Persistent Pressure Compels San Diego to Spit Out Project Labor Agreement

Persistent Pressure Compels San Diego to Spit Out Project Labor Agreement

For five months, the City of San Diego refused to give the public a Project Labor Agreement negotiated for its planned $520 million convention center expansion. This union agreement was reportedly the result of a backroom deal involving top union leaders, but multiple requests for it under the authority of the California Public Records Act failed to dislodge it.

But today (April 23, 2013), the city provided the labor agreement to the public, less than 24 hours after a construction organization filed a lawsuit to get it. 

Here are some of the twists and turns of this saga, which serves as an excellent case study in how unions manipulate public policy at the state and local level in California.

In May 2012, the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council submitted a massive objection under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) against the draft Environmental Impact Report for the proposed San Diego Convention Center Phase 3 Expansion. Four months later, the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council submitted another massive CEQA objection against the revised and final Environmental Impact Report, this time choosing the drama of presenting it during a packed meeting at which San Diego port commissioners were scheduled to approve the project. (Attorneys for unions routinely engage in last-minute CEQA “document dumps” at California public meetings in order to intimidate public officials and developers into surrendering to union economic demands.)

In November 2012, a few days after union-backed Congressman Bob Filner was elected as the next mayor, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and Lorena Gonzalez – head of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council – held a press conference to announce a settlement concerning the union CEQA complaints and also a settlement concerning a union-backed lawsuit challenging the financing method for the project. The settlements resolved very few of the environmental concerns indicated in the union CEQA complaints – not even the subsequently high-profile concern of protecting the project from sea level rise caused by global warming.

However, the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council now had a Project Labor Agreement for construction of the Convention Center expansion, as proclaimed in a press release. And UNITE-HERE Local No. 30 “extended their Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), ensuring a unionized operation of the Convention Center once expanded,” according to Lorena Gonzalez.

If the apparent union “greenmail” of the project using CEQA as leverage to get labor agreements wasn’t controversial enough, the Project Labor Agreement also appeared to violate a ballot measure (Proposition A) approved by 58% of San Diego voters in June 2012. That ballot measure established a “Fair and Open Competition” ordinance prohibiting the city from entering into contracts that require construction companies to sign Project Labor Agreements with unions as a condition of work. It was put on the ballot in part to protect the convention center from ongoing union lobbying efforts at the city council to win monopoly control of  its construction.

Up to that time, voters and elected boards of local governments throughout the state had been defying union officials and approving Fair and Open Competition policies, starting in October 2009 with Orange County. In response, the California State Legislature passed and Governor Jerry Brown signed into law two bills (Senate Bill 922 and Senate Bill 829) pushed by then-State Senator Michael Rubio to nullify all Fair and Open Competition policies in counties and general law cities and cut off state funding for charter cities (such as San Diego) that enacted or failed to repeal such policies.

Union leaders in San Diego, particularly Lorena Gonzalez, repeatedly warned that the state would cut off money to the City of San Diego if voters didn’t repeal the Fair and Open Competition ordinance they had approved in June 2012. But for now this dramatic threat has proven to be empty, and Proposition A remains in the City of San Diego Municipal Code.

An unexpected political development occurred a few weeks after the mayor and top county union leader announced the settlement agreements for the convention center: Lorena Gonzalez announced her candidacy for the 80th Assembly District seat that would soon become vacant. Like the Eye of Sauron, union political focus in San Diego County shifted from government-mandated unionization to the task of getting her elected.

Meanwhile, a group called the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction sought to obtain the Project Labor Agreement as the preliminary step to a planned lawsuit contending that the union deal violated the Proposition A ordinance. None of the many parties involved – including the City of San Diego – would provide the document, and finally the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction filed a lawsuit against the city to get it.

A press release dated April 18, 2013 stated the following:

“We’re going to get that union Project Labor Agreement, expose it to the public, and make every schemer involved with this union sweetheart deal accountable for breaking the law,” said Eric Christen, executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction.

Perhaps a schemer somewhere was getting nervous. The city promptly handed over the Project Labor Agreement today, April 23, 2013.

Note that the aggressive actions of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction repulse many civic leaders in San Diego. It disrupts the cozy relationship of politicians, unions, and business interests giving each other special favors to get the convention center expanded. It creates additional controversy for a project already under scrutiny for the bizarre tax scheme involving hotel room fee assessments that will be used to pay back the borrowed money (and interest) obtained through bond sales to pay for construction. At a more basic level, many impartial observers believe the expansion is unnecessary and foolish.

Exposing the shenanigans of unions and their cohorts in California wins few friends among the powerful, but it does disgust the ordinary voter who ends up paying for it, one way or another.


Project Labor Agreement for the San Diego Convention Center Phase 3 Expansion

Lawsuit to Obtain Copy of Union Project Labor Agreement on San Diego Convention Center Phase 3 Expansion

Letter claiming the Project Labor Agreement for this public project is a “Trade Secret”

Settlement Agreement – Building Trades Unions – San Diego Convention Center – 2012

Settlement Agreement – Various Construction Trade Unions – San Diego Convention Center – 2012

May 2012 Union CEQA Objections to the Draft Environmental Impact Report on the San Diego Convention Center Phase 3 Expansion

September 2012 Union CEQA Objections to the Final Environmental Impact Report on the San Diego convention center Phase 3 Expansion

Background on Proposition A, the Fair and Open Competition ordinance approved by 58% of San Diego voters in June 2012

For more detailed information, see these web sites:

“San Diego Convention Center” articles in

Kevin Dayton is the President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.

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