You’ll see them at City Council meetings when a big hotel approval or labor contract comes around.
Plasterers, painters, carpenters, electrical workers: They’ll look on from the audience and stand to voice support for a project they can work on – and rise in thundering cheers when it comes time for one of their loudest advocates to press his hands on the speaker podium.
Ernesto Medrano, a skilled workforce representative, has for years pushed labor agreements at public meetings for the LA/OC Building & Construction Trades Council, an umbrella group for 48 local construction unions in 14 trades, consisting of more than 100,000 skilled workers in Southern California.
This past July, the building trades made Medrano their top boss, to oversee the kind of workforce that can often relate to the working-class needs of the communities in which they build homes and commercial buildings.
Instead, in Anaheim, the building trades have been called out by city-hired corruption investigators for allegedly being part of a Disneyland resort interest shadow government enforcing a corporate-friendly atmosphere at City Hall – and all at the detriment of the city’s working-class residents, many of whom are on public health plans.
“The so-called ‘Cabal’ seemed to be comprised of: The Chamber, SOAR (A Disney-controlled political fundraising committee), Disney and then the Police & Fire Associations and Building Trades,” reads investigators’ July 31 report.
“The apparent plan was that the Platinum Triangle, the Resort, and Disney would all prosper together.”
Medrano disputes the assertion.
“We never even got a call from the investigators. They never reached out to us. And we’ve never participated in any of the illegal, immoral, unethical activities the (former mayor Harry Sidhu) did over there,” said Medrano in a Sunday phone interview.
He denied his organization being part of any shadow government.
“They (investigators) lumped us in with that,” Medrano said. “Why don’t you talk about the good things that we provide and instead of accusing us of something that’s untrue?”
Critics of City Hall’s resort-friendly political establishment, however, are surprised by how little the building trades are mentioned in the July 31 report on corruption at City Hall, which was ordered by Anaheim City Council members last year in response to explosive FBI affidavits that surfaced in May 2022, in which federal authorities’ first revealed their understanding of a big-business cadre governing Anaheim from the shadows.
“When we have construction and development – of course that provides good-paying jobs and support,” said Jose Moreno, an ex-council member who held office from 2016 through 2022, and at times found himself alone in questioning City Hall’s prevailing resort political establishment.
But Moreno said the building trades’ advocacy went beyond matters of labor contracts:
“The trades would often come to meetings packed every time – they would come to convince the City Council on corporate tax giveaways to build luxury hotels or tax exemptions for Disney, on the grounds that many of the building trades’ members live in the city and they want to work in the city that they live in, which cuts commute time and all these other costs for them and family time.”
“I don’t recall one instance when the building trades ever came to advocate for policies that were to the benefit of working people who live in the City of Anaheim. In fact, they were noticeably silent on any discussions about affordable housing development in the City of Anaheim.”
One key plan by Disneyland resort interests was to keep as much as $100 million out of the city’s general fund once resort bonds are paid off – the most flexible fund the city council has, which can bolster community services, increase library hours, fund more seniors services and even build another community pool.
All in a town where nearly half its residents are on a public health plan – a benchmark on poverty.
The way Medrano sees it, his organization stepped into Anaheim politics precisely for that reason. He said his only interest was getting his union members – blue collar people with immigrant backgrounds – to work: “We provide career opportunities for young men and women that aren’t going to go to college.”
As a line of work, Medrano said construction is “nomadic.” The work moves from city to city, from project to project. Thus the workers finish one job and move on to the next one.
The work is also contingent on the developer. And in this relationship, Medrano said, there are opportunities to bring people into the middle class – good paying jobs which are won through labor negotiations with developers for community benefit components, like local hiring.
So if the job is called in Anaheim, “we will dispatch residents from Anaheim first, before anybody else,” Medrano said, adding that his organization continues to bring more people into the trades, specifically people who come from disenfranchised communities, be it through apprenticeship programs for ex-offenders or partnering with schools and anti-recidivism coalitions.
Most of those outreach efforts are in LA, though Medrano said “we’d like to do the same thing here.”
“We provide pathways to the middle class.”
In their report, city-hired investigators – citing a 2019 article by the OC Weekly – noted that Medrano was one of the inaugural members of Anaheim First, a controversial nonprofit created by the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce.
Investigators have described Anaheim First as a vessel for resort interests’ misuse of public funds, and critics have described the group as a way to manufacture grassroots community support for corporate welfare policies.
Medrano’s daughter, Xochitl Medrano, also served as a director for the organization.
Ernesto Medrano, over the phone, said he never witnessed such wrongdoing while part of the group, arguing he only ever saw the organization gathering public input on how to spend the city’s revenues from tourism and resort visitors back on community programs.
“At least that’s what I saw. I never saw anything different. Or heard of anything different,” Medrano said.
Investigators described Anaheim First as a “political data mining operation.”
Medrano, asked to respond, said, “What does that mean? I don’t even know what it means. I don’t know what they collected. I know there were some consulting groups that were a part of it. But they were there for the purpose of understanding the local districts and running the town halls that facilitate the discussions.”
Under Medrano, the building trades would routinely advocate for resort hotel construction projects at city council meetings – often at the ire of some residents and elected officials who questioned the developers’ taxpayer subsidies that accompanied the project’s City Council approval.
Medrano also vocally opposed a minimum wage measure that voters approved in 2018. Known as Measure L, the ballot initiative mandated that any resort businesses who receive a city subsidy pay hospitality workers a nearly $20-an-hour minimum wage.
“I’m a proud trade unionist and representative for union members across Orange County. I support working people negotiating to get a better wage. So, you’d think I would support Measure L in Anaheim,” Medrano wrote at the time. “But I don’t. The truth is that Measure L would help very few of my Anaheim neighbors get a raise, and would hurt the rest of us, a lot.”
Most recently, an appeals court panel found that Disneyland is receiving a city subsidy and must pay its workers a nearly $20 an hour minimum wage.
Medrano, over the phone, said the measure put his organization’s labor contracts with developers in jeopardy.
But Moreno, the former council member, said Medrano “crossed the line” with his opposition to it in 2018.
“They clearly were part of orchestrating and strategizing with the shadow government of Anaheim, to not only determine the direction of corporate subsidies and tax welfare tax credits, but other policies as well, to keep everybody in line with the interests of the entire coalition that called itself a cabal.”
In the larger scope of Anaheim’s precarious political scene, Medrano characterized his organization as being “in the middle.”
The resort developers – “they respect us because of the manner in which we we engage, you know. Scorched earth approaches don’t work. They respect us because of our labor abilities, because we do provide community component benefits for the residents. And that gives good optics for them. But it’s more than just optics, it’s real, we provide that opportunity for young men and women to come in.”
“We’re not policy makers. We just want to put our members to work where they have opportunities to advance their careers.”
The way activist and resident Marisol Ramirez sees it:
The building trades in Anaheim “were there to do a temporary job – and they’ll be back when they want more jobs. What about residents living in the current conditions, in the aftermath? That’s where we need to have true solidarity.”
“That’s the tough thing,” said Ramirez, a director for the community group known as OCCORD. “We want to say we have union, living wage jobs, but we also have to talk about quality affordable housing. Can people afford to live where they’re working?”
The building trades may have fought for its members’ financial well being, Ramirez said, “but everything else was left on the back burner.”
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