Column: Will San Diego’s Organized Labor Recover From Earlier Political Setbacks Tuesday?

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The stakes are high in Tuesday’s election for San Diego’s organized labor force.

Voters will decide voting measures affecting union involvement in city projects and whether to clear the way for a garbage fee that could boost revenue for a range of public services and benefit local government workers.

The unions also support various candidates standing for election at all levels of government.

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However, there is more at stake than the success of labor market-backed policies and candidates. A nuanced dynamic of union prestige and power is at stake.

The growth of allied Democrats’ labor power and dominance on boards and councils across the region over the years is well documented.

Labor has seen some bumps in the road this year which could fade from memory when unions have a good night on Tuesday. If not, these setbacks might be viewed more as symptoms of longer-term concerns.

Politically, organized labor had a very bad week in June. A coalition of labor unions and environmentalists failed to gather enough signatures to put a half-cent transit sales tax on the November ballot, the county’s electoral roll announced June 10.

Three days earlier, a business-backed Democrat defeated a labor-backed Democrat in a widely watched race for a vacant seat in Parliament.

The failure of the transit tax was amazing. Given the solid and well-funded signature collection, qualifying the measure should have been a piece of cake. It seemed like the real question was whether enough San Diegos would vote for the measure in the fall.

Local voters approved transportation taxes years ago. More recently, they overwhelmingly voted in favor of a new transportation tax (Measure A in 2016) and hotel taxes (Measure C in 2020) for expansion of convention centers, homeless programs and road repairs, but missed the required two-thirds by a majority.

Courts have ruled that the threshold for tax measures from citizens’ initiatives should be lowered to a simple majority. But the transit proposal was never able to test that.

This was not just a blow to the coalition. This tax would be the first of several funding measures designed to help fund the $160 billion transportation plan proposed by the San Diego Association of Governments for decades to come, which would certainly create many union jobs.

On June 7, former San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez defeated former councilwoman Georgette Gómez in a special election for the 80thth assembly district. The seat had become vacant when incumbent Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher resigned to become head of the California Labor Federation.

Gonzalez Fletcher and the vast majority of unions in the region rallied behind Gómez, who was also supported by the Democratic Party and many progressives. But grassroots democratic support has not been so uniform. Alvarez had support from numerous Democratic officials, particularly from the South Bay, in addition to industry and business groups. He also addressed Republican voters.

Alvarez was elected to the remainder of Gonzalez Fletcher’s term, which ends in December. He finished just behind Gómez in a concurrent four-person elementary school for a full two-year term. But the policies heading into the November election favored Alvarez enough that Gómez was effective fallen out of the race in September.

Labor is working hard for mixed results on Tuesday.

Unions are pulling out all the stops in the city of San Diego to pass Measure D, which would overturn a decades-old ban on project labor contracts. Such pacts on construction projects set labor and wage standards, with preference generally given to union workers. (The ban does not apply to state-funded projects.)

Measure D has produced the campaign with the highest spending on local electoral action and features two political heavyweights: unions – particularly those representing construction workers – versus the construction industry, many of whom supported the voter-approved 2012 ban.

The two sides combined have spent more than $3 million, with the majority coming from Measure D supporters. according to to David Garrick of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced his support for the proposal. That was a coup for organized labor, but it also underscores the importance of this for unions. It is rare for the governor to endorse a local voting measure.

Measure B, the garbage fee proposal, is a higher profile measure in terms of media coverage and public awareness, if not campaign spending. The proposal would repeal the centuries-old “People’s Ordinance” that doesn’t allow the city to charge a separate fee for garbage collection at most single-family homes. Currently, apartment buildings and companies have to pay for private garbage collection.

Proponents want the city to start charging single-family homeowners and raising tens of millions of dollars to support city services and workers’ salaries in the interest of fairness. The Union of Municipal Employees is a major supporter of Measure B, which was supported by other unions.

Unions support many candidates across the region, but two Democrat-versus-Democrat races are worth noting.

In San Diego City Council District 6, working class and the Democratic establishment have largely fallen behind Kent Lee and Tommy Hough – both apparently well-respected Democrats when they entered the race.

This election will give the Democrats all nine seats on the city council, with the sole Republican, District 6 incumbent Chris Cate, being recalled. Whoever wins is unlikely to significantly affect the Council’s policy approach, if only marginally.

A more intriguing and puzzling race is taking place in National City, where Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis lost most of the workforce and Democratic establishment support she once had to City Council member Jose Rodriguez. The change appears to be related to a dispute over the city manager’s tenure and extermination policy. That split could benefit former Mayor Ron Morrison, a current Council member who is the third candidate for mayor on the ballot.

Whatever the outcome of this and several other elections, nothing would be more devastating for unions than if Measure D fails.

That would be three big losses this year and it would seem to be a reason for organized labor to reconsider its political path forward.

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