COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | ERIC CHRISTEN

Unions manipulate city leaders with CEQA threats

Remember the sudden burst of attention at the state Capitol in mid-August about reforming the California Environmental Quality Act?

Labor unions and other organizations continue to hold up projects using CEQA until they get a payoff from the developer — a practice known as greenmail.

The U-T San Diego even published a letter from three former California governors urging the Legislature to amend CEQA and stop special interest groups from abusing it.

A CEQA reform proposal was drafted but never introduced. Then the issue disappeared as quickly as it came.

That outcome was regrettable, but understandable. Why would any elected official take the political risk of pushing for CEQA reform?

In San Diego, the city’s civic leaders regard union CEQA abuse as a customary part of doing business. Instead of exposing it and shaming the perpetrators, they say nothing publicly and surrender to it privately. Then they pass the costs to the taxpayers and consumers.

A new, outrageous example surfaced on Sept. 19 at the meeting of the commissioners of the Port of San Diego. Commissioners were scheduled to approve the project’s 1,400-page final environmental impact report. The San Diego region’s top civic leaders, including the mayor of San Diego, packed that meeting room.

In front of everyone, union officials shamelessly dumped hundreds of pages of environmental objections on Port commissioners. They declared that the environmental report that the commissioners were about to approve was inadequate and incomplete under CEQA.

An official of the UNITE HERE Local Union No. 30 led the attack by declaring that the Port’s plan to comply with CEQA was deficient and needed to be withdrawn for revisions.

Then a lawyer from the South San Francisco law firm of Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo explained more specifically all of the newly discovered alleged problems with the environmental report. She was given extra time to speak because Tom Lemmon, business manager of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council, submitted a speaker card and then transferred his speaking time to her.

Could Lemmon even articulate why his union feared environmental devastation from the proposed Convention Center expansion? Probably not, but he certainly knows how to suggest a union project labor agreement as the “solution” to those environmental threats.

Lorena Gonzalez, the head of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, then arrived at the meeting late to express her concerns about the environmental impact of the Convention Center expansion.

Apparently she really wanted to hammer home to every civic leader in the room that unions have the power and the shamelessness to derail the project unless the unions get a monopoly on the work.

What an opportunity for Mayor Jerry Sanders to rise before the city’s leaders and condemn these brazen actions! Instead, he and his staff chatted in the hallway with Gonzalez while the Port commissioners recessed so staff could study the unions’ last-minute CEQA document dump.

In the end, the Port commissioners voted unanimously to approve the project. They also noted that they expected litigation and appeals unless relevant parties were able to “make a deal with the unions.”

Basically, commissioners encouraged everyone in the room to give the city’s union leaders what they wanted so the project could move on. That’s what CEQA is about today.

What are the unions seeking with their CEQA objections? Simple: a project labor agreement on the construction side and a union agreement for all employees on the operations side.

How are these labor agreements related to environmental protection? They aren’t.

Keep in mind that voters in San Diego County, the city of San Diego, the city of Chula Vista, the city of Oceanside and the city of El Cajon have voted overwhelmingly to ban project labor agreements in the last three elections. People in the San Diego region understand how unions win monopolies on construction, and they reject it.

Why aren’t San Diego business, community and political leaders — other than Councilman Carl DeMaio — holding these union officials accountable for their CEQA extortion on the proposed Convention Center expansion? Why aren’t they highlighting this incident as an outrageous example of CEQA abuse?

Apparently America’s Finest City is fine with this “cost of doing business in San Diego.” What an outrage.


Christen is executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction.

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