Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009 | Opponents of organized labor are vowing to pour more than half a million dollars into a desperate media blitz to reverse a San Diego Unified decision that could restrict how it spends $2.1 billion in coveted construction and renovation work.
It is just one aspect of the political fallout of the heated battle, which has also inspired a call to register lobbyists in San Diego Unified, a flurry of meetings with alarmed builders, and soul searching among opponents on what — if anything — can or should be done now.
The San Diego Unified plan — still to be negotiated — for a "project stabilization agreement" for its new facilities bond is widely expected to benefit unions. Such contracts are commonly known as project labor agreements and usually exchange union-friendly guarantees on wages, training and workplace conditions for the promise not to strike on the job.
Activists who oppose the agreement are convinced that it will force nonunionized workers to pay union fees, and drive up costs by thinning the pool of bidders on projects. They are hoping to either stop it entirely or steer the board to create what they deem a "fair" agreement through public pressure. And if that fails, one group is now threatening to wage warfare on school board members who are backed by the unions, possibly through a recall campaign.
"We are targeting the three board members who are handmaidens for the union," said Eric Christen, executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, a group that lobbies against labor agreements. Christen added, "The public has a right to know what their school board has been up to."
Construction contractors and labor unions lobbied the board heavily over the heated decision two weeks ago, which squeaked by with the support of school board President Shelia Jackson and newly elected members Richard Barrera and John Lee Evans, all of whom were supported by unions in the November election.
Christen's fundraising goal of $500,000 would exceed even the successful $388,000-plus push by the teachers union last fall to unseat Mitz Lee, an incumbent who had supported teacher layoffs in a budget crisis. An e-mail from the campaign said he had already received a $5,000 donation from an employee of Gould Electric in Poway. But whether other groups such as the local chapter of the Associated General Contractors will join the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction crusade is unclear, despite their sympathies with its cause.
How much leverage the builders have months after an election that handed new clout to the unions is questionable, especially because they had little involvement in the school board elections.
One exception is Douglas E. Barnhart Inc., a construction company where current and former employees, including Barnhart himself, gave more than $3,500 to help elect Shelia Jackson after she helped them with community outreach during the construction of Lincoln High School.
"It makes no sense to me" to have a labor agreement, said Eric Stenman, president of the company. He added, "Some groups are going to take matters into their own hands. I think the best way is to have open and honest negotiations and communications" with the board over the disadvantages of a project labor agreement.
Jim Ryan, executive vice president of the local Associated General Contractors, said his group is still weighing its options after the contentious vote, and declined to answer questions about potential legal action or public campaigning. Another opponent of the agreement, the Black Contractors Association of San Diego, flatly rejected a campaign against the school board. It has strongly backed Jackson in the past.
"We are not in support of union bashing or board bashing," said Abdur-Rahim Hameed, national president of the association. "We want to continue open dialogue and be the voice of reason."
The timing is also bad for an expensive campaign. Many of the same groups that would be likely donors have already ponied up money to pass the San Diego Unified facilities bond and are suffering in a sluggish economy. Christen said it would be the largest and most extensive campaign ever undertaken by his group, which previously helped unseat an Orange County supervisor who backed a union pact and prodded the University of California system to avoid a labor guarantee when building its new Merced campus.
Its tactics have been brash and sometimes conflicting. It has offered up a "fair" project labor agreement for San Diego Unified while simultaneously arguing that all such agreements are inevitably and categorically unfair. It recently protested a fundraiser to cover the last expenses of the school facilities bond campaign held at the offices of Gafcon, a construction consulting firm that backed the bond — a tactic that Gafcon cofounder Yehudi Gaffen called "misplaced and misguided."
"The whole thing is a little nutty," said Larry Remer, who helped consult the bond campaign. "What are they targeting in the bond campaign? It's over and we have some cleanup bills."
Christen's group is part of a nationwide nonprofit called Congressional District Programs, a public charity that that is itself a subset of National Heritage Family. Christen earns more than $160,000 annually as a consultant to Congressional District Programs, according to its most recently available tax return. Prior to its merger with Congressional District Programs four years ago, it pulled in roughly $33,000 in revenue in a year.
The strongest asset of the campaign against a project labor agreement may be the sheer frustration expressed by builders who shelled out money for the bond campaign expecting to reap the rewards of a flood of new construction projects, only to see the work linked to unions through an agreement.
One such donor, Josh Kueber, said he would definitely get involved in the campaign. He works as an estimator and project manager for the Augustine Company in Spring Valley and hit up friends and acquaintances for roughly $30,000 to support the bond; they are now calling him to complain about the same labor agreement.
"I have to go back to these folks who I spent a month making phone calls to for the campaign," he said. "It's almost a stab in the back."
Unions have celebrated the agreement as "a huge victory" and argued that costs will not necessarily increase because unionized bidders will sign up in greater numbers.
"Our desire is and always has been to create careers — not just use a lower-paid workforce," said Tom Lemmon, business manager for the San Diego Building and Construction Trades Council. He added, "They keep saying it is union only. That clearly isn't the case. Any agreement covers both union and nonunion contractors."
The agreement will be negotiated behind closed doors between the union and San Diego Unified between February and May. Board members are planning an open forum to get more opinions and data before nailing down their specific ideas of what the agreement should include. Key questions include whether all workers must be unionized or pay union dues, whether it will include an "escape clause" that loosens the rules when few companies bid, and whether to allow apprenticeships only from the unions, from contractors, or from both.
The issue spurred political jockeying and a flood of conflicting claims about the virtues and costs of project labor agreements. Lobbyists do not have to register in San Diego Unified, nor must they track how much they spend trying to influence the district. Nakamura complained that she could not even discern who was trying to sway her and why as the debates roared over the labor pact. Los Angeles Unified has such a requirement; Nakamura wants to ensure that San Diego Unified has one too.
That flurry of lobbying has slowed for Nakamura, she said, but Barrera, Evans and Jackson have been squarely in the crossfire as those different interests prod them to reverse course. Barrera is unswayed.
"We are not going to back down from our responsibility to make change because people decide to threaten us," Barrera said.
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