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Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2006 | San Diego’s public employee unions have made strides politically by playing integral roles in the election of city officials in an otherwise conservative, business-oriented town.

While still dwarfed by the fundraising prowess of the local business community, organized labor has traditionally provided an effective counterbalance. But in the Nov. 7 election, when city workers have so much at stake – including their very livelihood as city workers – the municipal unions are maintaining an unusually quiet tack with the end of the campaign less than a month away.

Citing an unfavorable public image and the expense of several recent elections, the city’s unions have not made a strong political push against Propositions B and C, Mayor Jerry Sanders’ ballot measures, despite the initiatives’ potential to forcing draconian cuts and restrictions on the city’s workforce.

“Our members may put up yard signs, but we’re trying to stay back,” said Judie Italiano, general manager of the white-collar San Diego Municipal Employees Association. “Now that this city is overly cautious and afraid of its own shadow, we have to come out in a different direction.”

In the past, MEA has proved itself a valuable election resource by walking precincts and manned phone banks on behalf of candidates that it endorsed. But, with city’s pension scandal focusing much attention on labor unions, MEA and others chose last year to sit out an election in which their pension benefits were front and center.

Again, this fall, with measures on the ballot that would privatize city services and make voters approve any future pension benefit boosts, the unions again have remained on the sidelines for a number of reasons, including the costs of recent elections and ongoing pension-related lawsuits.

“Clearly, they’ve made some kind of decision here. If you haven’t seen the money and you haven’t seen the campaign, it’s either because they need to put it into other places or because they think [the propositions are] going to pass,” said University of California San Diego political scientist Steve Erie, who signed the ballot measure against Proposition C.

Other employee groups, representing police officers, firefighters and blue-collar workers, usually contribute money to the campaigns, but have so far opted to either stay out altogether or mount a less aggressive campaign.

After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars over the previous four elections, labor groups have only spent $3,785 to oppose Proposition C – which could reduce the city’s 11,000-employee workforce by the thousands.

That number pales in comparison to the $355,810 that companies, business groups and individuals have contributed to support Sanders’ propositions.

The initiatives put employees’ very careers as city of San Diego workers on the line, but officials said they acknowledge that the potential expense of matching the Yes on B and C campaign’s fundraising efforts and the prospects of taking on a popular mayor have made them bashful opponents this election season.

The mayor has held the proposals up as tools that will allow him to slash the city’s increasing payroll expenses, which include a $1.4 billion pension deficit and a $1.38 billion retiree health funding shortfall. Proposition B would require voters to approve any future pension benefit increases, and Proposition C would allow private companies to compete with municipal employees to perform city services.

Union leaders have attacked the proposals as being purely political in nature, saying they would not alleviate the city of its financial distress if voters approved them. Rather, they see the propositions serving as the most recent attempts to scapegoat public employees.

You might hear the labor officials make their arguments in a personal interview, but so far they haven’t put their money where their mouths are.

“The reality is that it all costs money,” City Firefighters Local 145 president Ron Saathoff said.

“Clearly there’s not an unlimited amount,” he said, referring to a number of recent elections, including two special City Council contests, that have grabbed San Diego’s attention.

Saathoff, who himself has been charged criminally for his alleged part in the city’s past pension deals, said ongoing pension litigation has cost the union a significant amount of money.

Local 145 has spent just $1,650 in an effort to defeat Proposition C. In comparison, the union spent more than $26,000 in support of electing Councilman Kevin Faulconer in the primary and runoff elections less than a year ago.

The San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, which serves as the regional arm for the AFL-CIO, the umbrella union that includes the city’s firefighter and blue collar unions, spent more than $328,000 in 2005 and about $151,000 in 2006 on local campaigns.

The labor council has doled out $2,135 on an effort to defeat Proposition C.

It’s not just the reluctance to spend money. Herman Collins, organizer for the Catfish Club, said representatives from the Police Officers Association, which has spent money on city candidates, backed out of debating Sanders on Proposition B at Friday’s voter forum.

Police union president Bill Nemec did not return calls seeking comment on Monday.

Initially expected to help fuel opposition to the mayor’s proposals, the unions have been quiet. Instead, a group calling themselves the Citizens Against Corruption, which is comprised mainly of civic activists but has some ties to labor, will spearhead the effort to thwart Proposition B. There has been no organized group against Proposition B.

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

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