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Nobody was surprised when the dominoes that started falling after the election hit labor leader Lorena Gonzalez. It was a pretty poorly kept secret that she was aiming to replace Assemblyman Ben Hueso if he runs for the state Senate seat Juan Vargas is vacating.

Vargas is taking the seat in Congess that Bob Filner left for mayor of San Diego.

It’s the next domino that interested me: Who takes over Gonzalez’s seat as CEO of the San Diego Imperial-Counties Labor Council? And what direction does this union of local unions take?

Gonzalez offered a clue to U-T San Diego: “As we move forward, it’s time for the head of the labor council to be a little less about running a political program and more about running an organizing program.”

I didn’t find any inside knowledge on who might take Gonzalez’s place.

But to me, her quote about what should happen in the future offers a window into labor’s goals and gains and I had to ask her more about what she meant. Here are three insights I gleaned from our conversation.

Politics vs. Organizing (Or Politics = Organizing)

Republicans believe Filner and Democrats have Gonzalez to thank for their stunning sweep of every major race in the region.

Gonzalez and her staff credit a much more amorphous group: a network of community organizers, union members and activists motivated by animosity to mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio and Proposition 32, the measure that would have crippled union funding for political efforts.

That they were able to turn out the vote in the southern parts of the city so well has both impressed San Diego’s establishment and left many convinced that the city’s politics have changed forever.

So what did Gonzalez mean that the future of the labor council was in organizing and not politics?

After all, Gonzalez was tagged for the job precisely because of her political savvy.

She said she ended up going in a different direction than the union leaders who appointed her expected.

“I think they were surprised at how much more interested I was in organizing than in running campaigns,” she told me.

What she means by organizing is not necessarily the act of getting new union members or turning nonunion workplaces into union ones.

Instead, in our conversation, she kept bringing up the taxi drivers who formed what she called a worker collective. In July, they formed the United Taxi Workers of San Diego. They are independent contractors so they don’t have the right to collectively bargain better contracts.

But as a group, they can now participate in the Labor Council’s campaigns and access “the Labor Council’s extensive experience in policy change,” Gonzalez wrote then.

Policy Change

Organized labor’s power has traditionally come from its ability to unite workers and shut down a company or job site that’s not complying. That’s a strike. They do this to get a better contract. Sometimes just being able to go on strike is enough to improve their workers’ situation.

That ability to go on strike is an asset.

For instance, they can trade it away in exchange for a project labor agreement on a major construction effort. The contractor in that case must pay wages and fees set by the union. The union must guarantee that the contractor will have labor.

Gonzalez was brought on as leader of the Labor Council to rack up political achievements, though, not just contract achievements.

If you can’t strike to enforce your power, you can get people elected who will help you codify worker privileges into law. When they hired Gonzalez, that’s what unions wanted Gonzalez to do: help them pool their resources and get sympathetic people elected.

What she seems to have realized is that it wasn’t a matter of just getting money and running good campaigns. You had to do something more.

You had to organize.

In fact, the future of labor in San Diego may be in nonunion workers.

“We figured out the best ways to organize communities to help. You have to constantly organize folks, workers, who are not unionized, and talk to them in a fashion of empowering themselves and knowing how government can change their lives,” she told me.

This is what happened to the cabbies. Organizing like this doesn’t mean more unions as much as more people in affiliations and groups that will advocate for things that unions want.

Things like getting Bob Filner elected.

So what policies do unions want?

Target: Hotels

Like taxi drivers, unions have a challenge with hotel workers. They’re difficult to organize into unions.

But by building a network of groups like the taxi cab drivers and others, they were able to get Filner and a host of other sympathetic politicians elected.

Filner, and the left-of-center City Council, will support putting people in charge of agencies like Unified Port of San Diego, MTS and others. Eventually policies emerge.

So say you’re building a hotel. Under this world, you’re likely to someday soon run into a requirement that you prove your facility will provide “quality jobs” before it gets a permit to build.

“We now have a mayor who’s much more amenable to those discussions,” Gonzalez said.

Yes, yes they do.

I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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