‘My Way Or the Highway’ Isn’t a Rallying Call for San Diego Labor Activism

by on May 16, 2017 · 0 comments

in San Diego

In a not-so-improbable dystopian future, forces loyal to fearless leader Donald Trump will have rounded up local labor leaders, only to be surprised to learn of a faction demanding a separate firing squad…

By Doug Porter

A breakaway group –the San Diego Working Families Council– led by deposed Labor Council President Mickey Kasparian includes seven local branches of some big-name unions.

The San Diego Free Press and the OB Rag have offered up three perspectives of what this split means for local activists.

Jim Miller’s column describes the point of view of progressive unionists remaining in the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, many of who struggled (mostly) out of the limelight for months in a difficult environment.

Marcus Bush describes the point of view of the activists who fought back in defense of the women saying they were victimized by a misogynist and marginalized by his supporters.

And I have something to say about lessons activists should draw from this messy divorce.

Insiders, Outsiders, and Straw Women

labor councilTo those inside the labor council, the loud and sometimes impolite protests were ‘not helpful’ because of an instinctual response predicated on years of attacks by outsiders driven by an agenda of undermining union solidarity.

Columnist Jim Miller–a Vice President of the American Federation of Teachers local–was on the inside.

The activists defending the ‘Tres Hermanas’ saw their fight as part of the larger struggle against sexism and the marginalization of women in progressive causes.

San Diego Free Press editor Brent Beltran was among those activists on the outside.

Here was the position I took in January:

Aside from personally and politically supporting the women at the heart of this matter, there is little outsiders can (or should) do. The rhetoric by some advocating a scorched earth response will, in the end, make no difference.

I for one, don’t want to be arguing the fine points of progressivism while Trump’s flying monkeys are going after the humans not lucky enough to be white and wealthy.

Let’s focus on what we can do, for now. And also remember the harassment and discrimination charges haven’t been litigated. The last I checked, the rule was innocent until proven guilty.

Defenders of Kasparian generally took the position their leader would be vindicated by the courts and the rabble rousers picketing union meetings were somehow a creation of their political opposition.

Based on my experiences, Kasparian’s crew also reflected the ‘for us or against us’ hardline of their leader, rather than recognizing there were shades of gray involved in people’s feelings.

In fact, as Jim Miller pointed, [see link above] there is no argument about principle or politics involved in this split. It’s all about whether or not people want to unquestioningly follow orders.

The AFL-CIO’s Call


The AFL-CIO took an interest in the San Diego labor federation following a letter sent by Building Trades Unions in late December. Kasparian and his allies on the council were accused of failing act on its chartered purpose, namely to provide aid, cooperation, and assistance to affiliated local unions.

Eight bullet points, ranging from the media reports on the sexual harassment allegations to cooperation with anti-union groups to the detriment of the Trades Unions, detailed their unhappiness with the Labor Council.

State and national officials negotiated with local labor leaders over a four month period, eventually reaching the conclusion there would be no possible compromise. At the heart of this impasse was Kasparian’s ‘my way or the highway’ position. If the national organization wasn’t going to back the established leadership, they would leave.

Last week the national AFL-CIO and President Richard Trumka moved to take over the San Diego Imperial-Counties Labor Council, ousting its leaders.

The AFL-CIO’s press release didn’t mention they’d booted the leadership of the local federation, instead talking about an affirmation of their “commitment to a unified San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council to represent the interests of San Diego’s working families.”

One hundred and twenty-five unions remain in the labor council. Interim leader Jerry Butkiewicz did much to bring the organization to political prominence during his previous tenure as its Secretary-Treasurer.

My Way or Else

As talks stalled, Kasparian and his allies began planning to form a breakaway group. As the locks were being changed at the federation’s offices in Mission Valley, a press release was issued announcing the formation of a “Labor and Community Partnership.”

Times of San Diego reporter Ken Stone was initially barred from the Kasparian-led press conference that followed. It seems as though the ‘my way or the highway’ attitude included trying to dictate the kind of coverage the San Diego Working Families Council would be receiving.

Stone had written extensively about the legal complaints filed by various women who’d run afoul of the labor leader, and been rebuffed every time he’d asked for responses.

Only after Voice of San Diego editor Scott Lewis had a momentary flash of “standing for something” (paraphrasing his words) and expressed concerns to Mickey Kasparian, was the Times reporter admitted. Shades of Donald Trump.

New Alliances?

Photo from UFCW

Much has been made of the promise of increased interaction between organized labor and community groups by Kasparian’s new group, which includes unions with a strong history of outreach and coalition-building going beyond simple bread and butter unionism.

The United Commercial and Foodservice Workers Union and the Service Employee International Union local 221 have both touted alliances with community groups over the past years. In fact, all this was already going on before the breakaway group formed.

And, as was true within the local labor movement, displeasing the leadership in the past has led to consequences for allies.

In March a complaint of employment discrimination was filed against the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. ACCE’s Nohelia Ramos Campos and her husband (employed by SEIU local 221) said they were pressured to make statements in support of Mickey Kasparian and to denounce lawsuits filed by Sandy Naranjo and Isabel Vasquez according to the complaint..

The complaint detailed threats to terminate funding for ACCE unless they complied. Her husband was subsequently fired from his position with the SEIU, though no complaint was filed aginst that union.

It Gets Complicated

Organized labor has long been a major source of funding the local Democratic Party, along with other social justice organizations.

Thus San Diego County Democratic Party Chair Jessica Hayes statement following the announcement of Kasparian’s new group is perfectly understandable.

“With strong leadership and a substantial membership of workers throughout the county, the new San Diego Working Families Council will be a powerhouse from Day One.

To be fair, Hayes also went on to acknowledge the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, along with the newly formed Progressive Labor Alliance.

Given Kasparian’s breakaway group’s claim they account for 45% of the labor council’s funding, the money question puts lots of activists in a difficult situation.

As it likely explains Hayes behind-the-scenes ploys to defend the former leadership of the labor council in recent months.

It’s also important to understand the oft-repeated characterization of divisions in the local labor movement as being strictly between Kasparian’s allies and the Building and Trade Unions is simply not true.

Unions are made up of human beings, and there have always been disagreements within the various labor federations.

What happened in San Diego is that there was no longer room for dissent, combined with a streak of authoritarianism mixed with misogyny leaving many organizations unable to deliver even the most basic advocacy.

Brigette Browning, president of the local chapter of Unite Here, a labor union representing 6,000 workers in San Diego hospitality industries has already announced plans to rejoin the council.

Her explanation on why Unite Here left the umbrella organization in 2014 on Voice of San Diego’s podcast gives some insight into the dynamics of the situation:

“I felt that the culture at the Labor Council had really changed, that you were no longer entitled to your own opinion and there was no real collaboration,” Browning said. “And if you were prepared to accept directives, I felt like you were really treated in an unfair way, especially me as a woman. I felt like I was treated in a much different way than other people who took similar positions to me.”

An Implicit Warning

What is important about this split is the lesson to be learned for newly emerging activists galvanized by Trump’s regime: be very careful.

Many unions have come to the fundamental realization that bread and butter issues are no longer adequate in an era where the theology of the marketplace dictates that workers have no rights.

Some of these unions–and political party organizations–exist with a top-down style of leadership unaffected by the social justice movements at the heart of 21st-century activism.

I know from sources inside SEIU Local 221 that members were not included in the decision to leave the county labor council. I suspect this is probably true for other unions.

Others–ahem, certain political party beginning with the letter “D’– have been quick to claim credit for efforts by Indivisible and other grassroots groups. The folks at Indivisible have, thus far, been very adult about this, insisting on keeping their eye on the prize.

There is a need to be aware of those for whom causes are merely a means to their narrow ends. Those groups doing their business in a non-inclusionary way will inevitably follow reactionary paths.

So be careful. Labels don’t mean much. Actions do.


This is an excerpt from Doug Porter’s column at our sister publication the San Diego Free Press.


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