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Roundtable: San Diego Labor Leadership Change

December 21, 2018 1:48 p.m.

Roundtable: San Diego Labor Leadership Change


Michael Smolens, columnist, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Alison St John, reporter, KPBS News

Amita Sharma, reporter, KPBS News

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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.

Big changes for Labor leadership in San Diego. How that's playing out for union politics. Crumbling cliffs and Del Mar the game plan to stabilize the seaside bluffs and the price tag struggling to keep the California dream alive. And we are wired to care about those who fall in behind marks our PBS roundtable starts now.

Welcome to our discussion of the week's top stories I'm Mark Zour. And joining me at the PBS roundtable today columnist Michael Smolan is with the San Diego Union Tribune investigative reporter Amita Sharma with PBS News and Allison Saint John who covers North County for PBS News. Well a chaotic period involving key powerbrokers within San Diego's labor movement has come to an end. Mickey Kasparian the longtime leader of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135 was ousted this week and that means a critical rift among Labor key supporters of local Democrats is mending.

So Michael start right there. Who is Mr. Casperson and what led to his downfall.

Well a lot of things led to his downfall but first about Mickey Caspari and you mentioned that he was the longtime leader of the U.S. CW but he also for years was the head of the San Diego Imperial Counties Labor Council and that's an umbrella organization that most unions in the region belong to. And it's just been a political powerhouse. And he became the political power behind that so he was one of the most influential political people around if not the most. So that where he had been coming from. Now a lot of things that happened most dramatically he had been accused of sexual harassment workplace discrimination and things like that.

Lawsuits are like I think three lawsuits and all are subtle privately and he denied all the allegations. That was within the UFC not the Labor Council. So that in itself is enough to usually bring people down. It didn't immediately because of his power a lot of people were scared to take him on and that caused a big stress within the Democratic labor organization the Labor Council itself ran into a lot of disputes because of that he was a polarizing figure he'd pick sides and there were fissures and eventually there was such disruption that the national AFL CIO came in to basically put into receivership what they did.

He left just before that happened to create his own breakaway organization called the families working council brought his union and some others. So as you can see there was a big rift in labor and so forth and that has ended his breakaway group basically started petering out and splitting up. You have C.W. just voted him out as the president just the other week by a huge margin. So labor leaders and Democratic folks are looking at some healing now.

So is this rift healing is coming together. Well there is. Time will tell.

The new the new leader of the CW says we're going back to the Labor Council. So that's a huge thing right there. I mean there are going to be differences. You know organized labor and Democrats do fight. They have different interests sometimes they do get unified as they even did in a lot of cases despite the split in this last election. But I think people are looking for too much more harmony and a little tamping down of these requests.

You know the personalities. What was the difference between the two branches of the labor movement. Because he was supporting some more progressive shall we say candidates and some of the elections right. So was his was his arm of the movement more progressive or was it really nothing to do.

I don't know that you can say that I mean a lot of it had to do with personalities and exactly when he was with the Labor Council and the subsequent organization. Some people were they made in retrospect some wrong choices some candidates that probably weren't the best people for those campaigns. They might have liked their politics but they were not going to win. They didn't win. And some people question why this was happening and why these choices were being made and was it what's best for the Democrats and workers. Or was it because of sort of personal feuds and vendettas and things like that.

So angry is there a sense that these various entities the Democratic Party and a local Democratic Party and Labor have learned their lesson on how to handle sexual harassment allegations.

Well you'd like to think there's still going to come up and the Democratic Party face another issue with some internal claims of sexual harassment and their current leader Jessica who he's out there she said we were just ill prepared to deal with that. We're a volunteer organization. They didn't really have a process in place. Now she believes they do. So we'll see how that works going forward.

But some women particularly young women are going to get more specifics on that. That was interesting column.

But amid all of this going on with Mickey Kasparian in April of this year dozens of young mostly young Democratic women activists signed this letter complaining that they had been claims of sexual harassment within the party ranks that weren't being addressed or even being taken seriously. And it caused a huge issue. You had sort of a generational thing going on a gender thing going on. And as I said that part of the problem was they didn't have really a process to deal with that. Whether they that's working now they've got a committee and people have taken sexual harassment or Etai sexual harassment training.

So we'll see. But that became a big issue.

And here it was like seven weeks before the primary election I guess what I was interested in is whether this is going to result in a more influential and effective labor movement in San Diego as a result of this coming together again.

I think so just because there are always going to be some personality clashes and things. But Mickey Kasparian was such a strong personality and he was not subtle about how he acted. Whether we see that kind of behavior again I don't know people want to come together but there are going to be differences for instance that the emerging San Diego mayor's race. You've got three named Democrats Barbara Todd and Scott Peters to varying degrees have good relations with labor are all Labor's going to get behind one. Probably not. So we'll have to see how that sort of shakes out.

So there will be differences but like I said I don't think that at least right now they're hoping they can avoid the real kind of bitter feuds and splits that they've had in the past.

I don't think they're being tanned by these various labor groups to get behind.

One it's hard to say they're treading very lightly right now. They might kind of go a little lightly in the primary and see how that shakes out. It's still early. It's a bit of an embarrassment of riches but few labor leaders have told me that it's kind of an uncomfortable one because you know they don't want to offend anybody. And obviously if they pick the wrong candidate that can or or the candidate that doesn't win that can lead to some issues particularly with the municipal unions who have to deal with the mayor they didn't support.

Now as your column noted today. Still things coming out of last month's election look a lot better for Democrats than Republicans.

Oh absolutely. And I guess you could sort of look at despite the problems that the local Democratic Labor campaign machine had or within internally they had a banner year. There were some problems and so forth. If there's more unity moving ahead and some people seem to think 2020 the dynamics are even more favorable to Democrats. That certainly should help them if they are and more unified and they will be in the fall. I mean that always happens. People are worried about this infighting. But usually both parties when they have those kind of divisions during the primary they tend to fall in line afterwards.

Now before we leave this topic I wanted to do kind of a step back question here. How powerful is Labor at the local level and even across the country. I mean if you go back to 1970 for example of the mid 70s you had 30 percent of American workers were unionized. Now that's in the single digits. How big a factor is Labor itself politically anyway. Even in San Diego.

Well I can't speak so much to the national picture other than yes the membership certainly has gone down. I think locally I haven't been tracking the membership politically. Labor has an increase in its in its power. There was a time this was a Republican town and even as the voter registration flipped to favor Democratic voters being having more voters being more favorable the infrastructure of the power structure was still basically run by Republicans. That's changed the Democratic and labor movement has really figured it out and gotten stronger and registrations changed registration has changed.

There's a lot of demographic trends that are working towards their favor with increased minorities and Latinos who seem to be drawn more to the Democratic side than the Republican side. For a lot of things that have happened over time but it has got more powerful and I think that's being reflected in a lot of offices you see with the County Board of Supervisors is probably going to become more democratic. The San Diego City Council has a super majority of Democrats now and the next mayor more than likely will be a Democrat and B.

Before we move on did want to heavy. Explain to us who who replaced Mickey Kasparian and who's moving into that position and who knows how big a powerbroker he will be.

Well it's name Todd Walter and he was fired for he was the vice president of the CW and he was fired because he criticized Mickey Kasparian during this time when these lawsuits were raging and other things were going on. So he decided to run against him. I think a lot of people were surprised that a mickey Kasparian loss could be lost by like a 2 to 1 margin. Walter he thought that that Kasparian become a distraction was sucking money out of the organization and not necessarily out of graft or anything but just the legal fees have became enormous for the CW.

And he also said are they spending too much money and time on politics and not concerned about the workers now on the other hand that he may be new to this there are negotiations coming up with supermarkets that are really important. So we'll see what kind of leadership he actually provides there. Like I said he's bringing the CW back to the Labor Council. Is he going to be a big power. We'll just have to see. I'm sure that he wants like pay attention initially to what's going on with his union and doing the best for his members.

A lot of things to play out and follow up on as we go along. Fascinating stuff. Well we're going to move on. The fear is this passengers enjoying the seaside train ride through Delmark could one day find themselves surfing down crumbling bluffs and become part of the scenery. Sections of the ever eroding sandstone bluffs have crumbled four times since August and the big question what can be done. And also start there what are the specifics on what's happened in these recent slides.

Well I was actually on the train when it didn't go down the beach which I didn't but I discovered that I was wondering am I going to get home again. The day that the fourth slide happened just one spot on that very two mile stretch and Domar where the train goes rumbling by and if you've ever written that line it's really quite it's quite arresting. You look out the window and you can just see the edge is just feet from the edge of it from the train. So basically it was the fourth slide and they did reckon that several feet fell.

And if you saw the photographs it wasn't actually quite as bad as the photographs were suggesting. Turns out it was on the other side of the berm between the railway line and the beach. And so the backside next to the beach crumbled thing you know left lost about six feet which is a lot because on average that bluff loses about six inches a year. However you know it never depends it depends on the weather. So it's never six inches a year it could be six feet one year nothing the next year.

So this was a particularly bad slide.

What are the experts saying is causing these particular slides here.

Well it's interesting you'd think that trains those 50 trains a day. This is the second most used intercity railway line in the country 50 trains and that's really workable rather than your story. And so you'd think that then rumbling down the cliffs would make a difference. That according to Sanda. They've done studies and it's not trains rumbling along. It is the sand being eroded from the bottom which of course is speeded up by climate change and then it's the rain and the irrigation from all the Del Mar gardens that's coming pouring over the cliffs that is causing the erosion that combined with the fact that of course surfers and dog walkers walk on this place all the time which deters the undergrowth the shrubs from growing and weakens the cliffs as well.

And you don't have to be an expert you walk along the beaches look at that and they just don't look all that stable up and down that structure coach.

I have walked first class since 2002 and that's almost every day. I lived a block away from there and I had seen the upper cliff you know which is right above where the train goes and Delmore I have seen that pathway to walk narrow significantly to the point where at one point there was a bend and a big piece of shrubbery that had been on the class that was now the cliff it was part of the cliff perpendicular and there's so many parts of the lower class where you know it's just narrowed so much yes.

So now I don't need them walk over there. I walk on the beach and Almar that's that's a very North America because I don't feel comfortable even to walk along on the beach along the cliffs seems very ProCare I would recommend that people walking along the beach do stay a long distance away from those cliffs.

They're not stable.

I want to get back to something you said a moment ago about how busy this is. We do have a sound bite here official from the San Diego Association of Governments set that up for us about how busy the line is yeah.

JIM Linthicum Oh yeah and I get a yes no I mean he's making the point that this is not just a few people travelling up and down the coast so let's hear him and then I've got a question for this from you.

But that he's the only north south rail line that can access that's the second busiest intercity rail corridor in the country. And so a lot of people depend on that. It's not just commuters but it's also Amtrak you know points north and also the freight trains will be a pretty significant impact everyone.

The thing is I mean it's a key part of that whole North southern corridor. You know we're expanding I've five new lanes being added for the cars but we all know that we have to get out of our cars so the train is a really good alternative and it is becoming more popular. I mean I travel on it quite regularly and it's definitely getting quite crowded which is a good thing but this two mile stretch is like a vulnerable weak link in the chain because if that goes everything from L.A. to San Diego would be scrapped so this is Amtrak it means the feds I mean we could get them fed money to get involved with us and you were about to ask mycologist I was going to say that the larger issue here is and Alison mentioned.

I mean the whole climate change sea rise is something that I mean you look at what's going on in Imperial Beach more and more flooding. It's always had issues but that's just happening more regularly with the higher tides and eventually I mean they can be sure that up. But short of building almost its own separate structure they going to have to and the Mousseau commission would not like a move to somehow move the rail line inland and there's not a lot of property to do that. So just all along the coast I think you're going to see issues like this and this isn't just a climate change thing but sea level rise is just going to be hugely expensive and disruptive situation here at the time.

Right so what are they talking about and how much money are we talking a huge expensive. So they're looking at the fact that when it goes what is the alternative. Nobody is thinking about anything right now except tunnelling under Delmore and there's you know five different proposed routes that they could do it. They've made an estimate. And in 2018 dollars it would be three point five billion dollars. That's a lot of money. I'm kind of interested in the fact that nobody is talking about whether it would be actually cheaper for the public and of course this is a very unpopular solution but to use eminent domain if this is such an important part of our transit route.

There are a lot of extremely nice houses that will probably cost millions. But it might be cheaper to buy those homes and build a much more you know well established train line somewhere along the coast there then try tunnelling under Del Mar. However at the moment the issue is stabilised those cliffs until we can get three point five billion dollars to come on line. I mean what why did the situation that's the question that's the key question and people that Scripps Institution of Oceanography have been studying those cliffs and I asked them you know if you were going to give your well-informed decision as to how long these cliffs would last he said he couldn't do it but that he would say it would be a matter of decades.

So maybe one or two decades not longer than that. So I mean it's not a lot of time to raise that level of money shoring up with walls now and barriers. Well it's interesting what they have now is the system which the Coastal Commission likes of putting these soldier piles concrete piles up to 60 feet down that you can't see because they're buried in the cliffs so they're actually strengthening the rail line quite effectively without being visible and they've now got about another two and a half million or so to do some fairly minor stuff next year to try to revegetate the cliffs.

But they've estimated it'll cost about 90 million dollars to stabilise the cliffs. So even if they're not talking about the tunnel a lot of public money when you know Senda is looking for money to do all the many things we want to keep sending them moving just to keep them two mile stretch of rail line is quite a big investment would be temporary as we say well that's another fascinating thing to follow up on and see what happens going forward and it's not just the trains as the homes there and everything else as Michael says along the shore line all the way from the border are such a beautiful piece of the train line you know I mean I think we would miss it if it disappeared but it is very Vano you don't want to be on the train when music stops that's for sure.

All right we're going to move winners get a lot of attention in our society always have we we've been aggressive capitalist after all since the dawn of the republic. But what about those who for whatever reasons cannot or will not compete. Most obvious are the homeless. They present the ever present challenge for our society. For many it's what to do how to help. For some it's why should I care. So that was an original interesting story that you had exploring the notion of empathy and it was inspired by some interviews you had with some citizens start there.

Tell us about those interviews.

A year and half ago write a story about violence against the homeless and I spoke to a homeless woman in her early 60s in downtown San Diego.

Her name is Cheryl Taylor and sure these pink bunny ears and she had little launcher that she's sitting on across the street from a high rise and she said in the evenings people would go out to the balcony of those high rises and yell at her and say you know trash garbage. Bon why don't you get out of here. And she said you know nobody none of those people have ever come down to speak to me and ask me how I got here and she had a very very sad story. She was working as an in-home caregiver.

Her daughter 28 year old daughter started having epileptic seizures. She had to quit her job to stay home still have a financial buffer. They got evicted from their apartment and that's how she ended up becoming more common disorders.

This causes a lot of people who have been evicted who have landed on the streets.

And then earlier this year I interviewed a man by the name of Chad borders and he had an MBA. He was working three jobs 16 hours a day and driving over left and working for an online car sales company. He was sitting in his car and he was very understandably so demoralized frustrated and a little befuddled.

And this is what he said somebody from but we get here how do we get to how do we get to a point where we you know we devalue human life you know to where you know it's OK if we step over homeless people or you know you're sleeping in your car it doesn't matter.

So this thinking about empathy and there's biology behind this as you discover there is biology behind it.

And I prefaced all of this by you know I understand that we as a society are playing and because there are tons of people paramedics police officers politicians are very concerned that you hear a lot of people here and they don't and I understand that and understand you know some of the problems that come with homelessness within neighborhoods and why people don't want the homeless there high crime. Property values go down so I understand all that putting that all aside. I wanted to know what our collective capacity was for empathies. So I spoke with a couple of people from UCSD one of the gentlemen was an M.D. a neuroscientist by the name of Dr. William Mabley and he said that empathy is as native to us to humans as sight touch hearing all of that.

And so you know it's it's it's in our nature we want to be empathetic we're wired for it. And we've had it since the dawn of time. I mean we were living in tribes. We absolutely needed empathy to read one another and for our survival we've got a comment from him to let's let's hear a little because embassy changes everything.

It changes my relationships my world my world to me it changes the way I live my life. It absolutely prevents me from ignoring or or or diminishing the value of another human being. You know everybody I know is of immense value empathy helps me understand that everybody is of immense value. How can I ignore anybody and suffering. I can't ignore anybody who's suffering. For them the world just changes.

And I should add one important point that Dr. Mambi made was that the parts of the brain you can actually see this on on imaging the parts of the brain that get activated when you feel like you're in pain or you're distressed or you're surprised that also gets activated when you see someone else in that same state or leasers overlap there in those parts of the brain. And so that's how we know that we have this innate nature of empathy.

So if we see the homeless on the street of course we've all encountered it we live in a big city and talk make guys on the show about but the chronic problem here and across California in the country. What about those that are supposedly wired for this. What about those who lack empathy. Of course your first interview you said that woman encounters that all the time.

Well I think according to some the experts I've spoken to people are tired they're desensitized they're super super busy. The biggest challenge to empathy is pressure and all of us feel like we're under pressure. And I think that there is a level of helplessness too. You know I look out and I see this massive problem I think I alone can't do anything to resolve it. I spoke to another woman from northern California. She said you know babies have an empathic muscle.

We all have that for some reason. The way we live in our society the complexity of our society the pressure of our society weakens that empathic muscle. I spoke with a neuro psychiatrist at UC San Diego. His name is Dr. Billett just stay. And I asked him can we improve our empathy can we develop it. And he said Well you know empathy is genetic just like resilience is just like optimism is as part of our personality trait. So 35 to 50 percent of it is inherited that that means that you know another 50 percent can be developed can be improved.

And there's a lot of research around meditation specifically Lovingkindness meditation where you know you say every morning or every day I and I am healthy I am happy I am at peace. Then you say the same thing for your family for your friends for your loved ones. Then you say the same thing for complete strangers and here's the key. You also say it for your enemies. People who have done you wrong. And Doctor just day as well as a lot of other scientists say that they have shown this this kind of practice has shown to improve empathy and so does keeping a gratitude journal Simplot in our polarized political time here where it's such a common thing to demonize others and point the finger at the people and get political mileage out of it.

I also feel like that perhaps because one of the issues when you're looking at folks on the streets like your stories are profiling. You know we live in such different realities. We assume that our own reality is the reality. But there are so many other people living in completely different realities. And so how to open oneself to the possibility that this other person that you're confronting is actually living in a very different sort of a world.

There are a couple of things you know one thing we're all about the one thing is is how do we talk about it.

You know I interviewed the mayor the mayor in Riverside Resta daily and he does not call people living on the streets homeless people in Riverside.

He calls them our neighbors without hands well we're going to have to wrap it up and look at our neighbors and blow it up. This is fascinating stuff though what that does wrap up another week of stories at the KBB round table like to thank my guest Michael Small islands of the Union Tribune Media Sharma of PBS and Alison St. John also of PBS. Reminder all the stories we discuss today on our Web site. I'm Mark Sauer. Thanks for joining us at the roundtable.