Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!

The San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council is the union of local labor unions. It is a diverse bunch that hardly votes with unanimity on all things. But in 2008, when Lorena Gonzalez was up for another four-year term as the leader of the group, its various stakeholders — from firefighters to Teamsters — unanimously supported her.

In 2007, they made Gonzalez the secretary-treasurer of what is basically the local branch of the AFL-CIO. And they sent a simple message when they did: politics and government was their central focus.

Long led by the fiery Jerry Butkiewicz, the union of unions was hardly apolitical before Gonzalez. But she was Butkiewicz’ political advisor and understanding political success — even running for office herself — had been her career focus.

In the minds of local union leaders, then, the battle for workers’ rights is as much for the hearts and minds (and policies) of local elected leaders as it is a struggle with businesses focused on the pursuit of profits.

And Gonzalez is battling. The union of unions has introduced a measure that would force term limits on county supervisors and signaled a determination to finally place a Democrat in that body. The union now represents another branch of San Diego city workers: the lifeguards, who recently seceded from the Municipal Employees Association and joined the Teamsters. No doubt Gonzalez will be visible as the city tries to reconcile the dueling facts that it is simply not set up to bring in as much money as it is set up to spend.

I thought it was important to get a reading on how she was thinking these days as we head into an interesting year.

Should the city of San Diego renew its strong-mayor form of government? If yes, can you point to one thing that is evidence it is better? If no, why not?

I think there certainly are a couple of ways to look at this, but chief among them are whether the so-called checks and balances of having an elected council, executive and attorney outweighs the sometimes over-the-top politicization in the day-to-day functioning of government. Like most voters, I haven’t yet made up my mind on whether or not San Diego should make permanent its strong-mayor form of government. I do think the Labor Council will weigh in on the question relatively soon.

Why do public employees need unions?

First, let me be clear, I fundamentally believe that every rank and file worker in America should have the right to join a union if he or she wishes. And, when workers are given the choice, free from employer intimidation, they overwhelmingly choose to form a union. Why would government take away that freedom of choice from public servants?

Our public employees wade through raw sewage in water treatment plants; they dive into polluted beaches and bays to save the lives of our drowning residents; they pick up and dump our trash; they teach all of our children no matter how dangerous the neighborhood or understaffed the school; they take care of our disabled, our sick and our incarcerated in overcrowded facilities; they run into burning buildings with sometimes outdated and inadequate equipment; they patrol our poorest and most crime-ridden areas; and in every other way imaginable, they serve the public. Of course these workers should have the right to join together and collectively bargain for wages and working conditions!

Public employees, in particular, need the right to unionize because government is often the most political environment for personnel decisions to be made, with substantial changes being made by executive order or resolution every time a new executive is elected or the public opinion winds shift.

What’s the worst thing a candidate seeking support can do in an interview with you and your board?

Tell us they will do whatever we want.

We are looking for smart candidates with strong personal morals and values. We obviously want candidates who support our issues. But, they should do so because they understand our issues and truly believe that the world would be better off if all workers had the right to a voice in the workplace, a self-sustaining wage, healthcare and some retirement security.

The worst thing a candidate seeking our support can do is simply tell us what they think we want to hear.

Term limits seem to have been a negative influence on state government and the legislature, and people you support have pushed for years to change them. Yet you are now trying to introduce term limits at the county. Why will it be better at the county?

The lack of term limits, along with extremely low campaign limits, huge districts, a redistricting process that borders on unconstitutional, and the resign-and-appoint racket has made the County Board of Supervisors the least accountable, least representative and most self-serving public body in the county. We could sit around and mope about it for another 15 years, or we can do the one thing that we know will keep us from being in this same position in the future: pass term limits.

As for the potential impact of term limits on the county, I disagree that term limits are the recipe for a dysfunctional county government. The county is a much different type of government than the state of California. Comparing one with the other is like comparing apples to oranges.

The state is charged with writing laws dealing with everything from taxes to public education to water to energy to workplace standards. And of course, the elephant in the room is the annual state budget, which spans hundreds and hundreds of agencies that oversee all of the issues I already listed and more. It is a very complex government where institutional knowledge does become a huge asset that is chipped away by term limits.

The county, on the other hand, is a pass-through for state and federal programs, sets the budgets for sheriff and DA, and for unincorporated areas also serves as the land-use decision-makers. This is nowhere near as complex as the Legislature’s responsibilities.

Plus, if term limits are good enough for President Obama, they should be good enough for Bill “We’re not Franciscans” Horn.

Do you still enjoy working with Evan?

San Diego’s workers are extremely lucky to have someone as dedicated, hard-working, and smart as Evan advocating on our behalf. And, as long as he has had his morning coffee, I still enjoy working with him.

What decision will you be paying attention to the most in the coming year and who will be making it?

I will be watching our local leaders to see if they will get serious about putting local San Diego workers back to work. With stimulus funds and large projects in the wings, I want to see if our elected and appointed officials make decisions that ensure local hire and the use of taxpayer dollars to stimulate the local economy and build San Diego County’s middle class.

Who is the most promising leader in San Diego these days and what do you think he or she might do in 2010?

Organized labor has a number of young, dynamic and promising leaders who will no doubt continue to dramatically change the landscape of San Diego County for years to come by fighting for middle class jobs and the American Dream for all workers. But, Al Shur, the head of the electricians’ union (IBEW Local 569) has shown tremendous promise advocating for a green economy long before it was a fashionable slogan. In 2010, I think he will continue to inspire all of San Diego’s workers by advocating for local jobs that help build our economy while protecting our environment. That is why he is our Labor Leader of the Year.

What else are you looking forward to in 2010?

A better season for the Padres and many more groups boycotting the Manchester Grand Hyatt.

Here is Gonzalez’ ranking of the major projects I listed:

Update: Because of a miscommunication, the list that was here was actually not Gonzalez’ list of priorities. That was the list I sent her. She left it in the answer. She wanted it to be clear she doesn’t think the new central library, for instance, is the city’s top priority for a major project.

It’s difficult for me to place a ranking on these projects given how little we know about how they will be built. We have over 10 percent unemployment in San Diego right now, so I would assign highest priority to a project that has an aggressive policy to use local workers to build it.

Unfortunately for San Diego taxpayers, there are contractors out there who will fight tooth and nail against any kind of policy that sets goals for hiring and using a local workforce. They are the same contractors who are now fighting the living wage and health care reform.

When anything gets built using any sort of taxpayer subsidy or public land, San Diego’s middle class should do the work. We must put local workers back to work first, before contractors can start importing lower-wage workers from Arizona and Mexico just to better pad their own pocketbooks.

When our middle class jobs, in construction and facility operations, are replaced with low-wage workers who don’t have health insurance, the taxpayers aren’t saving money … we are spending more of it and getting less of it back. I would prioritize the first project that reflected this fact.

And her rank of most worrisome civic problems:

Most worrisome for me is the attack on San Diego’s middle class, which has forced more and more families in San Diego into the ranks of the working poor. The topic you suggested that most closely fits this worry is homelessness. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, one of the main reasons for the increase in homelessness over the past 20-25 years is a decrease in wages. Ultimately we will see the ranks of the homeless in our region continue to swell if we don’t get serious about creating and preserving San Diego’s middle class jobs.

While I consider almost all of the subjects on your list really important, I think there are a few that we don’t hear enough about: Fire Protection Shortfalls, Infrastructure Decay, Mass Transit Shortcomings and Water Reliability Concerns. I know there is a lot on our plate in the short term, but we can’t continue to ignore these long term issues. Those are the things that really worry me about San Diego.

Note from Lewis: For an explanation of what I’m doing with these e-mail Q&As, read this intro. And you can read all of them published so far by going to the blog here.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.