Friday, Oct. 19, 2007 | Jerry Butkiewicz said Thursday that he will step down as the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council’s secretary-treasurer at the end of the year after serving as its lead executive and power broker for more than a decade.
“I think the time is right,” he said. “In the labor movement, we have many people who are really, really qualified to continue working for San Diego’s families.”
During his tenure, organized labor made significant inroads in local politics and business, lending vital support to the campaigns of local elected officials and projects such as Petco Park. Butkiewicz forged unusually strong relationships with the local business community and became the first labor leader to sit on the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors.
“He’s been one of the iconic figures in San Diego’s political structure,” said Scott Alevy, the chamber’s vice president of public policy. “Anytime someone like that leaves, it makes a difference.”
Butkiewicz’s resignation comes less than a year before he would have to seek reelection for another four-year term, which he said he did not want to have to complete. His resignation is effective at the end of 2007, at which point the board representing 120,000 unionized workers would appoint an interim secretary-treasurer until April’s election of a permanent successor.
The 54-year-old Butkiewicz said he is recommending Lorena Gonzalez, who has served as the labor council’s political director for the past year, as his successor. Gonzalez, a candidate in the 2005 City Council race for District 2 and a former aide to ex-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, declined to comment.
The son of a union painter and the descendant of Polish immigrants, Butkiewicz rose through the ranks of organized labor as a postal clerk. In 1996, the Labor Council elected Butkiewicz to be its top executive, a move that has elevated union visibility in the political and business affairs of a region that, relative to other urban centers, has been reluctant to embrace the labor movement.
“He has really inserted labor into the politics of a town that has never been very pro-union,” said Joan Raymond, the president of the American Federation of State County Municipal Employees Local 127, which represents blue-collar municipal workers. “He changed the whole face of it.”
Under Butkiewicz’s charge, the labor council has become a major player in elections by raising money and enlisting its membership to walk precincts for its favorite candidates. As an organization, the labor council and other unions can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on elections, rivaled only by a handful of other local donors and the county’s political parties.
Union members were instrumental in the passage of San Diego Unified School District’s major school construction bond measure in 1998 and the campaigns for a downtown ballpark and the San Diego Convention Center’s expansion.
Labor-backed candidates comprise a majority of the San Diego City Council. Union backing also helped sway other key political races, such as the 2000 election of Susan Davis to Congress and Donna Frye’s near-victory in the 2004 mayor’s race despite her emergence as a write-in candidate just weeks before the contest.
“He’s done an amazing job. He’s turned organized labor into the most vital force in progressive politics and working people in San Diego,” political consultant Larry Remer said.
With that leverage, and backed by the colorful presentations Butkiewicz was known for, the labor council has fought successfully for worker-friendly causes, such as the living-wage ordinance, which requires city of San Diego contractors to pay workers about $10 an hour plus health benefits; favorable working conditions and wages in the public works projects; and increased pension benefits for city workers.
But labor has endured its own hardships during Butkiewicz’s tenure. Politicians such as Mayor Jerry Sanders and City Attorney Mike Aguirre blame the unions’ political influence as the cause of the deals that left the city a $1 billion pension deficit. The teachers unions were demonized by former Superintendent Alan Bersin for criticizing the reform agenda he pushed during his seven-year run at the school district. This summer, business leaders lashed at local construction unions after Gaylord Entertainment accused them of killing its plans for a bay-front resort in Chula Vista by making unreasonable demands.
And despite its moniker as The San Diego Union-Tribune, the local newspaper’s editorial page has hammered at organized labor, prompting some unions to call for a boycott of the paper.
Through the turmoil of the public criticism and the realities of balancing the needs of 118 different unions, Butkiewicz is credited with maintaining stability under labor’s regional umbrella organization. Additionally, when the national labor movement experienced its own fissures as unions broke off AFL-CIO to form Change to Win in 2005, Butkiewicz was tasked with keeping major parts of the local AFL-CIO organization together.
“Jerry kept everybody working together under the central labor council when the top labor leaders in Washington, D.C. were broken apart,” said Jen Badgley, an organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 569.
In the business community, Butkiewicz made strides, earning a reputation as a broker who could help solve disputes between companies and workers in times of tumult.
“We worked together, mostly behind the scenes, to settle disputes before they became contentious, before they became strikes,” said former auto dealer and Port Commissioner Stephen Cushman. “He won’t always tell you what you want to hear, but he’ll always tell you the truth.”
As the former chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, Cushman invited Butkiewicz to be the first labor leader to serve on the business organization’s executive board. Cushman owes his unprecedented third term as port commissioner to Butkiewicz, whose labor organization led a successful lobby of the San Diego City Council to reappoint Cushman despite pressure from Sanders and others to do otherwise.
Such is the product of the relationships Butkiewicz was able to fashion in a community that has largely resisted union influence. The individual bonds he maintained will leave with his departure, creating a void that draws mixed expectations from local politics about his successor.
“It could be a while before anyone can get the across-the-board, universal support that he has,” Alevy said. “It didn’t come overnight; it took a lot of years.”
Labor leaders said they are confident that the organization Butkiewicz will leave in his wake is prepared.
“Maybe his biggest accomplishment is that the movement he created will carry on,” said Donald Cohen, executive director of the Center on Policy Initiatives, a think tank, and a former political director under Butkiewicz. “We now have a web of relationships and a lot of talent that will take labor to the next step.”
Butkiewicz said he will continue to serve the labor community after his resignation on a volunteer basis if his successor solicits his help. “I’ll probably be walking precincts,” he said.
In the meantime, Butkiewicz said he will help the organization undergo a smooth transition during his last few months. He said he is looking forward to spending time with his family before searching for his next job.
It’s unlikely he’ll seek his old job as a post office clerk, he said.
“I’ve been replaced by scanners.”