The stakes are high for Big Labor on Tuesday, and while the national press has been largely focused on Wisconsin, union political operatives are waging a second battle that will culminate on June 5: in San Diego.
Not long ago, San Diego was dubbed “Enron by the Sea” for a pension scandal that crippled city finances and led to the resignation of incumbent Republican Mayor Dick Murphy. I served as the Chairman of the Republican Party of San Diego County at the time, and can say with certainty that the subsequent election of Republican Jerry Sanders in the special election that followed Murphy’s resignation was a near-miracle at the time.
The city has embarked on a series of reforms aimed at restoring its financial standing, and doing so (at the insistence of voters) without raising taxes. The next two reforms go before city voters on June 5, and each is strongly opposed by Big Labor.
Proposition A effectively prohibits the city from insisting on expensive union-only Project Labor Agreements for future construction projects. County voters adopted a similar measure in 2010, taking away a tool union lobbyists often use to shut non-unionized firms out of public works projects.
The issue of union-only Project Labor Agreements reached a crescendo when in 2008, Gaylord Hotels cancelled a massive new west coast facility in neighboring Chula Vista after local unions continued to use their political influence to insist the new hotel and convention complex by built under a PLA. Gaylord is instead building its newest resort in Aurora, Colorado.
While the countywide ban on PLA’s passed with 76% support, union organizers are pulling out all the stops to defeat Proposition A on Tuesday, pouring over a million dollars from a Sacramento-based trade union slush fund into the opposition campaign. Union officials are no doubt concerned that if one of America’s largest cities, one where Democrats outnumber Republicans by over 76,000 voters, bans their latest new trick, others will follow.
Also on the ballot is Proposition B, a comprehensive pension reform measure for city workers that will make San Diego a pioneer in shifting pensions away from unaffordable “defined benefit” plans and into the kind of 401(k)-style pensions common in the private sector. It is championed by Mayor Sanders, Republican members of the City Council, taxpayer groups, and other leaders.
Proposition A and B are supported by the three candidates for Mayor who are not Democrats. Only old-line Democrat Bob filner opposes these citizen reforms.
Proposition B is heading to a big victory, although not without the predictable opposition of local labor unions. Convinced the measure would pass if it went before voters, union officials tried to short-circuit the measure by interfering with the signature-collection process that successfully placed it on the ballot. Labor-friendly groups even ran radio advertising claiming that signing petitions would lead to identity theft. The union effort failed, but succeeded in driving up the costs of the petition campaign, costing supporters resources that would otherwise have been available for the campaign to pass it.
Proposition A continues to maintain a double digit lead in the polls, despite the intimidating tactics of the Sacramento labor official who has spent $1.2 million to try to defeat it. While the typical voter understands pension reform as the necessary answer to the city’s pension scandal and financial crisis (it will erase up to $2 billion in unfunded city pension liabilities), city construction bidding practices are more complex, and the blizzard of Union hit pieces has added to the confusion.
The financial impact of Proposition A is no less significant – a recent study found that a Project Labor Agreement forced on $2 billion worth of construction projects at the nearly-insolvent San Diego Unified School District drove up costs by approximately 20%.
Union officials are fond of casting taxpayer-friendly reforms like Propositions A and B as “attacks” on “working people,” using much of the same language as we see in the union-led recall drive against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. The long-term strategy is clear: choose high profile targets, defeat them, and send a message to everyone else that they shouldn’t bother with the reforms needed to bring the costs of government in line with reality.
Voters will determine whether this strategy is a success when they cast their ballots on Tuesday.