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Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2006 | The labor union that has long been at the heart of the city’s ongoing financial struggles is quietly suffering one of its most divisive internal battles in the organization’s 80-year history.

With its leaders already heading up the opposition to City Attorney Mike Aguirre, the more than 6,000-member Municipal Employees Association is facing what former president Judie Italiano describes as “the first contentious election this organization has had since its inception in 1926.”

And the battle comes complete with all the catch words of the city’s larger political struggle: allegations of corruption, a lack of transparency and personal attacks.

Italiano stepped down as president earlier this year after more than two decades. But she remains the face of the organization and its manager. She has become the focus of criticisms by former Vice President Linda French and a slate of self-proclaimed reformists who are attempting to oust interim President John Torres and the rest of the MEA’s executive council.

At a time when financial and political crises have split City Hall along strict factional lines, the discontent sowed by the city’s high-profile problems has trickled down into the very organizations fighting the battles.

But this struggle isn’t about court cases and retirement benefits. It’s about French and Italiano.

Both sides believe in the battle to preserve their pension benefits, which has become a centerpiece of City Hall life as Aguirre aggressively pursues a rollback of a decade’s worth of employee benefit boosts. If he succeeds, all MEA members could see their future pension checks chopped down considerably.

Then there’s a third party: those white-collar city workers who want nothing to do with the union or its politics, saying they don’t get much for their dues.

“I don’t want to be a part of it anyway,” said Keith Strehle, an employee in the Wastewater Department, “whether Linda French or anyone else is running it.”

French v. Italiano

French criticizes the pension underfunding that set off much of the city’s unrest and is a key culprit in a pension deficit that’s estimated to be $1.4 billion. She says the action, which required union acquiescence, damaged the credibility of city workers.

However, she agrees with Italiano on one point: Both defend the challenged legality of employee’s retirement benefits. Both vow to protect them.

“What’s done is done, and now we’ve got to move on with it,” French said. “Rolling them back is going to be a big mistake for everyone.”

French blames those mistakes in part on Torres, who is one of six city employees facing criminal conflict-of-interest charges, accused of underfunding the city’s pension system in exchange for increasing benefits of employees – including his own. Torres served on the pension board when it approved a controversial 2002 pension funding agreement.

Recently, she highlighted Torres’ pending court battle by posting a note on her website titled “Kroll Report Details Misconduct of John Torres and Others that Lead to Financial Crisis.”

The message takes excerpts from the 18-month investigation into City Hall that she says implicate Torres in violating state conflict of interest laws in the underfunding of the city’s pension system. She also cites a section that defends the legality of the benefits.

“According to the Kroll Report, we will be able to retain our pension benefits,” she goes on to say, “not because of our leadership but despite them.”

Italiano too has long been a leading voice in the fight to maintain the pension benefits. She frequently spars with Aguirre over the legality of the benefits and says that it is in the best interest of employees to support someone for office who runs on an original platform, rather than simply attacking their opponents.

French’s campaign calls into question Italiano’s leadership and integrity, saying she is the root of the union’s problems, and that she is the puppet master that pulls the strings of President John Torres.

Italiano has also faced accusations of nepotism this year for using the union to employ her family members. Her husband, Jeff Carr and brother-in-law Brian Balla both work in MEA’s labor relations office. Her grandson, Ryan McWilliams also works for MEA, doing what spokesperson Cathleen Higgins described as “grunt work.”

Italiano says that French is launching an attack campaign with no real platform other than cutting down the current leaders of the organization.

“I don’t want to respond to [the criticisms] because they’re a bunch of garbage, half-truths and lies that are really damaging to this organization,” Italiano said. “What she’s doing is tearing down the line of defense that most employees rely on. She’s damaging the very organization she says she wants to protect.”

Meanwhile, Italiano said that French’s campaign against Torres may be a bit premature. He has not yet announced his candidacy for office, and Italiano said he may not do so.

“I don’t know that John Torres is going to run,” Italiano said. “He’s been talking to people to see if it’s right.

“Linda has already come out in the worst kind of betrayal possible by throwing John’s reality of his trial out and trying to discredit him. It’s not working. Many of the employees see him as the martyr for their retirement.”

Not My Union

Every time Ed Harris gets a paycheck, he looks at it and sees deductions. Most of them he doesn’t mind paying – its part of his duty as an American and a San Diegan.

Federal income tax and Social Security – no problem. State income tax and Medicare – all in a day’s work. Municipal Employee Association dues? “I’m pissed,” Harris said. “Because I just paid for a service that isn’t being rendered.”

Harris is one city employee who doesn’t mind going on the record to speak out against the more than-6,000 member union and its current leadership.

Since 2004, all city employees have been required by state law to pay union fees whether they chose to be a member or not. Many of the employees, such as Harris, opt to become voluntary members, meaning they pay about $1.50 more per period than involuntary members and receive the right to vote and attend MEA events. He said he still pays the fee simply for the right to vote.

Harris wants to see French in office because he thinks that Italiano and Torres have damaged the credibility of his union. “The citizens of San Diego need to see that the union is making a change in order to regain their support,” he said.

Still, some employees, such as Strehle, who has worked in the city’s Wastewater Department for more than a decade, don’t care who leads their union and don’t want to be a part of the MEA in the first place.

“I call it extortion,” Strehle said of the requirement to pay union fees. “And I’ve told them that.”

Employees such as Strehle have $18.16 deducted from their biweekly paycheck. Voluntary members such as Harris pay $19.64.

Italiano recognizes that some employees in the union are upset. She blames the union’s infighting on people like Aguirre, who has led the charge to have the workers’ benefits rolled back.

“I think he’s set a tone for our city that isn’t the kindest and gentlest,” Italiano said. “I think that has now trickled down into our union.”

Strehle is not fazed by Aguirre’s attempts to have the benefit boosts undone, however, and says it’s all part of normal court proceedings.

“I think that if the court rules that they’re illegal, then so be it,” Strehle said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen because of the repercussions of the litigation, they’re just going to let it slide.

“I guess I kind of shoot myself in the foot by saying that. Maybe I’m a little too loyal to the cause of the city. But, at some point, people should be willing to give a little back. Maybe that’s a little too noble, but that’s just how I feel.”

Please contact Sam Hodgson directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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