Mickey Kasparian speaks at Voice of San Diego’s Politifest 2016 / Photo by Vito Di Stefano
Mickey Kasparian speaks at Voice of San Diego’s Politifest 2016 / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

Friday, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135 overwhelmingly elected Todd Walters their new president, ending the tenure of longtime president Mickey Kasparian and leading the way to a major shift in politics on the left in San Diego.

Walters and his entire slate of candidates beat Kasparian by a 2-1 margin in the election among the approximately 12,000 members of UFCW 135. Walters won 2,297 votes to Kasparian’s 1,170. The union represents supermarket employees along with some casino and pharmacy workers.

Rick Slayton, the UFCW national representative who flew in to oversee the election, confirmed Walters’ victory margin early Sunday. “He will be the president,” said Slayton about Walters.

Kasparian was once the most prominent labor leader in the region as president of both the UFCW local and the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, the coalition of most major local unions. But then several former employees stepped forward with accusations of sexual assault and discrimination. The first of those accusations was made exactly two years ago. He and the union settled the lawsuits but Walters made the accusations and settlements a major issue when he launched his campaign to unseat Kasparian.

Walters will walk right into major issues. He will immediately be part of the negotiations for a large contract with Southern California grocers — a relationship that has led to dramatic work stoppages in the past.

The election also means UFCW 135 will rejoin the Labor Council. Walters confirmed he had already spoken with its leaders to alert them that was his intention.

During the height of his scandal, Kasparian ended up in a bitter rivalry with another coalition of unions, the San Diego Building and Construction Trades Council. Kasparian formed his own coalition — the Working Families Council — after the national AFL-CIO put the Labor Council into receivership and ended his presidency.

Now, the Labor Council has stabilized. The hotel workers union rejoined it and the interim executive brought in to lead it, Keith Maddox, was tapped to stay on permanently. What’s more, SEIU 221, the union of public employees, mostly in county government, left the new Working Families Council and rejoined the Labor Council after a political disagreement with Kasparian, who opposed Nathan Fletcher’s bid for the county Board of Supervisors.

Walters had been a meat-cutter before he worked for UFCW from 2005 to 2016, when he was promoted to grievance director. But then, as Kasparian’s troubles mounted, Walters and several other employees left. He got a night job in one of the stores to maintain his membership in the union and began campaigning for the presidency.

The election had other consequences, too. Walters’ full slate of candidates won, which means Richard Barrera, the secretary-treasurer of the union, is also out. Barrera is a longtime and influential trustee on the Board of Education of the San Diego Unified School District. Walters accused Barrera of spending too much of his time on the school board and of not understanding the operations and finances of the union, which are his primary responsibilities.

“He was not re-elected and at this time, we are not looking to hire him in any other capacity,” Walters said in a text message. Kasparian and Barrera’s terms end Dec. 31.

Richard Barrera
San Diego Unified trustee Richard Barrera / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The deep division between Kasparian and his rivals in the local labor movement had set the unions back politically. It confused politicians, who didn’t know which side of the dispute to fall on or if embracing one side would hurt the other. It divided resources as the unions sometimes fought over races where they likely could have found common ground had it not been for the interpersonal disputes.

Many local politicians and political leaders had remained unwilling to call for Kasparian to resign, and the ones who did faced his wrath. But the ones who didn’t said the question should be up to the members of UFCW 135.

Those members have now spoken, and ended the long reign of one of San Diego’s most powerful labor leaders.

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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