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Saturday, Oct. 27, 2007 | After building up organized labor into a thriving political force in San Diego, Jerry Butkiewicz says it’s time to go.

He’s lamenting how the labor movement, which was built up on picket lines and union halls, appears to have passed by his simpler generation.

“I mean, what am I thinking? I can barely get on the computer and he’s got a MySpace for the labor council,” said Butkiewicz, whose arms swing toward a younger staffer at the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.

After serving the labor organization as its secretary-treasurer since 1996, Butkiewicz is set to step down at the end of the year. The son of a union painter who cut his teeth in the labor movement as a poster clerk, Butkiewicz personifies the gruffness of the labor movement with his in-your-face attitude, while winning over unlikely opponents in the business community with an infectious personality and willingness to compromise.

At his office in Mission Valley, Butkiewicz sat down with us to discuss his impending departure and what he sees as the condition of the labor movement and local politics.

You’ve been able to turn the labor council into a major political force in the city. Your opponents in the business community and the local Republican Party are saying they will spend as much as it takes to defeat union-backed candidates in next year’s city of San Diego elections, yet you’re stepping down. Doesn’t labor need you now more than ever?

I don’t think there would ever be a good time for me to leave, because there’s always an election or a big issue. The truth is the labor council has positioned itself to be in the middle of all those big issues, no matter what those issues are.

If there’s a big issue, usually labor’s in the middle of it, whereas 12 years ago labor wasn’t even at the table on those big issues. That’s been one of the biggest transformations in the town. We wouldn’t be part of the discussion, then stuff would happen and it would impact our members’ lives, and we weren’t at the table to represent him. Now, we’re always at the table. So there’s not any good time for me to leave.

Because it now has a seat at the table, as you say, there’s some blowback from your opponents who blame unions for the city’s problems, particularly with respect to the pension issue. That has been a theme that has proved to be able to tip recent elections in their favor. Do you believe that message will carry over into the 2008 elections?

Yes. You’re going to see it because, I mean, who is the business community going to endorse? Steve Francis, or Jerry Sanders? If they just want to get nothing and keep their influence, they’re going to support Sanders. If they want something to get done and don’t care that they don’t have influence … they’ll probably endorse Steve Francis. That’s just how this town operates.

How can organized labor change the tone of the conversation?

I think organized labor needs to find an alternative to Jerry Sanders, who doesn’t get anything done, and Steve Francis, who will destroy the working-class family jobs in the community.

They’ve got to find a candidate that is in the middle. A moderate Democratic candidate or a moderate Republican candidate — and Jerry Sanders isn’t that. They would need to find somebody closer to the middle, where the community members are …

A good way for me to describe is that I was in a focus group a few months ago. They brought in 20 people, those people left, they brought in 20 more. When it was over, I didn’t know which 20 were the Democrats and which 20 were the Republicans. Because that’s San Diego, that’s San Diego to a tee.

Working-class people are struggling every day, just to pay their rent and to pay their bills. They would want to know what you’re going to do to establish a solid economy where people at the bottom end of the spectrum can actually support a family. They’re going to want to know who would do that. That’s why I think, if a candidate was smart, he would embrace the livable wage. The livable wage (which mandates that contractors for the city of San Diego earn the equivalent of $12 an hour) would probably pass by a 90 percent vote. Some of the Republicans you’re mentioning, the crazy ones, they oppose it. But they’re in the 10 percent crazies.

But we have major issues in this town. One is water, one is electricity, and the other one is the overall economy, and where we’re going. I would like to see a leader say, “our tourism jobs don’t need to be jobs with no benefits.” Because we are going to create more tourism jobs in this town, period. What kind of jobs are you going to create for your people? Are you going to create minimum wage jobs with no benefits?

The typical position of a guy like Jerry Sanders is “oh, that’s none of my business.” I don’t know what is his business. He doesn’t have a business. He doesn’t do anything. And if he does, he lets the companies come in and run the show for him.

Speaking of the mayor, rumor has it that you are interested in running against him?

Rumor is the only accurate part of that whole sentence. That is for sure rumor. I am going to slow my life down, not speed my life up. That’s part of the reason I’m doing this. I spent 12 years working real, real hard at this job. I really do think it’s a good time for me to start winding down before I retire.

You were a baseball player. What about hitting instructor for the Padres? They could use one.

I would have to first take care of my 14-year-old daughter, and make her as good a hitter as I can make her. She’s getting there right now.

Fair enough. But you’re only 54, which means you likely have some years of service left ahead of you. What kind of job would you like?

I really think it’s important for all unions to have a training program. When you look at the building trades, whether the economy is up or down, how come the building trades unions always survive? What is the reason that makes them survive? The reason is because they train workers for their employers. Their members are tested by the state, certified by the state, and they are a proven commodity.

When the economy’s down, you don’t need the non-skilled workers. So the building trades are working. If the economy’s up, you need every worker you can get, so they’re working. That’s the trick. Every single union should be the training arm of their employer.

If I had my choice I would like to find something in training. For every four people leaving the building trades, only one is replacing them. … This new generation …. they don’t want to dig ditches, they don’t want to climb telephone poles. Those jobs are really good jobs. But that’s fine. I would like to be in a position where I can convince young people to learn a skill. There’s nothing wrong with being a pipe-fitter. You retire with a good retirement, you have retiree healthcare — something I don’t have in this job — you have everything. You work your ass off, but what’s wrong with that? With kids dropping out of high school, the foster youth and the problems we have, we have got to give these young adults an opportunity to choose a career. But I would love to do something like that.

What got you into the labor movement?

By accident, I was in the labor movement. I never worked a job where I wasn’t in the labor union. I didn’t even know I was in a union at one time. I started as a grocery store clerk, a bagger as most of us have at my age. Then I went and worked in a lumberyard as a cleanup guy. I was in the carpenters union. I went and worked at the post office, and I was in American Postal Workers.

The turning point that made me become an active union member, was when I worked at the postal service, I had a supervisor, Ray Tabanico, who was a master sergeant drill instructor for the Marine Corps. I was the only person on my crew at the post office who wasn’t a veteran. Ray Tabanico didn’t think I should work at the post office because I never served our country. The first 20 minutes of every day, he would scream at me and cuss at me and do all sorts of shit to me with the door closed. Every day he would call me in, and I began to think he didn’t like me.

One day, this guy I worked with, Rob Strunk, would ask me why do they keep calling “Jerry Butkiewicz, report to room 301” over the loud speaker? I said, “Well, I go into this room and he sits me down on the other side of the table and he yells at me for 20 minutes, basically tells me I’m a piece of shit, and then tells me to go back to work.”

He said, “next time, say to him, could this counseling lead to further discipline, and if so, I’d like my local shop steward.” I wrote that down, went into the meeting, told Ray that, he told me to go (expletive) myself. He sent me back out to work and didn’t call me back in the office again. I said, “Hey this union thing, this is pretty good.” So the guy said to me, “I want you to become a shop steward.”

Is there a labor leader who inspired you?

Mo Biller, who ran the American Postal Workers for about 20 years. …

But there’s been so many in my life. I spent some time with Cesar Chavez at his house in La Paz. He inspired me a lot. His style … wasn’t in your face, but it was under your skin. I liked his style.

You represent a lot of different types of workers through the many different unions that are on the labor council. You have street sweepers, grocery baggers, firefighters. How do you keep such a large group together?

We realize that the only way we’re going to get ahead in this town — because of some the people in the business community you talked about who don’t want to share their wealth with the workers — is to stick together. If you don’t have the support of the 100,000 union members, you’ll lose.

The perfect example was the first grocery store strike … the only way that won that grocery strike is when every single union member across Southern California didn’t cross that picket line. Not only didn’t they cross, they got their neighbors not to cross, their sons, their daughters, their relatives, not to cross. … Anyways, we walked up and down the front of the store, and I saw. I didn’t need no poll, there was nobody in the store. They couldn’t do that by themselves.

You’re known for weaving relationships in business circles with certain business leaders. Did it become an issue with some of your members who thought you were sleeping with the devil?

Yeah. I got some opposition when I got invited to sit on the chamber of commerce. … I’ve lost a lot of votes on the 35-member board, but I don’t think anybody every thought they were going to change me.

The boss is the boss, and we understand you’re the boss, and we understand you’ve got all the money. But that doesn’t mean you can’t treat us with dignity and respect. If we’re out there and we want our union members treated with dignity and respect, then why would we treat somebody [without] respect?

It would be hypocritical if we didn’t respect your opinion. It doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong or completely screwed up. A union member isn’t always right in an issue with the employer. He could be wrong. That doesn’t give the employer the right to come up and spit in his face and call him a piece of shit.

Just how you would want someone to treat you is how you should treat them.

— Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN

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