San Diego overlords and unions — who can stop them?

Big Business and Big Labor team up for downtown projects

Brian Peterson
  • Brian Peterson

A political alliance is getting almost unstoppable in San Diego: organized labor, led by the construction trades, marching alongside the downtown corporate welfare boosters. They control big chunks of both political parties.

This alliance will almost certainly be responsible for further financial fatuity, similar to the proposed $520 million convention center expansion. The unions and business can frustrate public debate, or even block a vote on a project, such as on convention center expansion. The downtown oligarchs want fat subsidies, and labor wants high-paying jobs. The result is more money going into wholly unneeded downtown structures, while throughout the city, infrastructure rots and maintenance lags.

Mel Shapiro

Mel Shapiro

“The construction industry and labor unions are partners,” says civic activist Mel Shapiro. “They want to build things, whether or not it makes economic sense.” Shapiro and attorney Cory Briggs sued to block the kinky arrangement by which the hotels made the decision on the convention center expansion and the people were denied the right to vote. The two lost at the trial level and are now appealing.

“Big Business and Big Labor go hand in hand to promote [unnecessary] projects,” says Brian Peterson, veterinarian and president of the Grantville Action Group. His organization tried unsuccessfully to block a legal agreement through which tax proceeds from Grantville were used to fund projects in downtown San Diego.

One of the key tools of this alliance is the project labor agreement (sometimes called a community workforce agreement), a prehire pact with labor unions that establishes terms and employment conditions — usually generous — for a specific project. Such agreements deal with wages, hiring of local workers, healthcare, and the like and may prohibit strikes and lockouts.

In June of last year, San Diegans voted for Proposition A, which was supposed to ban the use of project labor agreements in City-funded projects. But then came a Kabuki dance that tiptoed around the will of the people.

First, the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council, an umbrella group for the various construction unions, and Unite Here Local 30, representing hotel and restaurant workers, filed a lengthy objection to the convention center expansion. The labor groups gave multiple reasons why the project did violence to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). On the surface, the unions supposedly joined Shapiro and Briggs opposing the project, although savvy San Diegans knew the objections were phony.

“The labor unions were suing to force concessions,” says Richard Rider, chairman of San Diego Tax Fighters. Those supposed environmental objections were “a smoke screen,” he says. “The unions didn’t give a st about CEQA.”

The unions got what they wanted: a project labor agreement with Clark/Hunt, the construction contractor. On cue, the unions dropped their suit opposing the project.

The Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, representing nonunion construction workers, sued the City, arguing that it was not providing details about the project labor agreement to the public.

The coalition also argued that the deal represented an end run around Proposition A. Labor unions rejoined that the pact was kosher because it was with the construction company, not the City.

Lorena Gonzalez

Lorena Gonzalez

The coalition stated that the project labor agreement was worked out with typical San Diego underhandedness between then-Mayor Jerry Sanders’s chief of staff and labor leader Lorena Gonzalez, now in the state legislature. This year, under pressure from the coalition, the City released details of that project labor agreement. It guarantees union-level wages and benefits, although not spelling out hourly rates specifically. Journeyman straight-time hourly wages in the county now are $56.28 for a sheet metal worker, $64.61 for a plumber, and $51.79 for a carpenter doing heavy work, according to the coalition. The agreement bans strikes and lockouts.

The coalition, which says only 11 percent of San Diego construction workers are unionized (others say it is a bit higher), is not satisfied with the agreement. Right now, its suit is ongoing, “but we are currently in settlement agreement discussions,” says Eric Christen, executive director of the coalition.

Erik Bruvold

Erik Bruvold

Erik Bruvold, president of the National University System Institute for Policy Research, says that the political power of construction unions has risen over the past decade and a half, and it’s a statewide phenomenon. He notes that project labor agreements have been used in San Diego for construction of community-college-district buildings and were part of the ballpark politics. “The typical pattern is the unions oppose the project until the agreement is put in place.”

Rider says that the agreements are particularly potent, considering the prevailing wage legislation finalized in San Diego in September. It requires contractors on certain public works and maintenance projects to pay a fair, livable wage. If a subsidized football stadium is ever built, this legislation will raise costs by $100 million, Rider says.

John Moores

John Moores

These agreements can wield political wallop. In 2005, during heated discussions on Ballpark Village plans, then–Padres controlling owner John Moores’s construction company faced a session with the city council. So the day before the meeting, Moores’s company made a sudden deal with unions to pay higher wages. The arrangement also dangled goodies in front of environmentalists and affordable housing advocates. The council approved his Ballpark Village plans.

“All the unions want are project labor agreements,” says Steve Erie, professor of political science at the University of California San Diego. “They are in bed with the corporate welfare crowd. The convention center expansion represents insanity. Centers are so overbuilt. These are massive subsidies to hoteliers” — thanks greatly to that coalition of developers and unions.

Heywood Sanders, the nation’s expert on convention centers, says that organized labor does not play as big a role in other cities as it does in San Diego. After he told San Diego leaders about the overbuilding of convention centers, Lorena Gonzalez, then a labor leader, asked him, “Have you ever been inside a convention center?” remembers Sanders, chuckling. He believes the labor/corporate welfare alliance has so much more clout in San Diego because the City is “politically disorganized and weak.”

Says Norma Damashek, former president of the League of Women Voters, “Labor unions have lost their way; they have become overly influenced by construction jobs and project labor agreements. They have sold out their working-class principles.”

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In San Diego, it's not Republican v. Democrat, or South of I-8 versus North...

It's Insiders versus Outsiders.

Thank you to people like Brian Peterson who has fought for so many years to give the outsiders a glimpse of what is happening behind closed doors, and to unite so many in the fight against corruption San Diego style.

Fred. Agreed. Brian deserves kudos. Best, Don Bauder

"Says Norma Damashek, former president of the League of Women Voters, 'Labor unions have lost their way...They have sold out their working-class principles.'”

That's an incredible telling statement in a story about labor unions getting higher pay for their members.

Isn't that the goal of unions, not "working-class principles" which is merely a euphemism for a fringe leftist agenda?

Of course, she need not worry about being abandoned by her comrades because while labor works for higher-paid jobs on projects that may or may not be needed, it also helps elect city councils and legislators who create policies that reduce the number of higher-paid jobs for the "working class." We can see that at work right now in Barrio Logan, where the process has been approved to slowly drive out the last waterfront maritime industries on San Diego Bay.

Fear not Norma, despite the unions and because of the unions the working class will continue to be held back so that they remain beholden to government.

And while we're all singing the blues about the supposed rotting neighborhoods, have any of you ever bothered to go out into the neighborhoods and see how much they have improved over the last decade or two, along Adams Ave, 30th St, Park Blvd., even nasty old El Cajon Blvd. (and University)?

There has been a real renaissance in these outlying commercial districts that in fact happened at the same time Petco was being built, as the Gas Lamp was continuing to grow, as more downtown hotels and condos were being built. When we continue to hear time after time about the supposed neglect and decay, the speakers come across as either very naive or dishonest. This has become the Big Lie in San Diego.

But, back to the point, why would that surprise us when labor unions are now accused of selling out because they strive for better jobs for their members?

What is the emoticon for bemused head-shaking?


Dear Bob_H: "a real renaissance in these outlying commercial districts"

You must be deluded. The ratty streets in the mainly commercial urban outlying areas are as ratty as ever, unless you are distracted by colorful BID banners, expensive designer trash cans and benches and bike racks (replacing or competing with the simple, low-cost City ones), hipster bars (yes, some sell hip food, but w/o alcohol they wouldn't make it), and Redevelopment/Housing commission-subsided multiunit built-to-the-curb/parking garage monster projects. Those are all essentially built with tax/private assessment monies imposed on business and property owners, locally and statewide. The nonprofit managers/owners/builders making the deals and the profits are insiders with the ULI-MainStreet-labor crowd, and sit on every board they can get on. City departments in charge of infrastructure planning and maintenance have been stripped of their real functions and are subservient to the private circles of boards and advisors. (One example: the recent demand of the former Redev board, now Civic San Diego, to be given control of permit issuance and compliance.)

The goal of the architect/developer/builder/business association groups is to turn the "outlying" areas into continuations of the dense core area downtown. Infill/densification has been the rallying call for the ULI crowd since the beginning of the real estate boom-scam-bust era in East Village, Barrio Logan, Golden Hill, City Heights, North Park, South Park, Hillcrest, University Heights, Grantville, and Ken-Tal. They never stopped during the recession, but just rebranded their goals (green, eco-friendly, walkable,buy local, no-free-parking, pro-bicycle, blah blah blah) and fine-tuned their Land Use jargon to make it seem like packing low-density-zoned neighborhoods with "granny flats" was right out of Leave It to Beaver-land and Happy Days, where everyone walks and ride bikes to nearby (high-priced) "small" businesses and never need leave their neighborhoods. Over the years the players whose careers depend on building, building, building have grabbed generous subsidies to throw in a few so-called low-income units in order to get fabulous deals on loans and exemptions.

Get real. There is also no emoticon for your hype.

honestGoverentBob. Bob seems to think that downtown corporate welfare and blooming neighborhoods go together. That is a novel idea. Best, Don Bauder

Don - really love this article. Truly insightful. Tells of the difficulty for common (unknowing) working families sold a bill of bads.

Shirleyberan. Bill of bads is right. Best, Don Bauder

Don, I'm not sure that you went far enough with your analysis of this cabal of former competitors who are now in bed together. You left out the public employee unions. Those unions are where the real power lies today because of their financial clout that continues through good times and bad. Their members are very well compensated and are entitled to huge pensions after two or three decades of "service." Despite the widespread publicity about the generous pay and overly-generous benefits, large swaths of the public are still drinking the Kool-Aid put out by the cops and firefighters. While it is true that both groups of employees have to deal with the underside of the human experience, there are limits on what they should be, or need to be, paid. We have greatly exceeded those limits locally.

So, by the time that the corporate welfare crowd as aided and abetted by the construction unions have looted the public treasury, and the overpaid municipal staffs have their share, little or nothing is left over for the neighborhoods and infrastructure. The potholes keep getting deeper, and the water mains continue to break.

Visduh: Public employee unions are responsible for pernicious excesses -- no doubt about that. I wrote reams about that, as did others, during the pension crisis early in the decade.

Public employees also help bring about wasteful and unneeded corporate welfare schemes by juggling the numbers to attempt to justify claims spouted by the mayor and council. The grand jury showed how bureaucrats were pressured to falsify numbers to make it look like transient occupancy tax receipts would service the ballpark debt. (It didn't happen, of course.)

Maybe the public employees unions merited a mention in this article. It's a close call. Best, Don Bauder

The new San Diego Public Library is the most labor intensive library in the country. A homage to the power of San Diego's organized labor. The labor cost are so high that the computers for the new San Diego library are the type one spots at a yard sale.

clockerbob: Hmmm. Interesting. It does sound rather conspiratorial, doesn't it? Best, Don Bauder

As evidenced by the latest fight at Qualcomm stadium captured on Youtube, the Chargers are attracting the lowest tier and scum of society as fans. I would like to see both the Chargers and the Padres leave San Diego for good. Once the teams have gone the politicians can settle down and run the city.

Burwell: And Callifornians are taught to believe that Texans are crude and violent. I counted ten times as many who looked like Chargers fans as Cowboys fans. Supporters of football say it gives people a way of working out their violent urges peacefully. Uh, 'tain't necessarily so.

This was all caught on camera...probably the wee, modern, handheld kind. Science has come out of the Stone Age but society hasn't. Best, Don Bauder

This is amusing because in earlier generations, baseball was the blue collar sport, and football something for white-collar types. That had to do with the fact that baseballers tended to come from families in the crafts, trades and industrial occupations, and generally didn't go to college, but headed into the minors in their late teens. On the other hand, pro football got its prospects from the universities after they had graduated--or at least used up their collegiate eligibility. And so, it was college stars who went on to star in the NFL. The viewership of games tended to follow that pattern. But in the past ten to twenty years, the NFL seems to have found a strong following in the lower strata of society, and baseball is appealing to higher income and better educated folks, especially women. Odd how these patterns reverse, isn't it?

Visduh: Within the past couple of days there has been a report that the National Football League is rethinking its policy of making players attend college for at least a short period before being eligible for the draft. College football is a nearly-free minor league for the NFL, and some in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) are unhappy about it.

Football is such a violent game that I think it was always inevitable that it would appeal to hooligans more than baseball does. Also, football is part and parcel of the gambling industry, which gets much of its money from roughnecks, if not rednecks. But the change took awhile. Yours is a perceptive observation. Best, Don Bauder

I'm all for massive construction spending, and so are most progressives. We want better roads, sewers, mass transit, water, solar installations, etc,, The argument right now concerns what to build with limited resources. We have real unmet needs, but some want to sell us giant playpens for the rich instead of fixing busted pipes. We should lobby the unions on the value of local projects, there's plenty of work that must be done, and smaller projects aren't boom and bust, and therefore hire fewer workers from out of town.

Psycholizard: The functions you mention -- road, sewers, mass transit, water, etc. are what government is supposed to deliver. But within the last half century, governments have steered taxpayer money into projects that should be financed with private capital -- ballparks, football stadiums, hotels, auto dealerships, etc.

It has been a disastrous transformation. Best, Don Bauder

Don: Of course we are all aware of our investment in the private ballparks, because we had to vote on that and the convention center, but I do not remember any vote about hotels or auto dealerships. What would be the logic there? To what, particularly, do you refer?

Yankeedoodle: Hotels are regularly subsidized. There is one in the ballpark district that was heavily subsidized. Papa Doug Manchester, that UT publisher who claims he is a capitalist, insists on hotel subsidies.

As for shopping center and auto dealer subsidies, usually the rationale is that a city or town will steal sales tax receipts from an adjoining city or town. So the shopping center or auto dealer gets a subsidy to plant its roots in the town in return for a generous subsidy. Hopefully, this practice will be ended as redevelopment is ended -- unless it is brought back under another game. Best, Don Bauder

Don: Thanks, I didn't know that. I find it very odd. Who gets to decide how to spend tax money? The City Council? Laws? Combination?

Yankeedoodle: The subsidizing of hotels, shopping centers, auto dealerships, etc. has been going on in California for decades. My guess is that some cities and towns put the subsidy up to the voters, others don't. It may depend on how the money for the subsidy is raised. If it involves higher taxes, it should require a vote.

Did San Diegans get to vote on the massive subsidy for the construction of the Horton Plaza shopping center? I don't remember any such vote. Best, Don Bauder

Thanks for the information. Sounds like a City Council thing. As psycholizard said above, there are plenty of proper public projects to keep union workers busy without these glamorous one-off jobs. My God, the sidewalks themselves could keep them busy for years! They are a public health hazard under the present system of property owner maintenance. A vote by the City Council could dedicate fees for that job. The problem would be to ensure that those funds were safe from marauding, and that, I imagine, would be a matter of figuring out a protected fund, and putting trustworthy people in office to safeguard them.

Once the basic functions of the taxes have been performed, I'd have no problem with other uses that provide services to the public, like the library, or the seismic retrofitting that was done in Balboa Park. But I would never see a reason to underwrite a private business: if one has a sound business plan, why not go to a bank for a loan, the way other entrepreneurs have to do? This conflating of the public and the private irritates taxpayers, who then feel as though they have paid twice-over. Which they have.

Yankeedoodle: Agreed. Fixing the infrastructure would provide construction industry jobs -- plenty of them. But it is different kind of work than putting up a new building. That may be an objection of the construction unions. Best, Don Bauder

I am wondering what the thought is about San Diego proposing to host the 2024 Olympics, and what that means for the people you are discussing here?

Anyone care to speculate, or is it too early?

The "powers-that-be" think it's a great idea. They don't post here. It would cost untold billions to hold Olympics in San Diego (or most anywhere else for that matter). It is a fantasy that will never come true.

Apologies--must have been ambiguity in pronoun usage!

I was asking Mr. Bauder what the Olympics would mean for those he was discussing in the article--not suggesting the movers and shakers would jump into the conversation (but they would be welcome).

Sorry--didn't mean to step on something meant for Mr Bayder.

Not a problem. I am curious about the logistics these Olympic planners have in mind. Last I heard, Montreal was still paying off the Winter Olympics from ages ago.

Sure would be interesting to learn what is being thought.

eastlaker: In re Olympics: keep watching this space. Best, Don Bauder

aardvark: I can't tell you how many times typing on this blog I initially spell my name Bayder. Since I have lived with this name for 77 years, I am able to catch such an error. Best, Don Bauder

Don: Someone must have switched the "y" and "u" keys on my computer yesterday. Oops.

aardvark: It was a gremlin, no doubt. Best, Don Bauder

I like it. A "y" would yield an anagram of "Brayed Don", perhaps best used in conjunction with the "u" version - "A Born Dude". Time for me to get back to work, I think.

Duhbya: "Born dude?" That does NOT describe me. Best, Don Bauder

So I take it that you don't care for "A Born Dude", and suggest that I "Ban Dude...or"? (Insert groan here)

Duhbya: A banning of the word "dude" would be a relief for many folks. Best, Don Bauder

Might be his journalistic sense of dudey.

Duhbya: It's more like digging one's way out of deep dude-doo. Best, Don Bauder

Expressed in typical subdude, uh, subdued, fashion.

Duhbya: "The Camptown ladies sing this song, dude-a, dude-a" Best, Don Bauder

This is taking on biblical proportions. I'm reminded of the Book of Duderonomy.

Duhbya: Or the Eleventh Commandment:"Thou shalt not dude-irt to others." Best, Don Bauder

I'm thinking we've more than paid our dudes on this one.


Duhbya: When one pays dudes (or dudesses) in San Diego, it's usually an under-the-table gratuity to a politician. Best, Don Bauder

Under-the-table, where all committed drunkards wind up eventually. Booze or greed, makes no difference when you're under the influence.

Duhbya: As Dorothy Parker wrote: "I like to have a martini/ Two at the very most/ After three I'm under the table/ After four I'm under the host." Best, Don Bauder

She was a true classic. Another of hers that I like: "Ducking for apples -- change one letter and it's the story of my life." And I've heard that more business is conducted under the table than on top.

Duhbya: If you google dorothy parker + quotations you will get some of the most clever things that have ever been said. She was a classic, as you say. Best, Don Bauder

Yankeedoodle: It's as easy as saying, "You doed good." Best, Don Bauder

But 'doed' is an error, while 'dude' as a noun of direct address is merely usage that, perhaps, does not please you.

Yankeedoodle: While my sons were calling their friends "dude," I was pleased for about five years. That was about 15 or 20 years ago. Best, Don Bauder

Yankeedoodle: Same way I express anything. I just type it out and post it. Best, Don Bauder

According to my experiment, iPhone autocorrects Bayder to Bauder, for what it's worth.

ImJustABill: But we don't own an iPhone, even though our oldest son is a long-time Apple software engineer. Best, Don Bauder

eastlaker: Again, keep watching here. Best, Don Bauder

aardvark: You hope it will never come true. But carefully read the message of this column. With construction labor (mainly Democrats) and corporate welfare boosters (Republicans) sleeping in the same bed, San Diego can get stuck with huge money-losing projects. Best, Don Bauder

Don: Even for them, hosting, or even attempting to host an Olympics, would be way over their heads.

Never understimate the audacity ofenormous egos with unhindered access to someone else's money.

Wabbitsd: Yours is a most perspicacious observation. Best, Don Bauder

aardvark: Metro areas smaller than San Diego have hosted winter or summer Olympics. Many regret it. Best, Don Bauder

Don: As far as I am concerned, LA can have them again. And it's good for San Diego. They can spend any monies necessary for new facilities; we can go see some events if we want; they are in the same timezone as we are, and we won't be affected by a TV blackout.

aardvark: Good attitude. Let LA have the burdens of being host. Best, Don Bauder

eastlaker: I will have more on that. Best, Don Bauder

The Olympics would be the mother of all corporate welfare projects - a few developers making tons of money, a few nice new buildings here and there, a boost in tourism for a couple of years.

Then a 30-year economic hangover trying to cope with the back-breaking debt.

Seems quite unlikely to happen however. Big logistical problems with binational host (SD/TJ) setup.

ImJustaBill: A bi-national Olympics will not happen, per Olympic bylaws (which Filner refused to accept).

aardvark: As of now, Olympics rules ban bi-national hostings. But these rules are often changed. Best, Don Bauder

Don: True, but I don't think this rule will be one that is changed, IMO.

aardvark: You could be right. Best, Don Bauder

ImJustABill: Your analysis is right on the money. Best, Don Bauder

Not quite familiar with how this works, but I said: Very fine article, and underscores why David Alvarez would make a terrible Mayor, although better than any of the other even more Mafia oriented candidates, except Mike Aguirre. I do not think Aguirre will win, so we will just have to recall whoever does. I already have recall papers with the name blank.

The U-T used to decry recalls for anything short of criminal behavior. It failed to point out that criminal conviction resulted in removal from office. But if you look at the outcome of a few recent recalls, as to actual change and reform, you'll realize a sense of futility. We got "Ahnold" as a replacement for "Gray Hair", and was that any better? The Austrian ran as a Republican, but was all across the political spectrum and back. As for his legacy, it is one of a philanderer who engaged in a blatant political payoff to a supposed opponent when he did a last minute grant of clemency. Davis is now just a footnote, and Ahnold is a creep. If it had taken a recall to get Filner out of office, who would we have to replace him? The current pack of liars and thieves is the answer. Recalls seldom solve anything.

Visduh: Yes, but in the case of Filner, a recall would have given him due process. Unfortunately, he had to resign for personal economic reasons. The powers-that-be cooked up phony charges by the attorney general and U.S. Attorney. He couldn't fight those, along with the sexual harassment charges, which I doubt will stick legally.

Remember one very important thing; City Attorney Goldsmith has stated on TV that he began working on removing Filner in January. In the same interview, he said that recalls are too difficult in San Diego.

Goldsmith said he met with several people while he was planning Filner's ouster beginning in January. With whom did he meet? What did they discuss? San Diegans should demand answers. Best, Don Bauder

Best and most intelligent commnt in the thread. Sez it all.

I like Mike, too, but he will not win.

Visduh: Admittedly, he is a longshot. But it looks like he will come out with an intelligent position on the convention center expansion: it is a colossal waste of money because of the national glut of convention space.

Also, I think he will come out against the football stadium subsidy. Intelligent San Diegans then will have one choice: Aguirre (I hope) will publicly oppose these corporate welfare giveaways. He will also stress the infrastructure and reinstatement of library and other services. Best, Don Bauder

Yankeedoodle: Then get out and work for him. Best, Don Bauder

John Kitchin: Some U-Ters are already smearing Aguirre, just as the paper did when he was city attorney. San Diego needs someone with experience: deals are done in backrooms; politicians talk doublespeak; knives are flying around all over; the corporate welfare crowd will stop at nothing to deny an enemy due process (example: Bob Filner).

Alvarez is too green to understand how this works. Fletcher and Faulconer are tools of Big Money -- the corporate welfare crowd. Only one candidate is sophisticated enough to survive in this snake pit, in my opinion (not the Reader's opinion). That is Aguirre. Best, Don Bauder

John Kitchin: Filner's enemies were working to get rid of him as soon as he was elected. A recall is difficult in San Diego, so the enemies settled on a sex scandal, which is often a surefire route.

The media salivate at a sex scandal, as do the people. Removing someone for incompetence takes too long and may absorb too much money. Best, Don Bauder

You need to be careful, writing the truth like that, or you might have to move to Colorado, to avoid being shot to death by the San Diego Real Estate Mafia!

John does not want to be shot in the head and found dead in the river.

Actually, the La Costa Sanction is part of the IMF, the International Monetary Fund of the Bildenberg Group, and I do write what I can without damage to me at

Mike was the one as City Attorney. He'll be an even bigger one as Mayor

Burwell: I agree -- but again say that this is my opinion, not necessarily the Reader's. Best, Don Bauder

Great thread, and thanks to all who contributed. My plans to recall any Mayor except Aguirre stand, and I have 9 thousand volunteers.

John Kitchen: Yes, but to have a successful recall -- or a lynching, as with Filner -- you have to have the media behind you, accepting every charge without asking questions, and branches of local, state, and federal government cooking up phony charges. You may not get that. Best, Don Bauder

You cannot get the Mafia, which owns the broadcasters since 1920 to go against their own interests.

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