New Team(sters) for Lifeguards?

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.

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