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Tuesday, June 16, 2009 | Election Day last fall was better known to many in San Diego as Labor Day, when a spate of union-backed candidates won seats in what was expected to bring a sea of change of labor-friendly policies to the City Council and other government agencies.

The reality has been somewhat different. The San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council has had some big wins in the six months since new candidates took office, including the selection of Ben Hueso as council president and the school board’s approval of a project labor agreement expected to lead to more work for union contractors. But it has also has come up short on some high-profile endeavors, notably the City Council’s 8-0 vote to cut workers’ compensation in April and, to a lesser extent, the defeat of labor’s pick for port commissioner last week.

Those votes show evidence of potential miscalculations on labor leaders’ part or miscommunications between the Labor Council’s leaders and the politicians they worked to put in office — on issues of the utmost importance to organized labor.

In the contract vote, some observers say the Labor Council failed to anticipate a loss that clearly stunned them, prompting gasps from the union leaders and members who filled the audience. In pushing a port commissioner, the Labor Council’s leader has said she handpicked the winning candidate, despite the candidate’s statements that others first approached her about the post.

To be sure, only a small fraction of the Labor Council’s 125 unions represent public employees and the organization’s leaders spend most of their time enmeshed in business unrelated to City Hall, including a boycott of the Manchester Grand Hyatt and a dispute involving hotel workers in Old Town.

But the Labor Council’s influence on the City Council has been closely watched because of its role in the election of new council members at the time the city faces major decisions stemming largely from its budget crisis.

Lorena Gonzalez, the secretary-treasurer and CEO of the Labor Council, said her organization has “accomplished more in six months than we’ve probably accomplished in the last six years.”

“Have we had some setbacks?” she said. “Yes, but have you seen labor in San Diego?”

Gonzalez has led the Labor Council for about a year and a half after working as the group’s political director, a post now held by former voiceofsandiego.org reporter Evan McLaughlin.

As opposed to traditional San Diego labor leaders who have risen through the ranks of the unions, Gonzalez got her start in politics working for then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. Labor leaders recruited her in large part to beef up the political department of the Labor Council, which serves as the political arm of the coalition of 125 unions.

Last year, the Labor Council threw its weight behind a slew of winning candidates throughout the county, including Marti Emerald, Todd Gloria and Sherri Lightner on the San Diego City Council. And shortly thereafter, the Labor Council won its first victory when it backed Hueso in his successful bid for the council presidency.

So the council’s 8-0 vote to impose contract concessions on police and blue-collar workers surprised many, including Gonzalez. It shouldn’t have been news to them that their allies on the council supported the mayor’s proposal, political insiders say, given the city’s deep financial crisis and the fact that three other unions managed to read the tea leaves and come to agreements.

“They weren’t paying attention,” said Tom Shepard, a local political consultant who ran Mayor Jerry Sanders’ campaign. “The only thing that was surprising to me was that they were surprised because those council members knew they had a problem for some time prior to that vote.”

Gonzalez emphasized that her role during labor negotiations is limited, and she’s not at the bargaining table or deciding contracts. She did meet with every council member except Lightner and Carl DeMaio about the blue-collar employee union, which had suggested a laundry list of suggestions to cut costs without cutting compensation for their workers.

Gonzalez said she advocated for the blue-collar union to not have to take the entire 6 percent cut in compensation, and that council members indicated they understood the argument. Yet April 14, union leaders and members of the blue-collar union gasped when council members, without comment, voted to impose compensation cuts instead of continuing negotiations.

Hueso said he’s heard from members of the blue-collar union who expected a warning the council would vote to impose contracts. But he said that’s strictly forbidden and could have invalidated the agreements by interfering as the mayor’s team was negotiating.

“I think there was some expectation I should have communicated that to them,” Hueso said, “but that’s definitely something I cannot do.”

Gonzalez thinks there’s still room within the bargaining rules for council members to make their expectations known. “I think that’s how a previous council would have acted, that they would have been clear on the direction they would have taken if they had changed their minds,” she said.

Shepard cautions against reading too much into the contract decision. “Although I was obviously pleased by the outcome of that vote, I don’t think it was reflective of an erosion of power by organized labor,” Shepard said.

He thinks the Labor Council will garner support from City Council members on issues such as managed competition, outsourcing and the living wage ordinance. “Those things are still very much on the table,” Shepard said.

The Compromise Candidate

More recently, the Labor Council lost out on its pick for one of San Diego’s three port commissioners, though the loss was tempered by the ultimate pick of Lee Burdick, a Democrat who’s appealing to the unions.

For organized labor, the Unified Port of San Diego is a critical agency because the port is home to good-paying union jobs and is subject to a constant tug-of-war between its potential uses for industry, tourism and open space.

Gonzalez had a chance to weigh in with council members on the selection of a compromise candidate. But in her account of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, she essentially handpicked Burdick once council members made clear they wouldn’t support her preferred port candidate. Burdick says that’s not the way it happened.

Gonzalez said she suggested Diane Takvorian, executive director of the Environmental Health Coalition, after Emerald threw most everyone for a loop by nominating Bill Evans, a Republican whose hotel workers aren’t unionized.

But while Gloria, Councilwoman Donna Frye and later Lightner supported Takvorian, she soon proved unable to bolster the support of two key councilmen, Hueso and Tony Young. Takvorian faced an uphill battle for many reasons. For one thing, Takvorian and a coalition of environmentalists have pushed for Frye to be appointed to the California Coastal Commission seat now held by Hueso, whom environmentalists oppose for reappointment because of his voting record on environmental issues.

It didn’t help that Takvorian has a fractious relationship with Rachel Ortiz, a prominent community activist in Barrio Logan who has the ear of Hueso and Young.

About a week before the vote, Gonzalez said, Hueso told her he wasn’t going to vote for Takvorian and floated a list of potential candidates. Gonzalez said she was meeting with Burdick about a potential post on the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority when she got the idea to suggest her name to Hueso for port. Gonzalez said she told Hueso that she was still backing Takvorian but wouldn’t oppose Burdick.

“That’s the name I came up with because I wasn’t satisfied with any of the nominees,” said Gonzalez, referring to the list of other potential candidates.

Burdick has a different recollection. She said it was people from the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce — she declined to name names — who first contacted her to gauge her interest in the Port Commission.

Later, she said, the Labor Council’s McLaughlin called her to see if she’d be interested in the Airport Authority post left vacant by Alan Bersin’s departure. Burdick said she then mentioned to McLaughlin that people from the chamber were supporting her for the port, prompting the Labor Council to invite her to meet with Gonzalez and McLaughlin to talk about labor issues.

Gonzalez and McLaughlin said they don’t recall Burdick mentioning that people from the chamber had floated her name for port but said they might have assumed she was talking about the airport. Gonzalez said as far as she knows, she’s the first one to suggest Burdick’s name to Hueso, who couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

The port pick wasn’t a loss for labor, Gonzalez said. While she didn’t get her first choice, Gonzalez said, she thinks Burdick shows a good command of labor issues compared to other candidates whose names were being thrown out. Gonzalez doesn’t think she acted hastily by offering up Takvorian’s name without first discussing it with Hueso and Young.

“I work for my workers, so I’m going to push for the most obviously pro-worker, pro-change outcome every single time,” Gonzalez said. “I love Ben and Tony, I work closely with them, and I think in the end, I did pretty well on the port appointment. So I don’t think it hurt at all that I pushed for Diane. It could have been Bill Evans.”

To Democratic political consultant Christopher Crotty, the recent decisions are just the latest evidence of San Diego County politicians taking labor’s money before “thumbing their noses at them.”

“If something like this happened in L.A. or San Francisco, they’d be recalled or much worse,” Crotty said. “The San Diego labor unions just kind of shrug their shoulders and say maybe next time they’ll be with us, and that’s just bad business.”

He added: “It’s not like Kevin Faulconer could get away with lying to the Evanses or some developer. There would certainly be repercussions and not so much with the Labor Council.”

McLaughlin, however, said the Labor Council often has worked as a compromise broker in City Hall decisions, pointing to examples such as the creation of a new pension system last year.

And the Labor Council has succeeded in many lower-profile endeavors since the November election. It backed San Diego’s lifeguards in securing a vote on whether to separate from the city’s white-collar union, a move the City Council approved in a 5-3 vote. Gonzalez said she’s also lobbied against appointing Lorie Zapf, a probable Republican City Council candidate, to the city’s Park and Recreation Board and in favor of a labor organizer to be selected for the city’s Sustainable Energy Advisory Board.

‘An Ancillary Victory’

Much of the Labor Council’s work with elected officials doesn’t directly touch on City Hall issues and instead concerns agencies such as the Airport Authority and the school board.

Perhaps the most visible and controversial recent victory for organized labor occurred at the San Diego Unified School District. Last month board members voted to approve a project labor agreement that sets requirements favorable for union shops bidding on the $2.1 billion school construction bond.

That move, however, springs less from a pre-election Labor Council strategy than from the election of Richard Barrera and John Lee Evans, whose race spurred a costly campaign by the teachers union — then unaffiliated with the Labor Council — to elect Evans and unseat incumbent Mitz Lee.

“It was an ancillary victory for the labor movement that was won because of the teachers,” said Larry Remer, who helped consult the bond campaign.

When contractors asked Remer about a project labor agreement before the bond passed in the November election, Remer told them bond was agnostic on the issue. But he said the business community clearly thought Evans’ victory was unlikely and therefore, so was a project-labor agreement.

Though the teachers union and the Labor Council have long coordinated efforts, it wasn’t until last week that the San Diego Education Association voted to join the Labor Council. The two groups typically back the same candidates and last year was no exception. But while the teachers union poured money into the race between Lee and Evans, the Labor Council was focused on electing Emerald and state Assemblyman Marty Block. (Gonzalez said the two groups try not to duplicate efforts.)

Evans’ election, bolstered by the teachers union, led to a school board under board President Shelia Jackson that was ideologically inclined to support a project labor agreement, Barrera said. “If John or Shelia or I were not on the board, I don’t think it would have come forward because I don’t think there would have been a majority to work with,” Barrera said.

Teachers union President Camille Zombro said her union was clearly supportive of the project labor agreement but its energy was directed elsewhere, at preventing layoffs and wage cuts for teachers.

But many attempts at project labor agreement elsewhere have died without someone to carry water on the issue. In San Diego Unified, that person was Barrera, who had worked as a union organizer.

“Richard, who fully understands union issues, knew there was an opportunity there,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said she’s bolstered by such favorable decisions but doesn’t expect the candidates she supports to vote the way she’d like all the time. The decision to back certain candidates doesn’t happen in a vacuum but instead when they’re running against candidates expected to make less favorable decisions for organized labor.

“Are Marti Emerald’s values closer to ours than April Boling’s? Absolutely,” said Gonzalez, who made a similar comparison between Lightner and her campaign opponent, Phil Thalheimer.

Gonzalez said she pushes hard for what she wants, but doesn’t expect to get everything.

“I’d like to see this town be pro-worker,” she said. “It’s not going to happen by me being quiet in my requests. I’m not happy with the status quo. We’re going to continue to push for change.”

Please contact Rani Gupta directly at rani.gupta@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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