Call it a riptide in the ranks of city lifeguards. A dissident group is roiling the city’s beachfront guardians with an effort to split from the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, which represents them and thousands of other City of San Diego workers, and affiliate instead with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
A leader of the dissident lifeguards says they want more effective representation and the right to vote on which union will represent them in the future.
The 300 lifeguards are the only public safety employees in the 4000-member Municipal Employees Association, whose diverse membership includes building inspectors, code-enforcement personnel, and dispatchers. Some lifeguards say the needs of their relatively small group get lost among the dissimilar needs of white-collar employees. The Teamsters have said they would organize the lifeguards into their own bargaining units, one for guards and one for supervisors. The dissident guards also complain that the role of the Municipal Employees Association in the city’s disastrous pension-underfunding scheme has brought discredit to the association.
Lifeguards who support the Municipal Employees Association, on the other hand, feel that representation by the large association gives the lifeguards added clout. Many say it has done a reasonable job given the perilous state of City finances.
Beyond what the dissident effort could mean for the lifeguards, it’s being watched as an internal test of strength for the city employees association. The 83-year-old organization functions in many ways as a labor union but is technically a nonprofit association and is not a member of organized labor’s largest central body, the AFL-CIO. Local 911 of the Teamsters, which is bidding to organize the lifeguards, is a member of the local AFL-CIO labor council.
The Municipal Employees Association has been embattled for the better part of this decade over its role in supporting the pension-underfunding scheme. The employee group has also faced ongoing pressure from the City to roll back wages and benefits, which it agreed to cut by about 6 percent in a contract ratified by members last week. Top that off with a push by some City leaders to outsource City services to private — read, nonunion — companies, along with relentless anti-union campaigns by local media.
The association’s weakness hasn’t gone unnoticed by leaders of the region’s mainstream union movement, which considers the association an outsider. According to the Teamsters, employees other than lifeguards have inquired about bolting from the association and affiliating with them. Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, declined to confirm these contacts. But Gonzalez made clear where her sympathies lie in the lifeguards’ case.
“It is to the MEA’s advantage to have the lifeguards,” said Gonzalez. “But it is not to the lifeguards’ advantage.”
The city’s top labor leader said it was difficult for an organization that includes diverse employee groups to represent the unique needs of lifeguards.
Industrial-labor-union organizers have argued to the contrary for decades, saying workers of all types with a single employer enhance their clout by presenting a united front to employers. But Ed Harris, a lifeguard for 20 years and recognized leader of the movement to affiliate with the Teamsters, says the association is not responsive enough to its members. He pointed to the recent labor agreement with the City as an example. He said the association gave members the materials that explained the agreement only one day before they voted on it.
Harris is also critical of what he says has at times been an excessive emphasis put on seniority by the Municipal Employees Association — giving guards with seniority better work schedules and perks — and says the association hasn’t been responsive to the needs of younger guards. He says pension gains won by the association mean less to lifeguards than to other City workers because injuries and better opportunities cause most guards to leave before reaching the mandated retirement age of 50.
The Point Loma resident bristles at the requirement to join the association and pay the dues. The Teamsters have offered to lower initial dues to $30 monthly, compared with up to $58 now paid by top lifeguards.
Earlier, the dissident lifeguards had sought to affiliate with the city’s firefighters’ union but were rebuffed, even though the lifeguard service is technically part of the fire department. So much for labor solidarity. Harris is more diplomatic: “We learned that it was not a good fit for the firefighters.”
Dissidents did get a welcome from Teamsters Local 911, which represents some employees at the Port of San Diego and other public-sector employees near its home base in Long Beach. Harris acknowledged that the Teamsters have considerable tarnish of their own, as evidenced by a long list of federal convictions of the union’s officers for racketeering, embezzlement, and other serious crimes. In fact, Local 911’s president in the 1980s was among those convicted of federal crimes.
“Every organization has history,” Harris said. Talking with employees currently represented by Local 911 left him assured that corruption was in the past, he added. “And because the Teamsters are an actual union, they have rules and regulations to ensure it does not happen again.”
Concerns about the regulation of public-sector labor organizations were raised by Mike Aguirre when he was San Diego city attorney. In a report last year, he sought to make the case that public-sector labor groups elude many of the legal safeguards established to ensure the integrity of private-sector labor unions. He called for reform of federal labor law to hold the public labor groups to the same standard.
The dissident lifeguards claim to have gathered the signatures of more than 70 percent of the city’s lifeguards on a petition calling for a vote to determine a shift in representation from the Municipal Employees Association and to the Teamsters. But earlier this month, the City’s human resources director rejected the petition on technical grounds. The guards quickly filed an appeal to the city council, which is obligated to rule on the matter within the next month. One legal issue revolves around whether the lifeguards have a common community of interest with other members of the association.
Some lifeguards say they’ve been motivated to leave the Municipal Employees Association because of its role in the pension crisis and because of allegations raised against its longtime leader, Judie Italiano, who now serves as general manager. Those allegations have included charges of special treatment by the City’s pension board and personal use of a union credit card, both of which Italiano denies.
“We have been contacted by big groups who want out of the MEA, people who are pretty much fed up with Judie Italiano,” said Chester Mordasini, president of Local 911.
Mordasini insisted Local 911 would handle affairs differently than the association has. On contract ratification, for example, he said that “911 would have distributed the information a week in advance.”
Daryl McDonald, a lifeguard for 23 years and a member of the association’s negotiating team, says the organization has been responsive to lifeguard issues.
“Everything I have presented [on behalf of the lifeguards], MEA has supported 100 percent,” said McDonald, a Mission Valley resident. “And there has been nothing but open communication.”
McDonald said many of the younger lifeguards are unaware of what the association has accomplished for the group. He acknowledged that lifeguard towers and other facilities and equipment are deteriorating. “But that’s not the fault of our union,” McDonald said. “It’s the fault of the economy. Our union has fought for years to get us better conditions.”
McDonald says he is skeptical that dissidents have gathered the signatures of more than 70 percent of the city’s lifeguards. The number could not be independently verified.
Italiano said that within any union there are dissatisfied members. But she said that the Municipal Employees Association has negotiated added retirement benefits — a so-called supplemental pension savings plan — for lifeguards that exceeds those for fire and police.
“No other safety employees have that,” said Italiano.
She rejected criticism of the organization’s role in the pension-underfunding crisis and her personal conduct. Representatives of the Municipal Employees Association on the pension board agreed to underfunding only after receiving expert advice at the time that the proposal was actuarially sound, Italiano said.
“Our job was to ask and the City’s job was to fund,” said Italiano. “Am I going to quit asking? No.”
Italiano said there are drawbacks to being an AFL-CIO–affiliated labor union. She said the Municipal Employees Association was not bound by a central labor organization’s dictates and preferred its financial independence.
“We want to keep our money here,” she said. On several occasions, she noted, a local government AFL-CIO union has been placed in receivership by the big central organization.
Regarding allegations that she has inappropriately steered union business to a company run by her son, Italiano said the deals have been good for the association’s members and not particularly good for her son. She noted that her son’s company also does business with other labor organizations in town.
Italiano declined to respond to questions about other union business directed to relatives. But she said allegations that she used the association’s credit card for personal business have been “put to bed” by the association’s internal investigation.
Teamsters Local 911 has its own history of family business. Mordasini was hired as a Teamster organizer in the early 1990s by his mother, who headed the union after an indictment against her was dismissed.
Mordasini says the Teamsters have for 20 years worked to rid their organization of corruption. Since a consent decree with federal justice officials, he said, “We are mob-free and a democratic union.”
For lifeguards, representation issues boil down to the brass tacks of working conditions and compensation. Many guards said that the public doesn’t understand the full scope of their work. The guards note that few know they provide law enforcement services such as issuing citations and making arrests, along with their better-known activities such as ocean and cliff rescues and providing emergency medical assistance.
While top-paid lifeguards earn around $70,000 annually, roughly two-thirds of the 300 lifeguards are seasonal and earn much less. But even veteran lifeguards believe they earn substantially less than others doing similar work in police and fire departments.
Guards don’t expect raises during the economic crisis, but they say the City should make improving and replacing deteriorating equipment and facilities a priority. Towers have been condemned, stairways have collapsed, and lifeguards have suffered from the effects of gas leaks and sewage spills, which in one case doused a guard with sewage. Alex Riley, a lifeguard for 14 years, suffered a serious injury when the shutter on a tower that guards had long complained about came unhinged and slammed into his shoulder. “We have dismal facilities,” said Riley.
Bill Russell, who has also worked for the lifeguard service for 14 years, says the Teamsters would allow them to represent themselves, and he says the Teamsters’ lower dues structure provides a better bargain. Others, like Maureen Rabe, a guard with 3 years’ experience, support a move to the Teamsters unless the Municipal Employees Association reorganizes the lifeguards into their own bargaining unit.
Darrell Esparza, a lifeguard for more than 30 years, argues that the association has been helpful. He agreed that injuries and working conditions make it difficult for most lifeguards to serve as long as he has and said he has wished at times that the association had taken more strongly supportive positions.
“But this is the wrong time to make a move,” said Esparza. “With the economy the way it is and the City going through what it is, it does not seem wise to make a move now.”
Charles Davey, a 28-year veteran, says younger guards fail to appreciate what the association has accomplished for them. “This has nothing to do with MEA and the Teamsters, it’s a generational gap,” said Davey, who lives in La Jolla.
John Bahl, a lifeguard for 24 years, says he has no reason to believe the Teamsters would do better for the lifeguards. “The Teamsters [Local 911] are an 8000-person union, and we would be their only public safety union,” said Bahl, an Alpine resident. The association has done a good job in contract negotiations and in dealing with workplace grievances, given the current circumstances, Bahl said, although he says it could do better at lobbying for improved working conditions.
That is something lifeguards on both sides of the union-representation issue seem to agree on: the City is being shortsighted in not assuring that lifeguards have adequate equipment and facilities.
“If San Diego did not have a beach, it would be Columbus, Ohio, with a nice view,” said Alex Riley.
“People really come here for the beach and the coast, and the City does not invest enough in one of the most import parts of the beach — public safety.
“If the beaches got a reputation for not being safe, that would hurt tourism.”