Politics Report: Hotel Union Leader to Lead Union Leaders

Politics

Politics Report: Hotel Union Leader to Lead Union Leaders

Brigette Browning will take over management of the Labor Council and the big soap box it offers. If hotel taxes rebound, they’re going to roads. And what to keep in mind about the Sports Arena project.

Brigette Browning is president of Unite Here! Local 30, a hotel workers union. / Photo by Megan Wood

This week the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council announced that Brigette Browning will run unopposed to become the new executive secretary-treasurer of the group, the union of labor unions for the region. Browning has been the leader of Unite HERE, the hotel and restaurant workers union.

It’s the job from which now Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez built power and influence, leading her to political success. It’s the organization Mickey Kasparian ruled, sometimes ruthlessly.

Now Browning will get the job. She declined an interview request but sent this written statement:

“I will say this — fundamentally, I am an organizer — and expanding the organizing work of unions in San Diego is critical. We need our members active and engaged in advocacy — and I will work with our leaders to expand the Labor Council’s organizing capabilities so we can build on the successes of the last few years. Passing the PRO-ACT in Congress will change the game for the labor movement locally and nationally, and we’re pushing hard to make that happen.”

The PRO-ACT: It’s the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. The Intercept calls it “the most comprehensive workers’ rights bill to gain traction in Congress in decades.” It would help unions override so-called right-to-work laws in certain states where workers can opt out of union membership in workplaces that have unions. And it would make it illegal for a company to organize events opposed to unionization of their employees.

It passed the House but doesn’t have the votes to get over a Republican filibuster in the U.S. Senate unless that changes.

Her hotel worker brothers and sisters: The hotel and hospitality industry in San Diego and elsewhere has been devastated over the last year.

Only 1,000 of the 6,000 Unite HERE members in San Diego are working right now.

“We anticipate a good summer for leisure and hospitality as people start to travel more, but we really need big conventions and events to come back. 8,000-person dinners — that’s where the money is,” Browning said in her statement.

One take: Browning has been one of the most vocal and energetic labor leaders in San Diego for years. She’s the kind of person who says things that are interesting and controversial but then also she never feels bad about it.

“She knows how to organize, she knows how to bargain, and she’s been doing it here long enough to really understand the players, the politics and all the unique quirks of San Diego,” said Lucas O’Connor, executive director of the Progressive Labor Alliance, in a written message.

We asked O’Connor about some of the divisions in labor. Under Kasparian’s term, for example, Browning and Unite HERE were not a part of the Labor Council. They rejoined the alliance after he was ousted. There are tensions between the Laborers union and Building Trades Council and more.

“Keeping the elected leaders of more than 130 unions organized is never easy, but she’s built trust by being in the trenches with these folks for a long time, and really helped establish a standard of solidarity between unions that’s rare in many parts of the country,” O’Connor wrote.

Another take: Browning’s nemesis is hotel owner Bill Evans, who tried to sue her and others in labor with a comprehensive claim that they were running an illegal system of leveraging their power with elected officials to squeeze him and other developers to give concessions.

Here’s how VOSD’s Jesse Marx described that argument:

“Over a decade, he alleged, the labor groups have created a ‘playbook’ that delays and threatens the financial viability of non-unionized hotel and development projects. They do so, Evans argued, not just by leaning on their Democratic allies in positions of power but by waging public campaigns and raising environmental concerns, sometimes in the form of a legal challenge — then dropping their opposition after getting what they want.”

The judge didn’t agree anything was illegal.

O’Connor said Browning has new challenges now, though.

“Anyone coming into this position now would have to deal with rebuilding a post-COVID economy, addressing automation and the gig economy, navigating the ever-changing federal immigration stance, and forging a path on the worker impacts of our climate change response. It’s a tall task for anybody, but these are exactly the issues she’s been working on for years, so if anyone is ready, it’s her,” he wrote.

If Hotel Money Comes Back, It’s Going to Roads

Whenever the pandemic ends or subsides or whatever it is that happens with pandemics, San Diego is going to face a tricky situation with one of its major revenue sources.

If the city does get more hotel-room taxes than the abysmal performance this past year, much of it will have to flow to infrastructure spending, thanks to a ballot measure approved by city voters in 2016.

Background: Proposition H intended to address the city’s infrastructure shortfall. Instead of raising taxes to pay for infrastructure repairs, though, the measure instead said that as existing revenues increased, half of that growth would go into a special pot of money just for roads and bridges and pipes and the rest.

Prop. H created three ways for money to flow from the city’s general fund into the new infrastructure fund. The first was growth in sales taxes; half of any increase from the amount collected in 2016, adjusted for inflation, would go to infrastructure. The second was savings in pension costs; if the city’s annual contribution to its pension fund decreases, the city devotes half of that savings to roads and stuff. Both of those provisions last until 2043.

Neither of those is likely to matter much any time soon, said Charles Modica, fiscal and policy analyst for the Office of the Independent Budget Analyst. Since 2016, growth in sales taxes hasn’t outpaced inflation, and isn’t expected to in the next few years. And our pension payments are increasing, not decreasing.

And yes, astute reader: That means San Diego actually hasn’t yet deposited any tax revenue in its infrastructure fund that came from sales taxes since Prop. H was passed, because our annual sales tax receipts have yet to exceed the inflation-adjusted 2016 level. So much for that.

What’s relevant now: But the third source could throw things off. That provision dedicated half of the growth in hotel taxes, franchise fees and property taxes to the infrastructure fund, up until 2023. And unlike sales taxes, this provision relies on the year-to-year revenue growth, rather than using 2016 as a baseline.

That’s fine, in a world where every revenue source increases little-by-little every year. But if something massive happens – something like a global pandemic that makes leisure travel illegal, for instance – and one revenue source plummets in one year, it can be pretty disruptive when the revenue rebounds the following year.

Here, picture it: Let’s take a look at some round numbers, just to make things easy. In recent typical years, San Diego collected about $120 million a year from hotel taxes. Imagine that number bottomed out during the pandemic, to something like $60 million. And then let’s assume it rebounds to $100 million in 2021. In that scenario, $20 million – half of the increase from the pandemic bottom – would have to go to infrastructure, rather than the city’s fund for general services.

“If COVID had happened a year later we wouldn’t be impacted as much, as much of Prop. H drops off after (2022),” Modica wrote in an email. “But as it is, a quirk of the way Prop. H was structured allows the infrastructure fund to claim an outsized portion of bounce-backs in revenue.”

This is all the case unless the City Council decides to waive the Prop. H requirements, as it’s entitled to do, during the budget adoption process.

So, there’s a backdoor out of the problem, if the Council wants to use it. But, yeah, it’s likely to need to use it.

Related: Contributing writer Ramin Skibba explored the tight connection between the city of San Diego and the hospitality industry. Obviously, city politics will center, in part, on the hotel industry, as long as the city has a 10.5 percent (or more?) stake in the industry’s revenues. Skibba talked to locals about whether other parts of the economy could ever be as important to City Hall with that being the case.

The Political Fallout of a Sports Arena Hiccup

San Diego sports Twitter did not appreciate the news Thursday that an unforeseen interpretation of state law has disrupted the course of negotiations between Mayor Todd Gloria and Brookfield Properties to redevelop the Sports Arena area into an urban entertainment district.

Stung by the departure of the Chargers and the half-dozen failed stadium plans that proceeded it, and the failed SoccerCity plan that followed it, San Diego’s most ardent sports fans experienced déjà vu.

“I hate this state,” wrote one fan. “Of course … so San Diego,” wrote another.

“Oh my god,” wrote one more, capturing the general sentiment.

Could be a sign: Union-Tribune reporter Jenn Van Grove who has followed the project as closely as anyone, said Friday that she had heard rumors that negotiations weren’t going well, and speculated that the state policy issue could be the cover story of a deal falling apart anyway.

There’s no question that things were moving slow. When former Mayor Kevin Faulconer rushed to choose a developer before he left office, he laid out a timeline for the deal that suggested the City Council could be voting on a final agreement right about … now. Instead, Mayor Todd Gloria took over in December, and his first 100 days passed without a peep about the project.

But on its face, it doesn’t seem that the state’s interpretation of recent changes to the Surplus Land Act should shoulder the blame if things go sideways.

A short delay: The upshot of the curveball the state has thrown is that when the city leases public land, like it’s trying to do with the Sports Arena, it needs to offer it to other public agencies and affordable housing developers before it can strike a deal with a private party, just like it would have to if it was selling the land.

If that interpretation sticks, it means the city needs to make the 48 acres in Midway available for 60 days before resuming negotiations with Brookfield. Maybe another public agency or affordable housing developer jumps on it, and if so that would be a deal killer, but that would be something of a surprise.

And if no one does, then it’s just a two-month delay before everyone goes back to negotiating.

As far as scapegoats go, it’s not an especially good one.

The affordable housing picture: The state law in question requires that once other public agencies and affordable developers pass on the land, anyone who builds housing there would need to reserve at least 15 percent of it for low-income residents.

Think about it: On the campaign trail, Gloria said securing ample affordable housing there would be his top priority. It could be that this whole thing makes his job a bit easier, establishing an affordable housing standard above the city’s existing inclusionary requirement.

The city’s standard requirement is already 10 percent. Three years ago, a similar project – SoccerCity – proposed meeting only the city’s minimum inclusionary requirement, and got beat up for it all the way through an unsuccessful campaign.

Affordable housing has only become a more salient political topic since then.

What to look for: For one, sports fans don’t yet need to panic that San Diego has once again blown its chance to improve its sports facilities. That time may come, but we’re not there yet. And if in the coming months anyone tries to point to this as the reason the deal died, we should greet that with healthy skepticism.

Notes

Cindy Marten
Cindy Marten speaks at the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee hearing.

Teachers want to go back: Members of the San Diego Education Association, San Diego Unified’s teacher’s union, ratified the agreement with the district to bring students back to campuses April 12. The vote was 92 percent yes. But the union told its members to be vigilant about requirement that kids be separated by six feet despite the CDC’s updated guidance last week that three feet would be adequate in many circumstances.

Not budging on distance: “On the question of distance our agreement is crystal clear: ‘Student chairs shall be positioned at least 6 feet away from one another. Under no circumstance should the distance between student chairs be less than 5 feet,'” read the union’s note to members.  The requirement means that some schools will only bring students back for two days per week but many parents reported hearing from principals their schools would do four days per week as staff scrambles to see how many students are returning and how much room they have.

No guarantees: “As we head into spring break we hope the greater San Diego community continues to do their part to keep the community COVID-19 rates down. However, if rates do start to climb again, there is criteria in our agreements to keep our school communities safe,” the union wrote.

Marten faced questions: San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten will likely get the Senate’s nod to become deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, based on the largely positive reception she got in a committee hearing Wednesday. But it also the first time we’ve seen her face direct questions about reopening schools and other difficult subjects. We reviewed some of those moments on the podcast. And you can catch up with Will Huntsberry’s review of the five big exchanges he noticed.

(Clarification: The post was updated to reflect Kasparian’s role when he led the Labor Council. He operated it as board chairman.)

If you have any feedback for the Politics Report send it to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org. 

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