Kearny Mesa–based Local 569 opened an office in El Centro last year, and Badgley, along with other organizers, has developed a group that includes about 200 workers. The union has launched an electricians’ apprenticeship program and holds classes on Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, commonly known as “OSHA regs” — at least in most places. “There were 25 guys in that class, and most were 40 to 50 years old,” said Badgley. “Most had never heard of OSHA.”
Badgley agreed that Imperial County’s official unemployment rate is misleading: For construction workers, the rate is higher.
Micah Mitrosky, another IBEW organizer, says there was a $4 million federal grant that could have been used for improving county government buildings. The grant would have provided work for local workers and energy-efficiency upgrades for county buildings. After legwork by the union discovered the grant money, and IBEW’s commitment to help with the application, the county failed to pursue the grant before the filing deadline.
Mitrosky shared a June 2010 email exchange between herself and the chairman of the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, Louis Fuentes. In the exchange, Fuentes underscored the IBEW’s demand for a project labor agreement that would include a union hiring hall to staff the project. The union says that a local hiring hall is the only legal mechanism for ensuring that projects will hire the county’s unemployed, noting that that hall would be open to hiring nonunion workers, as well as union members.
But for Fuentes, it was a deal breaker.
“We need all available options to create jobs and stimulate our economy,” Fuentes wrote, “but not like this.”
Elsewhere in the email exchange, he noted, “These demands were not supported by the business community of this Valley.”
Calls to Fuentes seeking further clarification of his views were not returned.
“They just sat on it until the deadline passed,” said Mitrosky. “It would have immediately created careers and a training opportunity for craftspeople. They would have the skills to go to work immediately.”
Other union supporters have noted that the county has tried to avoid agreements binding it to pay “prevailing” — read, “higher” — wages for its construction projects.
Imperial County has received about $150 million from the economic stimulus funding passed by Congress last year. But that is about 20 percent below the per capita average for the nation.
“This community does not know how to fight for funding,” said Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comité Civico del Valle, a small organization working on environmental-justice issues. “Local government is not stepping up to the plate.”
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Timothy Kelley, the 45-year-old chief executive officer of the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation, is making a case for Imperial Valley’s future. With all his talk of trade trips, foreign investment, and renewable-energy summit conferences held in the region, it’s easy to imagine a booming county economy.
Kelley, who is an Imperial County native, concedes there’s a problem with unemployment. He also insists that the official unemployment rate is an exaggeration. It’s hard to get accurate numbers, he said, in a county of just 167,000 people, especially given the seasonal nature of agricultural work and the movement of migrant labor.
“Our economy has not been shrinking, the number of jobs in Imperial Valley has not been shrinking,” said Kelley. “What has been increasing is the number of people moving to the valley and applying for unemployment here.”
He added: “We have high unemployment, but it’s not 30 percent. It’s probably in the 20s.” Either way, Kelley said, “Unemployment is a figure in the past, and I want to talk about the future. We had 50 Chinese trade delegations visit our county last year. Interest is really picking up from China.” The Chinese have already invested in a couple of major real-estate projects, including a wholesale center near Calexico and a University of Phoenix campus in El Centro. More should be coming, Kelley said. China, in fact, appears to have taken its place in a succession of potential economic saviors for Imperial County. There was an airport proposal, talk of a bullet train, but no trace of either.
As Badgley noted, “Imperial Valley seems to be a place where big, crazy ideas pop up. And it seems many involve tunnels, pipes, three different states, the Mexican border, and the Salton Sea.”
Kelley said there is interest in developing Imperial County as a logistics hub, given its location just across the border from a cluster of maquiladoras. There’s also the county’s huge cattle production — Imperial County tops the state in beef production — and its proximity to big consumer markets in Arizona and California.
“A lot of companies on the Mexican side of the border want to be on the U.S. side,” he said. “A lot of Asian companies want to be in the U.S. and on the Mexican border. This is a very competitive place to do business, and our costs are less.”
But renewable energy remains the biggest hope.
“There are 14 utilities actively interested in projects, and they have 20-, 30-, 40-year lifetimes,” said Kelley. “The potential is great, and it will take years to develop. This year we will have five or six projects under construction. For a lot of people who didn’t think it was real, now they are seeing it.”
Kelley said interest extends beyond electricity-generating projects. “We are dealing with several manufacturers and service industries. So it’s more than just building a power plant and selling energy that could happen here.”
In a world that must go green, or perhaps not go at all, Imperial County has good reasons to believe it’s in the right space at the right time: abundant sunshine to power photovoltaic panels; high-desert temperatures for projects that tap the sun’s heat to make electricity; and vast stores of geothermal energy.
While there’s a better case to make for building renewable-energy facilities near cities and on urban rooftops — which avoids paving over vast tracts of desert and the huge cost and blight of power lines — San Diego Gas & Electric is proceeding with Sunrise Powerlink, the controversial $1.9 billion electric-transmission line that it says will be used to transport cleanly generated electricity from Imperial County westward to the coast.