of a seed for an antilabor movement, and this is, of course, for the construction, public construction.

PERRY: I don't -- I see San Diego as its own situation unrelated to the rest of the world. And even on this, even on the whole pension benefit issue, our situation is different. This is a city that doesn't like to pay its bills, that is very cheap, and doesn't have the taxation that all other cities seem to have. My most favorite is the free pick up of garbage, $60 million a year we pay, plus unionized workers, other cities it isn't like that. So what we have in San Diego, is we've run up bills, pension bills that we don't want to pay. Our elected officials in open session, open agreements, more or less, that any of this pack of, now, watch dogs that we have, could have seen, didn't see, and I include myself. Of all of our dogs of the press were sort of sleeping and we didn't see it. And when we woke up and it was there, the editorial page of the then owned Copley newspaper started a Jihad against public employees and labor agreements. And the narrative has switched. The narrative basically now in San Diego is we've all been treated just so wickedly by these labor union people, and by these weak politicians and some public officials and such, as opposed to we rang up a bill, a big bill that we've got to pay. So San Diego is stuck. And then we lost about four years on the, I think, with the former city attorney, and some other factors, and we are now looking at, and actually San Diego has made some progress where other cities have not. So San Diego is its own situation. And San Diego's problem in terms of numbers is a hell of a lot larger than other cities. What makes it so delicious for the outside press, including myself, is San Diego's conservative reputation. The question how, in a virulently antilabor union city that goes back a hundred years, and with a virulently anitlabor union editorial page in the dominant newspaper, how did labor unions get this power? It's still --

ST. JOHN: Well, but the problem, I think, in San Diego was sparked by the fact that the city didn't pay into the pension fund and got behind so it was partly --

PERRY: It bet on a rising stock market.

ST. JOHN: Right.

PERRY: That would bail us out. Now, of course, Carl DeMaio, and the rest of the boys want to bet on a rising stock market for 401Ks. We now know what a stock market can do when it tanks.

SMOLLENS: Let's not are go get the business component in this. The pension fund in San Diego from Pete Wilson if not before has been viewed as a piggy bank, it's always been underfunded, they have not wanted to put the money in because they wanted to spend it on other things. We had Petco Park, we had the Republican convention in 96, all of which they needed money for. And that played heavily into the deals they cut with labor unions to increase their wives but not pay for the putting the money into it is system. And so there was a lot of complicity. Are unions to blame? Of course they are: But -- and are we politicians? Yes. But there was a big business community who wanted these big shiny things.

PERRY: And kid not --

SMOLLENS: Absolutely. Absolutely.

ST. JOHN: Okay, now, we're gonna did to the phones, Yahya from San Diego, thanks for calling. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, good morning.

ST. JOHN: Good morning.

NEW SPEAKER: I'd like to say one thing, and that is you can talk about the labor unions but were it not for the unions, big business is not gonna take it upon themselves to treat employees fairly. They're gonna try to get cheap labor as cheap as they can to increase their profit margin. The other thing is that those people who [CHECK AUDIO] who are super rich, you know, they should not even allow or even think about, just from a human standpoint, allow these budget deficits to be solved on the back of the elderly, they're laying off [CHECK AUDIO] they just laid off all the school persons, and these are Americans just like the rest of us are. You did not get rich by yourself. You got rich because people, the masses of your people bought your product, bought your good, and even the homeless person who bum a quarter on the street, bought two cigarettes in your store.

ST. JOHN: Okay. Yes.

NEW SPEAKER: The product trying to make it as simple as you have, [CHECK AUDIO] the responsibility to help pull state out of the budget def --

ST. JOHN: And not just take it out of the benefits of the middle class. We have another caller, a perspective that would like to get on. Serena from San Diego. GO ahead, Serena.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, thank you for taking my call. I would just like to comment to the fact that I think what's going on in Wisconsin is labor busting. It's taking away from rights that have been given to union workers. And will if it pass -- this is just the camel's nose under the tent. If it passes, the people who will lose will be the middle class. And it's the teachers, the nurses, it's fire protection, it's law enforcement that take care of us every day, and we have the responsibility to take care of them. Thank you.

ST. JOHN: Thank you, Serena, John were you --

WARREN: Yeah, I was waiting. I wanted to make two observations, first of all, there was a pole this week, USA today, CNN pole that says 61 percent of the American people are in favor and in support of collective bargaining. So I don't think that we should let this media blitz that Wisconsin is having and a few people running away with twitter and their blogs suggest that America is in lock step agreement with them. My second point goes back to how labor to the power here. And one of the missing elements in the conversation is the emergence of district elections, because district elections allowed labor to pick those people that they would support and to change the whole atmosphere [CHECK AUDIO] which before then had been controlled by big business, the chamber, association of general contractor, and all those people who did the same thing that labor is doing. We can't begrudge labor for becoming an influence when it just follows the model that other were following that kept them out.

ST. JOHN: Michael?

SMOLLENS: Well, and John is correct, that was a change. But Tony was asking earlier, how did labor get this power? That's one way. But also San Diego has become a democratic city. The voter registration is, you know, I don't know if a majority, but certainly more Democratic than Republican, and the region is about a push county wide, which is, you know, people still call it a Republican city. And its representation, you know, doesn't quite fit the reality these days. What's sort of interesting is business and the Republicans are trying to figure out how to deal with that, and not to digress too much, but there's this proposal for the city unified school district board that kind of follows the district election mode that labor was successful, because they in the past, big business was adapt the city wide elections and that's why labor wanted the district [CHECK AUDIO] elections. Now labor is actually adapt at city wide elections or district wide elections, and now they want to change the scenario. So it's just an interesting [CHECK AUDIO].

ST. JOHN: In some ways this is the political aspect of what's happening in Wisconsin of perhaps not the fiscal of it's sort of threatening the middle class. If the middle class grew up partly due to the efforts of labor, which is what John was saying, and also possibly the fiscal ones, also, because if we're gonna start eliminating decent pensions and healthcare benefits for public employees in the future, isn't this the waft [CHECK AUDIO].

SMOLLENS: John is right, a lot of people don't have the history of the circumstances in which labor came to prominence of it was because of horrible working condition, and people weren't being taken care of. And we've seen that back sliding, there are certain things today Tony and I were talking about, any moment now, we could be relieved of duty without much appeal. But that's a lack of sympathy for labor and unions and public unions issue even in Wisconsin, I think that times have been so tough for the general public, you know, when people talk about furloughing public employees for a day or two, and the huge outcry that we had in California and elsewhere, other people saying, hey, I just took a ten percent pay cut, why are these people -- so I think there's a perception issue that labor kind of missed the beat on in the last couple years, and so there's not the sympathy in years where you'd think that they'd be as sister strong like Wisconsin.

ST. JOHN: But there is a difference between furloughed for a day or two and having your negotiating rights.

SMOLLENS: Absolutely. But I'm talking about, yeah, the perception that John and I still think [CHECK AUDIO] frustrated with unions trying to protect every last aspect of their benefits.

ST. JOHN: Yes. Tony?

PERRY: Good labor leader, bad labor leader will tell you there are two kinds of relationships between employees and employers, there should collective bargaining, and there is individual begging. [CHECK AUDIO] individual begging, much easier to deal with. That's why pensions have gone away in the private sector to a large degree. Health benefits for retirees have gone away to a large degree. Any idea of seniority has gone away to a large degree. Now the folks on the [CHECK AUDIO]ment the same thing for public employees. And I think Mike is exactly right, the public employees have been fairly tone deaf to all this. My favorite example, and I'm sorry for barbing it every time this comes up, was when Tracy jar man [CHECK AUDIO] had a press conference with the mayor, and she said I'm very honored to be named [CHECK AUDIO] all the right thing, she said when I joined the fire department, I all thought I would retire at age 50. And I had to grasp my head and say, age 50? The rest of us are trying to hold on till 70. But that's life in public employment. And I think Jerry Sanders who has done a good job as mayor, as a former public employee, has not been the man to confront that mentality, totally. He's nibbled it around the edges, in his stomach, he just can't see force will them all to 401Ks, like police and fire firsts, like Carl DeMaio.

ST. JOHN: Everyone wants to get in on this discussion [CHECK AUDIO].

And you're back on the Editors Roundtable, here on KPBS, with editors, John Warren, Michael Terry, [CHECK AUDIO] and John, you had a couple of points you really wanted to make.

WARREN: Yeah, I think it's very important business because we always miss the historical aspect, I mentioned the [CHECK AUDIO] that was just for private -- private labor agreements, okay? And all of that's covered collective bargaining, all of that's confer covered under federal laws, there's no problem. But the public employees arrangement [CHECK AUDIO] I think 11 stay states that [CHECK AUDIO] didn't want to have any of that kind of bargaining involved, [CHECK AUDIO] that we have a public entity. When Tony mentions the former fire chief retiring at 50, you gotta remember that across the country, policemen, firemen, those people who were in high risk positions were considered prime candidates to be able to retire at 20 years of service and 50 years of age. So that's the norm for them, okay? But we have other employment scenarios throughout the country, we have the long shore men, harsher scenario, we went true that about [CHECK AUDIO] we have all these different components on the books in terms of labor. So we need to look at what we're dealing with before we just kind of rush to judgment, and say, this is how we're gonna balance things.

ST. JOHN: Yeah, okay. And Lori Saldaña is on the phone with a bit of history, for us, I believe. Lori, thanks for calling. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Governor Schwarzenegger announced his own plan to restructure state employees but he couldn't do it through a democratic majority hedge similarity, so remember, we had a democratic election in 2005 that was all about these same topics, takes away pensions, shifting teachers from defined benefit to defined contribution, renegotiating public safety contracts. So we've been true this, as California often does, ahead of the curve, but we did it as a cost to taxpayers of tens of millions of dollars in a special election, and all of those were defeated by the voters at a great cost to the state over all. So I just want to remind your listeners issue California has been through this, it has been soundly defeated by the voters, now other states are going through it.

ST. JOHN: Well, I think what we missed in California, was what Michael was referring as the fiscal side of it, as opposed to the political attempts to take away the negotiating rights.

SMOLLENS: Although political is always lurking; -- what Republicans really want is they don't want -- what they call closed shops, then you take your dues, give them to the labor union, and then they endorse candidates.

PERRY: Yeah, and Lori was correct though, that's what governor Schwarzenegger was trying to do. I don't know that the collective bargaining issue was part of the development. But he was really attacking the unions and trying to pull back their benefits and power.

ST. JOHN: And whether it was to do with his wife, we wonder, but he definitely got the message.

PERRY: Well, he got his head handed to him at the ballot box. I think that's a lesson for future good afternoons.

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