Labor and Progressives Mix It Up at Summit 2019

by on April 17, 2019 · 0 comments

in Labor, San Diego

By Doug Porter / Words&Deeds / April 15, 2019

Advocates for a progressive policies and organized labor gathered in San Diego this past weekend at the Doubletree Hilton in Mission Valley. Hundreds of union members mingled with local political activists for a day of speeches, strategizing, and solidarity at the third annual Progressive Labor Summit.

The assembly of one of the most powerful forces in local electoral politics and the driver of significant social change featured nationally and locally prominent speakers. And, despite, an active public relations campaign, this column will likely be the only coverage of the event.

It just goes to show that, despite claims about being more sensitive to the communities they cover, local media still fails when it comes to working people. There was plenty of ‘news’ to be had, ranging from Tom Lemmon’s entrance in the District 2 Supervisor race to a surprisingly good preview of next year’s mayor race.

Recent months have been impactful for unions, in San Diego and around the country. A Democratic supermajority on the City Council, the first of several expected inroads on the County Board of Supervisors, and other local victories came following an intensive get out the vote campaign in the 20178 general elections.

UNITE HERE Local 30 won an NLRB election this month at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina, making it one of the largest hotels nationwide in recent memory to unionize. Strikes at Marriott properties from coast-to-coast yielded a 40% pay hike at the Westin San Diego Gaslamp for hotel housekeepers, stronger protections for sexual harassment and a first-time pension.

The San Diego County (California) Regional Airport Authority board has voted to require that the design-build contractor chosen to lead the $3 billion redevelopment of San Diego International Airport must enter into project labor agreements with local unions.

In response to union-backed legal challenges, downtown development projects will no longer be handled by Civic San Diego, a private organization not answering to any elected official. This victory creates the opportunity for a more progressive City Council to weigh in on major downtown developments, making it likelier for hotels or construction projects with labor-friendly pacts.

California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal has ordered the City to financially compensate about 4,000 employees who don’t have pensions. Proposition B, led by then-Mayor Jerry Sanders,  replaced pensions for new employees with 401(k) plans without allowing for at least the semblance of negotiations. .

A schism in the local labor was resolved earlier this year, as a reform slate took the helm at the United Food and Commercial Workers local 135, bringing the 12,200-member union with 72 stores or workplaces across the region back into the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council.

There is significant conflict presently between the Labor Council and community organizations over a push to put a ballot measure raising hotel taxes to fund convention center expansion–with monies for homeless services and infrastructure as a sweetener– on the March, 2020 ballot.

In 2016, those groups were allied in successfully promoting Measure L, campaigning around the concept of non-urgent voter input for such efforts being limited to general elections.

Nationally, 485,000 employees –up from 25,000 in 2017– went on strike or stopped working in 2018 because of labor disputes with employers, according to data released by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Public school teachers in red states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona walked off the job, protesting low pay and cuts to public education funding, with widespread public support.  Hotel housekeepers and steelworkers also organized major strikes lasting for days.

There is a generational attitude shift underway about unions and their role. 47% of 18- to 29-year-olds want a “militant” labor movement rooted in a multi-racial working class, according to a recent Harvard poll.

The attendees at the San Diego gathering reflected the youth movement in labor. Women in positions of leadership was the order of the day, along with significant participation from many traditionally underrepresented groups. Lead moderator Carol Kim managed to keep the event running on time throughout the day.

Keith Maddox, Secretary Treasurer of the San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council

Keith Maddox, Secretary Treasurer of the San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council, provided some Saturday morning motivation with a call and response oratory worthy of his roots as an organizer in Alabama.

PLA 2019 Summit’s morning session featuring featured a look back at the failure of Carl Demaio’s pension reform scheme, the first Mayoral candidate forum of the 2020 election cycle, and powerful oratory from Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight AttendantsCWA, AFL-CIO whose strike threat helped end the recent government shutdown.

Thanks to the impact of 2012’s Proposition B, the City of San Diego has more than 2,000 budgeted vacant positions. That’s out of a roughly 11,000 workforce. Potential new hires are looking at no pension, no Social Security, and 15-20% less pay than other regional governments or private sector. And existing employees are also leaving.

Candidates for the 2020 Mayor’s race appearing at the forum included City Council member Barbara Bry, Assemblyperson Todd Gloria, and community activist Tasha Williamson. By the end of the session, I could see clear differences in style and substance between the contenders. (Attorney Cory Briggs was unable to attend due to a previous travel commitment.)

With a friendly nod toward union concerns, Bry spoke about her Bad Deals BS Detector as an asset that would serve all residents, advocated for data driven decisions, and generally seemed to favor business expansion as a tonic for many concerns. She opposed rent control, supported the move to put a convention center/homeless measure on the March 2020 primary ballot, and favored the creation of an independent police review commission.

Gloria was upbeat about prospects for the city’s future, saying it was time for less talk and more action on problems, and promising to call Trump out by name when it came to negative policy impacts on residents. He opposed rent control, was yes-ish about adding to the primary ballot, and advocated for affordable supportive housing in every city district.

Activist Tasha Williamson’s striking rhetoric was in contrast to her lack of depth on details in issues questions asked by moderators Evan McLaughlin and Lex Olbrei. She was the only candidate favoring rent control, promising audits of city programs, and investments in people as  the way forward in addressing issues. Make no mistake about it, Tasha’s presence in the race will drive the candidates in a more progressive direction.

Over lunch, attendees heard from Sacramento-based labor lobbyists about legislative priorities for the current session. There was enthusiastic support for AB5, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez’ effort to codify the landmark Dynamex court ruling protecting workers from employment misclassification.

A panel on the future of transportation in San Diego included some remarkable observations by SANDAG executive director Hasan Ikhrata, to wit a promise that the era of building freeways in San Diego is over. Port Commissioner Rafael Castellanos spoke to a need to build regional infrastructure aimed at the challenges posed in future decades. Councilwoman (and MTS Chair) Georgette Gomez was determined in her vision for a better and expanded transit system.

Union organizers Cecily Myart-Cruz and Ismael Armendariz, from Los Angeles and Oakland respectively, discussed how building community around putting students first led to solidarity with parents and others, enabling their successful strikes.

Sara Nelson and Lucas O’Connor

Keynote speaker Sara Nelson told the story of how her union successfully fought for workers’ rights in the airline industry, launching into a inspirational address about inclusivity, telling te crowd “A strike is a tactic, solidarity is the power.”  

Her call for a general strike in February in solidarity with government workers going without pay was credited with bringing about an end to the government shutdown. Nelson said flight attendants’ strike preparations had an equally urgent motive: fear for their own safety.

Facing felony charges if they were to strike, unpaid Air traffic controllers were “driving Ubers and Lyfts outside their shifts to try to provide for their families when they should have been getting rest.”

There was going to be a breaking point, Nelson recalled, “We just could not continue to fly and ask the members to be put in harm’s way. It was increasingly clear that we were open to accident or attack.”

The rest of the conference consisted of a dozen breakout panels, some covering the basics of organizing, and others focused on issues where labor grou

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