It’s been quite plain to see how the Anaheim City Council’s 3-2 vote last month to grant a $158-million subsidy to the developers of two planned luxury hotel projects has roiled the city’s political establishment.
The deal created a divide on a body that has voted reliably and often unanimously in favor of whatever suited the city’s business interests. And previously placid City Council meetings have become scenes of angry protest.
Less obvious is the impact of the subsidy deal on Orange County’s labor movement.
Last month, Teamsters Local 952 resigned from the Orange County Labor Federation after a majority of federation leaders — including Executive Director Tefere Gebre — intensified their opposition to the Anaheim City Council’s approval of the deal.
Gebre declined to comment on the Teamsters’ exit, saying, “This is an internal federation matter that I would rather not comment on.”
Patrick Kelly, secretary-treasurer of the Teamsters local, also was reluctant to talk about tensions but confirmed the split, saying: “We’re marshaling all of our resources in the direction on job creation, developing better contracts. … We believe we can do that better the way we’re going than the way they were going.”
Kelly said Teamsters Local 952 would remain affiliated with the Los Angeles-Orange County Building Trades Council — “construction unions,” as Kelly described them.
Several other Teamster locals remain affiliated with the OC Labor Federation.
“We are nonpartisan,” Kelly said. “We work with whoever is advancing our interests. That’s different than some organizations.”
Kelly’s statement was a veiled attack on the direct criticism that many labor leaders within the labor federation have leveled against Anaheim’s majority Republican City Council.
Anaheim City Councilwoman Kris Murray has been reaching out to labor leaders like Kelly, hoping that construction-related labor groups might help blunt the attacks coming from other members of the labor federation.
At one Anaheim City Council meeting last month Kelly told Murray, “We got your back.”
During hard times, it’s usual that construction-related labor leaders want things built and that their brethren offer support, regardless of corporate subsidy.
No industry has been hit harder by the recession than the construction industry, and nowhere has that industry been hit harder than in California. The state lost 33 percent of its construction jobs from 2007 to 2009, a far greater percentage than in most states.
“We got 1,200 of our members out of work. In construction, the unemployment rate — it’s 40 to 50 percent,” Kelly said. “We’re focused on doing things that generate jobs and economic development.”
Yet against a backdrop of massive public-sector budget cuts, moves in Wisconsin to strip public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights, efforts in Costa Mesa to lay off half the city’s workforce and Anaheim’s layoffs and outsourcing, many labor leaders are looking differently at deals like the one struck in Anaheim.
These leaders now are much more apt to come out publicly against insider deals that choke the public treasury, despite the short-term impact on jobs and economic development.
“There’s a movement toward accountability,” said Gebre. “We’re holding people’s feet to the fire. We’re fighting back, and of course, that makes people in power uncomfortable. We’re challenging people to get up and fight.”
Leaders like Gebre and Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, have concluded that in order to survive on this new playing field they must take a more aggressive and progressive stance.
They reason that if they don’t act now, they’ll find themselves facing the same kinds of unemployment rates of Kelly’s Teamsters.
“I have a great deal of respect for Patrick and agree that our efforts to advance our agenda should be nonpartisan,” said Berardino. “Unfortunately, the mounting effort to eradicate the labor movement requires an unwavering and aggressive response.
“OCEA has been subjected to an ongoing barrage of anti-union sentiment and has tried to resolve matters in a peaceful, collaborative way. But each time that we adopted this approach, the anti-labor forces have mistaken kindness for weakness.”
The move by Teamsters Local 952 is the result of a shift in politics, Berardino said. “The labor federation has become increasingly action-oriented, and understandably some organizations may have become uncomfortable,” he said.
Similar tensions were on display last month when the local Democratic Party was considering whether to endorse a candidate in the race for the 69th Assembly seat being vacated by Jose Solorio.
The main combatants in that battle are establishment Democrat and County Clerk-Recorder Tom Daly and labor leader Julio Perez.
Given the candidates, party honchos like Democratic Chairman Frank Barbaro, state Sen. Lou Correa and Assemblyman Jose Solorio were more comfortable going without an endorsement.
In the past when such a situation would arise, more often than not labor leaders would accede to the party establishment’s wishes. Not this time. Labor wants Perez, and they’re not making any bones about it.
This weekend at the state Democratic Convention in San Diego, Perez came within 2 percentage points of the 60 percent majority vote required for a party endorsement. And while Perez has the support of Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, its clear he’s going against the established interests of the party.
And for the first time in recent memory, that’s exactly the game plan.
“We are inserting a soul into the party; we’re not leaving the party,” Gebre said at the time of the vote. “The old days are over.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Teamsters Local 952 Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Kelly’s name and misstated his title. The story also misattributed a statement made by Kelly to Jim Adams of the Los Angeles-Orange County Building Trades Council. We regret the errors.