by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
San Diego Unified School District board members Kevin Beiser, Richard Barrera and John Lee Evans
ACLU’s contingent at the CPI awards
Assemblymember Toni Atkins and Mickey Kasparian
Marta Blancarte (right) and her daughter
San Diego’s planning and land use laws remain stuck in an “outdated suburban model” from the 1950’s, recently hired city planner Bill Fulton told a packed crowd of over 300 people at the 13th annual Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI) gala dinner at the Wyndham Bayfront hotel Thursday, September 19. Fulton, a former mayor and city councilmember in Ventura, was hired by ex-Mayor Bob Filner to head San Diego’s recently revived Planning and Neighborhood Restoration Department after former mayor Jerry Sanders decided the city didn’t need a planning department at all — just a “Development Services” department, which implied it was the city’s job to service developers rather than the other way around.
Fulton, a veteran of 30 years in the urban planning field and author of Guide to California Planning, the standard textbook on the subject, as well as other books and hundreds of articles, began his talk by describing the struggle of residents near the Euclid Avenue trolley station to bring a pharmacy to their area. He explained that so far they’ve failed because all those 1950’s planning laws are standing in their way. Fulton explained that the city’s rules assume that San Diego will expand outward into currently undeveloped areas and developers will pay assessments to allow the city to provide services to these new communities. The city’s current challenge, he said, is to do what’s called “infill development” — expanding both housing and job opportunities in already developed areas.
“The built environment and land use drive so many things, including what services people have, how they get around, and where they lay their heads down at night,” Fulton explained. “I arrived here for the first time on July 7 and I’m supposed to have a grand vision for San Diego? I’m supposed to help you implement the ‘city of villages.’ San Diego will have small neighborhoods around cores and urban places.”
“City of villages” was a buzzword phrase popular among San Diego officials during the Sanders administration, but it’s still not clear precisely what it means, Fulton admitted. To Fulton, the “city of villages” is the opposite of the way San Diego has generally grown, with residential development in certain parts of the city, big retail shopping malls elsewhere, industrial and commercial districts outlying them, and a freeway system linking them all — which means that people have to own their own cars and do a lot of driving to get from their homes to their jobs to the stores they need.
Under the “city of villages,” at least as Fulton describes it, San Diegans’ lives will be quite different. “Our job is to make sure everything people need on a daily basis” — a home, a job, goods and services — “is right there in their neighborhoods,” he explained. “It cuts down transportation costs, frees people’s time and has environmental benefits.” Because the “city of villages” runs so much against the grain of San Diego’s historic pattern, Fulton conceded, “it’s going to be even harder” for private developers and nonprofit agencies to build projects, especially affordable housing projects. But he’s convinced the struggle will be worth it.
“The point of planning has to shift from how to build affluent suburban neighborhoods to how do we make sure every neighborhood gets what its people need,” Fulton said. “We have to step up to the plate on neighborhood infrastructure. We also need to rethink how we do things, and spend less time on abstract analysis and more time on how we help real people solve real problems in real neighborhoods. We have a lot of state laws and tribal customs that make that hard, but making sure people in neighborhoods have what they need will be my promise to you.”
Fulton was the keynote speaker of an event entitled, “Prosperity for Our Communities: We Are All Pieces of the Future.” The program featured a front cover showing a neighborhood being put together out of jigsaw-puzzle pieces labeled “Education,” “Good Jobs,” “Affordable Housing,” “Access to Health Care,” “Equal Rights,” “Environment,” and “Transportation and Infrastructure.” Befitting CPI’s association with the labor movement, two of the big honorees were either local unions or union leaders: Tom Lemmon, business manager of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO; and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 135, which represents workers at unionized grocery chains Ralph’s, Vons and Albertson’s in the San Diego area.
Though CPI is a nonprofit corporation under U.S. Internal Revenue Code section 501 ( c ) (3), which means it can’t affiliate with a political party or endorse candidates in elections, it was clear throughout the evening which of the major parties is in line with CPI’s goals. A number of elected officials attended the event and were introduced from the podium by co-MC’s Rabbi Laurie Coskey and Johanna Primo Hester, but all of them were Democrats. Also, the honorees were presented with official proclamations by Congressmembers, state legislators and city councilmembers, but only from Democratic ones. Acting mayor Todd Gloria, a Democrat, introduced Fulton and commended CPI for giving him and other elected officials “good information based on great data” that helps them make decisions.
Lemmon opened his speech with a claim that, despite the setback from the bipartisan campaign that drove progressive Democratic Mayor Bob Filner from office over his alleged treatment of women, “we’re so close to being a progressive city, a city that leads in good jobs and affordable housing.” Then he recalled his own childhood in an affordable housing development in National City — one he didn’t find out until years later was built and owned by the Building Trades department of the local AFL-CIO, the organization he now runs.
According to the citation in the event program, Lemmon was being honored for helping local governments enact “policies guaranteeing that construction projects require payments of good wages, access to health care coverage, and retirement savings, hiring of local workers, and employment of apprentices.” The technical name for such policies is Project Labor Agreements (PLA’s), and they’ve been successfully demonized by the Right. Voters in San Diego County overwhelmingly approved an initiative banning PLA’s on county projects, and measures to ban PLA’s in other San Diego County jurisdictions have also generally been successful.
But Lemmon says PLA’s are working as intended in the San Diego Unified School District and other agencies where voters haven’t shut them down. Through PLA’s, he explained, San Diego’s current union leaders “have opened decades-old barriers, reached into San Diego’s poorest neighborhoods and built opportunities to enter construction jobs.”
Greg Akili, recently returned to San Diego (having apparently shed his first name in the process, since he was introduced just as “Akili”), acceped the special recognition award on behalf of the absent Gracia Molina de Pick. “She is a soldier, an activist on the front lines,” Akili said of Molina de Pick. “Gracia has been a lifelong advocate for women’s equality, Chicano civil rights, education reform, labor reform, and the rights of indigenous communities and immigrants. In San Diego, she was a powerful advocate for education and helped found the Chicano Studies departments at SDSU and Mesa College. She was a charter founder of Third College, now Thurgood Marshall College, at UCSD, and recently donated a community room to the Logan Heights Library and establishing the Gracia Molina de Pick Chicano Studies Endowment Fund at Mesa College. For 15 years she’s been an invaluable CPI board member.”
The special award to the San Diego-Imperial Counties chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was presented by its newly appointed executive director, Norma Chavez-Peterson — apparently the first Latino or Latina ever appointed to head an ACLU chapter. “The ACLU of San Diego is on the move, and we are unchanging,” she said. Chavez-Peterson introduced a group of young volunteers, not-so-young volunteers and staff members who participated in Nuestro Voto, Nuestro Futuro, last year’s voter registration campaign in Escondido that upped participation in local elections to 4,905 voters, 80 percent of whom were Latino, in November 2012.
“We also have some of our partners around our criminal justice work, and some of our young leaders that are part of a new program we have just launched called Inspire San Diego,” Chavez-Peterson said. “We’re committed to inspiring young people across seven high schools throughout the county not only to become high-school leaders and register their peers and their families to vote, but to register their neighbors and to partner with some of our allied organizations here that do voter engagement.”
Chavez-Peterson said one of her goals for the San Diego-Imperial Counties ACLU branch is to get it to pass an “economic justice agenda” similar to the one passed by the Southern California branch in 1983. (The ACLU has three regions in California: Northern, based around the San Francisco Bay Area; Southern, based around Los Angeles; and San Diego/Imperial Counties.) She said that the issues of wealth, income, employment and redistribution are “inextricably linked to civil rights” even though American law has traditionally treated them separately and attached much less importance to economic justice than to legal and rights equality.
“I am committed to work with my partners at CPI, the Labor Council, and all of you to make sure that our own ACLU passes our own policy framework around an economic justice agenda,” Chavez-Peterson said. Quoting the Southern California chapter’s statement, she added, “The recognition that all persons are entitled to basic economic rights is an essential prerequisite for the full and fair functioning of democracy in the United States, and for the development of civil liberties. A nation like ours, which has accumulated wealth, has an obligation to ensure that basic human needs are provided for all economic levels of society. Unless all persons have the opportunity to work at jobs that pay a fair, living wage, and are assured of adequate food, housing and health care, regardless of their ability to pay, a society cannot truthfully claim to provide liberty and justice for all.”
Introduced by Richard Barrera, San Diego Unified School District board member and newly appointed head of the San Diego/Imperial Counties Central Labor Council, CPI executive director Claire Crawford continued with the theme of economic inequality. “Every year, our research team computes data to determine how many people in San Diego County are living in poverty,” Crawford explained. “San Diego’s score on the Gini index, which measures income inequality, keeps going up. The gap between rich and poor is growing wider.” According to Crawford, that’s bad news not only for the people who are falling behind but for the economy as a whole. The reason: the less income people in the lower and middle classes have, the fewer goods and services they buy. Therefore, employers hire fewer people, the economy produces less, and growth slows or stops completely.
“In order for our region’s economy to do well,” Crawford explained, “we must narrow this gap. Increasing wages is important, but it’s not all. One woman worked as a janitor in Torrey Pines on the night shift and she had to walk home three miles from work because the buses stopped running by the time she got off of one of her jobs. We have to address not only wages and working conditions but also transit, parks and much more.” She praised San Diego City Councilmember and Mayoral candidate David Alvarez and Local 127 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) for pushing the Council to pass the Local Property Values Protection Ordinance, which requires banks to maintain houses and other residential properties they foreclose on, so the properties don’t fall apart due to neglect the way they have in other cities.
The final award of the evening was given to Local 135 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the local union representing grocery workers at Vons, Albertson’s and Ralph’s chain stores. Mickey Kasparian, veteran head of Local 135, announced that he and his wife were celebrating their 30th anniversary that night and introduced her and their two children. Then he focused on his big issue for the evening, the difference in wages and benefits between his union’s members and people doing similar jobs at non-union stores. “Most retail jobs in San Diego are poverty-level,” Kasparian said. “Our food clerks are making $20 per hour and have a comprehensive health care package and a pension — not a 401(k) but a defined-benefit pension. A non-union grocery worker’s wage is $8.83 per hour, without health care.”
Kasparian took a side swipe at San Diego city voters for passing Proposition B, which abolished the city workers’ pension system for new hires, then set his sights on the labor movement’s public enemy number one: Walmart. Though Walmart claims they offer their workers a health plan, Kasparian said, “70 percent of their workers don’t qualify for it and another 20 percent can’t afford it.” Kasparian echoed Crawford’s point that without a well-paid middle class, the American economy can’t grow because there aren’t enough high-paid workers to afford to buy the goods and services it produces. “We don’t need ‘jobs,’ we need good jobs,” Kasparian said.
“Next month will be the 10-year anniversary of the longest strike in retail in the U.S.,” he recalled — referring to the seven-month dispute between his unions and Albertson’s, Vons and Ralph’s management. At the end of this strike, widely regarded at the time as a defeat for labor, Local 135 was forced to accept a so-called “two-tier” contract that allows the stores to pay less to people hired after 2004 than they did to workers who got their jobs before that. Ironically, among the people on the wrong side of the “two-tier” system was Charles Nelson (this reporter’s husband), who was presented at the gala as a typical Local 135 member and made a short speech. Kasparian closed his speech by urging people to shop at the stores where his members work and not at Walmart, Target, Whole Foods and other non-union grocery outlets.
The final speaker was Marta Blancarte, representing “Our Walmart,” an organization of Walmart workers that has organized outside the labor movement to pressure Walmart to improve the wages, working conditions and job assignments of its workers. Speaking in Spanish, with her daughter as interpreter, Blancarte said, “I’ve worked at Walmart for almost nine years. … I’ve had all kinds of humiliations, threats and favoritism for anything and everything. For years I was in the pharmacy department. Then one day management changed my schedule to nights without consulting me. My medical excuse from my doctor, saying I was taking medication at night, was not considered valid.
“They changed my schedule anyway, and I had to move to another department where my salary was lower,” Blancarte continued. “They told me I could either move and take the pay cut, or walk out the door forever. Why did this happen? Because the person who took my position was a friend of the assistant manager. My experience in that department and my good work were not respected. … This is just one of the many stories that are happening in this monstrous store known as Walmart. … Walmart must change. Now is the time to respect us and treat us as people, not as numbers; to recognize the great work we do, stop playing with our schedules, and let us live normal lives.”