Saturday, September 03, 2005 | As a special Labor Day gift to its citizens and employees this year, San Diego officials have created a unique labor struggle – one that has allowed traditional anti-union voices to stand aside while people who say they are advocates for workers’ rights antagonize each other.

And each week, the fight gets uglier.

What would Cesar Chavez think of the city’s feuding left-wingers?

Both San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre and his nemesis, employee union attorney Ann Smith, claim Chavez would be on their side. Both refer to their work with Chavez as evidence of their commitment to workers’ rights. And both say the other is doing exactly what Chavez fought against during his storied career with the United Farm Workers of America.

Smith worked for the farm workers for 11 years. Aguirre represented Chavez when the California labor organizer died. Yet, the fact that Chavez represented the best in the workers’ rights movement is all the two can agree on now. They have situated themselves on the opposite sides of a bitter argument that may have consequences for years to come.

And others have been brought into the conflict. Councilwoman Donna Frye has not been immune despite heavy support for her bid to become mayor from the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, the largest labor union in the region. Frye is also taking heat from the city’s Municipal Employees Association, whose leaders resent her decision to side with Aguirre and push for a roll back of illegal pension benefit enhancements.

The MEA, along with other city employee organizations, has bristled at Aguirre’s suggestion that employees revolt against their union leaders and embrace his reform push.

It’s a circle of rhetorical blame and legal maneuvering that some say is unique in the modern day struggles between public workers and the governments who employ them.

“Usually, when there’s a fiscal crisis in a city, union leadership isn’t being blamed,” said Brian Adams, a political science professor at San Diego State University. “Critics may blame city leaders for paying employees too much or push them to lay people off, but this is different.”

Adams said the difference this time is the focus on actual individuals associated with the unions and city management who are facing criminal and civil charges for their actions that allegedly pushed the city’s pension system into a debt some say simply cannot be paid down.

“In other cities and in the past, unions have demanded a lot but people who are upset about a city’s fiscal position have tended to blame politicians for caving in. Here it’s different, because it’s being alleged that the unions can’t simply say they just asked for everything they could – they may have done more,” Adams said.

That’s the root of the colossal disagreement between Aguirre and Smith.

“The current leaders of our city’s employee unions are doing long-term damage to the workers’ rights movement and to workers’ rights to organize and do collective bargaining because they are basically organizing only to protect corrupt deals that can’t be sustained financially,” Aguirre said.

By doing so, the union leadership is organizing solidarity “around corrupt practices” rather than “fundamental justice,” he said.

“I’ve never seen union leadership in an area more aligned with the corruption of a city rather than with a reform movement in the city,” Aguirre said.

Of course, his argument assumes there is corruption.

San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis charged six pension trustees with felony conflict-of-interest violations in May. She alleges that the six broke the law by voting in favor of a plan they should have never voted on because it boosted their individual pensions.

Aguirre added that the city’s leadership and its pension administrators broke the law by approving a cost to the city that stretched well beyond the city’s means for any one year. It’s not just that some deals were bad, he said, it’s that the city illegally promised too much.

A person who truly cared about workers’ rights would want to see those wrongs made right so that they would be in a better standing to protect basic pension guarantees, which are under assault from other forces, Aguirre said.

The biggest threat to workers’ rights isn’t the alleged illegal acts, however, said Smith, the union attorney. The biggest threat is Aguirre himself, she said.

“The only reason Mike Aguirre can legitimately call himself a labor attorney is that his actions this year have helped organize labor in San Diego to be stronger and more courageous to work against him,” Smith said.

She said that anyone who claims to be pro-worker should respect, above all, the promises that an employer has made to its employees.

The efforts of Aguirre and Frye to roll back pension benefits belie their commitments to workers’ rights, Smith said.

“It is really hypocritical to say that one is pro-labor when the entire dedication of their efforts appears to be directed at taking away from employees the promised and vested benefits that they have earned and have been expecting for the last decade,” Smith said.

And though she does not concede that the pension benefit enhancements granted in 1996 and 2002 were illegal, she said that regardless of how they were created, employees simply deserve those kinds of benefits.

And Smith isn’t the only labor leader who feels as though Aguirre’s actions have hurt the labor movement in the region.

“I think Mike has done a pretty great disservice to the workers of this city by not talking to them respectfully and quietly,” said Donald Cohen, who runs the Center on Policy Initiatives, a think tank closely related to the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.

But Cohen personally supports Frye’s candidacy for mayor as does the Labor Council, which claims to represent 100,000 working families.

Frye notes that at the same time she’s getting criticism from the city’s employee union, her rival for the mayor’s office is trying to tie her closer to the city’s pension scandal.

“I’m getting it from all sides,” she said. “Making sure that the city charter and the state constitution are respected does not conflict in any way with the labor movement.”

And Frye rejects the charge that she’s not supporting workers properly.

“Simply because I don’t agree with everything Ann Smith says does not diminish my hard work nor my support for the working class people of this city,” Frye said.

She says the city is likely to determine it simply can’t afford the benefits that were promised and that something must happen to change the situation at that point.

Aguirre adds that minimal changes like the 3 percent increase in what general employees had to take out of their checks to support the pension is not only not good enough to fix the problem, but indicative of the unions selling out to protect a bad deal.

“The current union leadership has already agreed to lower benefits of future employees. There’s something very disheartening about that because the union movement has always been about sacrificing now to create better benefits for the next generation,” Aguirre said.

Regardless of how the argument turns out, Cohen said city workers are not celebrating Labor Day with a high morale.

“What first comes to mind on Labor Day is that the people who serve this city need to be respected. We need to look at these people who work for us and say thanks,” Cohen said.

Scott Lewis is a frequent contributor to Voice of San Diego. You can e-mail him at with your thoughts, ideas, tips or personal stories.

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