Tuesday, July 10, 2007 | With construction costs rising and one major deadline already missed, the fate of a planned South Bay resort appeared to be hinging on ongoing negotiations between the billion-dollar facility’s developer and the two public agencies that planned a $308 million subsidy for the ambitious project.

But last week, Gaylord Entertainment claimed it wasn’t at odds with the city of Chula Vista or the Unified Port of San Diego when it announced it was withdrawing its plans to build and operate the proposed convention center and hotel complex.

A Seat at the Table

  • The Issue: When it abandoned plans for a bay-front resort last week, Gaylord Entertainment blamed organized labor, even though unions had no direct control over the project.
  • What It Means: The prospects of organized labor suing over the project’s environmental study or leaning on political officials gave unions some sway.
  • The Bigger Picture: Labor unions have been able to insert themselves in big projects like the defunct resort because of these strategies.

Instead, Nashville-based Gaylord and its boosters blamed the project’s demise on an outside group that had no regulatory authority over the development and no direct control of its purse strings — organized labor.

Because of its location on ecologically sensitive land that crisscrosses the purview of several governmental agencies, the now-defunct project was slated for a host of political and legal reviews that labor groups angled to influence.

The labor community, specifically the unions tied to construction trades, was interested in seeing that the more than $1 billion expected to be spent on the facility’s development would benefit its membership.

By injecting itself into a legal discussion over the project’s environmental review and touting significant political muscle, organized labor was playing a pivotal role in the redevelopment efforts on the Chula Vista bay front and its centerpiece resort.

The project would have needed approval from at least four public agencies, a process that would have likely been easier for Gaylord if it had a wide range of endorsements. For some of those agencies, that includes labor’s support.

“I certainly think a developer developing in California probably would want the broadest base of support possible, especially one that has to go through the process of getting as many approvals as they would have to,” said Jen Badgley, an organizer for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 569.

Development of the bay-front project would have required the blessing of the California Coastal Commission, which has been known to give significant weight to positions taken by groups such as organized labor and environmentalists.

“[Gaylord] realized that, without the support of labor unions and the environmental community, it would not get past the Coastal Commission,” said Scott Maloni, a local lobbyist who has represented developers in front of the state panel. “That’s where they have the most leverage.”

Because of the magnitude of the subsidy the port was likely to contribute, the state Lands Commission would have probably weighed in on the development. Gaylord would have faced a three-person panel with two statewide elected Democrats historically allied with labor groups.

Before it had reached the state boards, Gaylord would have to forge a development agreement with the city and the port.

In Chula Vista, where Gaylord’s work started under the watch of former Mayor Steve Padilla, the equation changed over the last year. Padilla, who was an ally of organized labor, was seen as a broker between the unions and Gaylord before he was ousted by Cheryl Cox last November.

Cox took heated criticism from Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista, last week after the deal fell through for not playing a more active role in maintaining that relationship. She was quick to blame the labor groups for dooming the city’s development opportunities on the bay front.

“I don’t think our [description of the project] ever said, ‘Oh, by the way, you have to have labor unions on board,’” Cox said.

At the port, the needs of labor groups would have likely become a pressing question, too, as commissioners have often fought to preserve industrial land around the harbor in order to maintain the good-paying, blue-collar jobs that unions value.

But Gaylord buckled before even reaching those agencies.  

Gaylord pointed to one culprit: a coalition of labor unions and environmental groups, including the Environmental Health Coalition. Standing united, the group posed a direct threat to Gaylord. If organized labor couldn’t reach an agreement with Gaylord, an environmental lawsuit was possible. Such a suit would have been expensive for Gaylord — adding attorney fees atop costs incurred from the bay-front development’s delay.

Each part of the coalition brought its own goals. The unions wanted Gaylord to hire local, union workers. The environmental groups sought a $21 million endowment to mitigate the development’s long-term impacts. Each group involved — Gaylord, housing developer Pacifica and the municipal agencies — was asked to contribute $7 million apiece. Pacifica, which was developing condos in the project, agreed. Gaylord did not. Marco Gonzalez, a coalition attorney who negotiated with Gaylord, said the Tennessee company had a counteroffer: $0.

Environmental groups often turn to litigation to resolve disputes about a project’s environmental impacts. But so do organized labor groups. That gave the unions a seat at the negotiating table with Gaylord.

One union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 569, submitted a detailed legal critique of the environmental study the Port Commission used to measure the environmental impacts of the 400,000-square-foot convention center and accompanying 2,000-room hotel.

“We don’t want our members putting our shovels in the ground unless we know that the land was cleaned up right,” IBEW’s Badgley said.

Labor unions and other groups can submit such critiques, using a state law known as the California Environmental Quality Act or CEQA. The law can be wielded as a tool when organizations actually have another objective in mind, such as a labor agreement, said Deborah Sivas, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School.

“There’s no question that happens, and labor unions are groups that do that fairly effectively,” Sivas said. “There is a lot of concern about that, because there’s a perception that these laws are really just obstacles — because it’s fair game for any citizen to bring a CEQA suit.”

Local development boosters criticize the practice, arguing that the unions are abusing a state law for their ulterior motives. “What’s happened over the course of the last 10 years is that the unions have been able to use the environmental process as a lever for extortion,” said Eric Christen, vice president of governmental affairs with the Associated Builders and Contractors of San Diego.

But labor unions’ interests don’t always coincide with environmentalists. Coalitions between the two groups aren’t unheard of, but they aren’t automatic, either.

In two other major fights in San Diego, organized labor groups are supporting projects that environmentalists oppose. The Los Angeles/Orange County Building Trades Council has endorsed the extension of a toll road that would cut through San Onofre State Park. The San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council has backed the proposed Sunrise Powerlink, a $1.5 billion power line that San Diego Gas & Electric wants to build.

“Historically, they have been anything but bedfellows,” said Michael Beck, San Diego director of the Endangered Habitats League. “When they do partner, they can leverage that partnership into an improved project or improved land-use decisions.”

The labor movement is more closely interlinked with the work of environmental justice groups such as the Environmental Health Coalition, which has two union representatives on its board of directors. Unlike other environmental groups with narrow focuses — water quality, habitat protection, endangered species — the organization focuses on a range of issues such as pollution’s impacts on poor residents and the nexus between civil rights and the environment. That type of advocacy, said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, requires coalition-building with groups such as organized labor.

“In our view of environmental justice, it includes economic justice,” said Laura Hunter, a spokeswoman for the National City-based Environmental Health Coalition. “Good jobs that allow people to support their families and maintain a decent standard of living is an important part of economic justice. We certainly care about that. Not every environmental group you could name has a major platform around that, but we do and always have.”

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

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