What the fight over Larry Mazzola says about the progressive and labor movements and their uneasy relationship
Who really cares about an appointment to the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District Board of Directors? There isn't a delicate balance of power on the board or any major initiative at stake in this fairly obscure district. San Francisco certainly has more pressing issues and concerns.
Yet the Board of Supervisors' April 14 vote to reject Larry Mazzola Jr. and select Dave Snyder for that board says more about San Francisco's political dynamics, the state of the American labor movement, the psychological impact of the recession, how the city will grow, and the possibilities and pitfalls facing the board's new progressive majority than any in recent memory.
It was a vote that meant nothing and everything at the same time, a complex and telling story of brinksmanship in which both sides of the progressive movement arguably lost. And it was a vote that came at a time when they need each other more than ever.
"It was a win for the Newsom-oriented elements of labor," Sup. Chris Daly, who helped spark the conflict, told the Guardian.
The bloc of six progressive supervisors who shot down Mazzola who helps run the powerful plumbers union and was the San Francisco Labor Council's unwavering choice for an appointment that has traditionally been labor's seat on the bridge board is the same bloc the unions helped elected last year. It is also the same bloc that has been fighting the hardest to minimize budget-related layoffs.
The vote says a tremendous amount about the crucial alliance between progressives and labor, how that delicate partnership formed, and what the future holds.
The Mazzola name carries a lot of weight in San Francisco labor circles. The Web site for the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry Local 38 (UA 38) features a photo of U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis standing between Larry Mazzola Sr. and Larry Mazzola Jr., the father and son team that runs the union.
But the Mazzolas and their union are also controversial. As the Guardian has reported ("Plumbers gone wild," 2/1/06), the union owns a large share of the Konocti Harbor Resort (which a lawsuit by the Department of Labor said was a misuse of the union's pension funds) and owns the Civic Center Hotel, which tenants and city officials say has been willfully neglected by a union suspected of wanting to bulldoze and develop the site. The plumbers and other members of the building trades have also fought with progressives over development issues and generally back moderate-to-conservative candidates.
Sup. Chris Daly and several progressive groups locked horns with the union over the hotel a few years ago, and Mazzola Sr. responded by opposing Daly's 2006 reelection campaign, targeting him with nasty mailers and donating office space to Daly's opponent, Rob Black. Yet more progressive unions like Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents city employees, convinced the Labor Council to back Daly and union support helped Daly win.
So when Mazzola Jr. came before Daly's Rules Committee last month, the supervisor unloaded on him, and Mazzola gave as good as he got, telling Daly he didn't want his support and defiantly telling the committee he didn't know much about the bridge district, or its issues, but he expected the job anyway. Those on all sides of the issue agree it was a disaster.
"He was just patently unqualified for the position," Daly told the Guardian. Mazzola tells us his experience with labor contracts would be an asset for the position, but he admits the committee meeting didn't go well. "I was caught off-guard and put in a defensive mode that altered my planned presentation," Mazzola told us.
Whatever the case, Sup. David Campos joined Daly in keeping the Mazzola nomination stuck in committee while the progressive supervisors privately asked labor leaders to offer another choice. "We said, 'Give us anyone else as long as they can intelligently talk about transportation issues and the bridge district," Daly said.
But labor dug in. "It seemed as though the board was trying to dictate to labor what labor should do," Michael Theriault, who heads the San Francisco Building and Construction Trade Council. And the other unions decided to back the trades, for a number of complicated reasons.
"The reason we supported Larry Mazzola is because this was important to the plumbers union," said Mike Casey, president of the Labor Council and head of Unite Here (which includes the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union). "To the extent we can support the trades, we want to."
So when the four most conservative members of the Board of Supervisors used a parliamentary trick to call the Mazzola nomination up to the full board on April 14, the stage was set for the standoff.
Labor is truly a house divided, despite its universal interest in minimizing recession-related layoffs and taking advantage of a new Congress and White House that is generally supportive of labor's holy grail: the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it far easier to form unions.
The April 25 founding convention of National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) in San Francisco caps a years-long battle between Sal Rosselli's United Healthcare Workers (UHW) and their SEIU masters (see "Union showdown," 1/28/09). Rosselli and many others say SEIU under Andy Stern has become undemocratic and has climbed in bed with corporate America, while SEIU says getting bigger has made the union better able to advocate for workers. Both accuse the other of being power-hungry and not fighting fair.
"Inside SEIU, we've been struggling for four years basically on a difference of ideology and vision of what the labor movement is," Rosselli told us. David Regan, who SEIU named as a UHW trustee after ousting Rosselli, told us the union divisions have been overstated by the media. "Everyone is together in pushing the Employee Free Choice Act," he said, glossing over the fact that the legislation is in trouble and recently lost the support of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Nationally, SEIU has been at war with all of the most progressive unions. The union recently made peace with the California Nurses Association after a particularly nasty struggle that involves many of the same dynamics as SEIU vs. NUHW, including accusations by CNA that SEIU was a barrier to achieving single-payer healthcare and was illegally meddling in its internal affairs.
SEIU is also accused of breaking up Unite Here, which fought the most high-profile labor battle here since Newsom became mayor in its contract fight with the big hotel chains. Last month, a large faction from the old Unite affiliated with SEIU, whose officials say they were just helping out after the end of what all knew was a bad marriage. "This is an example of a merger that didn't take," SEIU spokesperson Michelle Ringuette told us. But the building trades have backed Unite Here in its fight against Sterns' SEIU. As Casey told us, "We're in a major fight over our right to exist. There's no other way to characterize it."
Yet in San Francisco, SEIU plays a different role. Local 1021 is the advocate for the little guy, representing front-line city workers who deliver social and public health services. It is the union facing the deepest layoffs in the coming city budget fight and is still negotiating contract givebacks with the Mayor's Office. The union's biggest allies in City Hall are the exact same six supervisors who voted against Mazzola.
So why this standoff? SEIU, Unite Here, and other progressive unions share the Labor Council with the building trades, which are traditionally more conservative and friendly with downtown and, these days, starting to really get desperate for work. "We have thousands of guys on the verge of losing their homes and families," Theriault said. "We are desperate."
That was one reason the San Francisco Labor Council last year cut a deal with Lennar Corporation to back Proposition G, which lets Lennar develop more than 10,000 homes in the southeast sector of the city. Daly, who wanted firmer guarantees of more affordable housing, was livid over the deal and has been at odds with the council ever since. But Daly said labor's undercutting of progressives goes back even further and includes the early reelection endorsement Rosselli's UHW gave Newsom in 2007, which helped keep big-name local progressives out of the race.
Tenants groups, affordable housing advocates, and alternative transportation supporters form the backbone of progressive politics, but on development projects, they often clash with the trade unionists who just want work. And labor expects support from the progressive supervisors. As Mazzola pointed out, "It was labor that got most of those guys elected."
But labor has its own fights on the horizon. SEIU fears deep city job cuts if the Mayor's Office can't be persuaded to start supporting new revenue measures. NUHW is getting challenged by SEIU for every member the try to sign up. And Unite Here's hotel contracts start expiring in six months, reopening its battle with downtown hotel managers.
"We're going to be in a real war with some of those employers," Casey said. Yet he said its actually good time for the otherwise distracting fights with SEIU over how nice to play with big corporations. "I embrace this fight because I think this is exactly the struggle we need to have in the labor movement."
But the Mazzola fight was one that neither side relished.
The Board of Supervisors chambers was filled with union members flying their colors on April 14, but the progressive supervisors were just as unified, voting 6-5 to reject Mazzola. All that was left was the political posturing, the decision of what to do next, and the fallout.
"I am disappointed and surprised by the board's action," Sup. Sean Elsbernd (who voted for Mazzola and publicly called it "a sin" to deny him) told us, refusing to confirm the private joy over the outcome that many sources say he has expressed. "What shocked me is a majority of the board turned their back on labor."
Daly admits that the standoff hurt progressives. "I'm not sure who came up with it, but it's certainly true that the Sean Elsbernds of the world were able to take full advantage of the situation to drive a wedge between unions and progressives," Daly said.
Yet Daly noted how ridiculous is was for Sups. Elsbernd and Michela Alioto-Pier to be publicly professing such fealty to labor while opposing revenue measures that would minimize layoffs. "At the same time the plumbers were attacking me, I was sponsoring paid sick days," Daly said. "It's the six members of the board that are the most pro-labor who voted against Larry Mazzola."
Politically, Elsbernd says the progressives misplaced their hand. "I think the easy middle ground for them was to reject Mazzola and send it back to committee," Elsbernd said. Others echoed that point. Instead, supervisors appointed Synder, a widely acclaimed transportation expert who created the modern San Francisco Bicycle Coalition then started Transportation for a Livable City (now Livable City) before becoming the first transportation policy director for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR).
"I don't like how that went down, and I'm not happy with the inability of the board and labor to come to an agreement," Snyder told us. "I was stuck in the middle. I wish they had sent someone the board could have agreed to."
After the vote, Snyder went back to the SPUR office and resigned. SPUR director Gabriel Metcalf admits that labor leaders lobbied him to pressure Snyder to withdraw his name, and that he asked Snyder to do so. But Metcalf said he didn't want to lose Snyder, whose vast knowledge of transportation issues as been a real asset to SPUR. "It was his choice and not my preference."
"This issue is not why I left SPUR, but it was the precipitating event," said Snyder, whose progressive values have occasionally differed from SPUR's stands. "My sense of social justice has more to do with class issues than I was able to pursue at SPUR."
In fact, the clashes between progressives and developers (who are often backed by the trade unions) often revolve around how much affordable housing and community benefits will be required with each project approval. Snyder said the defining question is, "How do we accommodate development in San Francisco and maintain progressive values in a capitalist economy?"
He didn't answer that question, but it is one the building trades also understand. Theriault said he supports holding developers to high standards, even when progressives have block certain projects to get them. "I'm okay with that as long as I see the endgame," Theriault said.
He expects the progressive board to listen to labor more than Daly or Democratic Party chair Aaron Peskin, who Theriault said helped shore up the progressive opposition to Mazzola (which Peskin denies). "With the exception of Daly, the relationships are reparable. But they have to show some independence from Daly and Peskin," Theriault said. "The real fear for me is what comes next."
Theriault was referring to things like new historic preservation standards that supervisors will soon consider, as well as the string of big development projects coming forward this year. And for progressives, they hope their efforts to save city jobs will be followed by labor support for progressive candidates for the Board of Supervisors (such as Debra Walker and Rafael Mandelman) in next year's election.
"The one thing I know about labor is, we've been screwed by politicians on the left and the right," Casey said. "Are we angry about this and disappointed? Yes. But does that mean the alliance between labor and progressives is dead? No. We're going to work through this stuff, talk, take deep breaths, and move forward."
NUHW's founding convention takes place April 25 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Everett Middle School, 450 Church St., San Francisco.