Friday, 09 November 2012 09:25

Labor won't oppose convention center expansion

Organized labor has dropped its opposition to the planned expansion of the San Diego Convention Center after winning a number of concessions aimed at protecting workers, ensuring local hiring and guaranteeing defined benefits.

The agreement to support the expansion, announced by Mayor Jerry Sanders, removes a major hurdle that threatened to derail the $520 million project.

Labor unions, Sanders said, have agreed to not pursue further litigation and to drop lawsuits challenging the project's environmental assessment, as well as the city's financing plan to fund the project with an added room tax already approved by San Diego hoteliers. In return, the city worked out settlements addressing worker safety and a variety of environmental concerns raised by unions.

But key to labor's willingness to back the expanded waterfront center when it goes before the California Coastal Commission next year is an agreement it worked out independently with the contractor chosen last month by the city to build the expanded center.

Clark/Hunt, a joint venture of the Clark and Hunt construction groups, confirmed Thursday that it has signed a project labor agreement with local labor groups that will "ensure consistent benefits for both union and non-union subcontractors."

Clark, which was lead contractor on the construction of Petco Park, had also used a labor agreement for the downtown ballpark project.

"The PLA will establish consistent terms and conditions of employment for all subcontractors at the project, which will be open to both union and non-union firms," Clark/Hunt said in a statement.

Labor leader Lorena Gonzalez stressed that the unions would not have agreed to support the project "if we hadn't achieved all the things we've been working for."

"One of my big issues was local hire, and all of that has been dealt with on the private agreement between the contractor and the trades," added Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council. "We have a commitment that people hired on the project will be hired primarily from San Diego, if available."

Alan Petrasek, senior vice president at Clark Construction, said the agreement will address a concern of labor that non-union workers be afforded benefits "equal to or better than union benefits." In addition, the contractor has committed to subcontracting 40 percent of all "trades work to local small businesses, disabled veterans businesses and federally certified businesses."

He acknowledged that given the enormity and complexity of the expansion project, many of the workers will likely be from union trades.

Sanders, who has been championing the expansion for the last several years, hailed the litigation settlements with labor as a major step forward.

"I just think it's important to get moving," said Sanders in a meeting with local media. "It's nice to see it coming together. You just don't know with litigation but this has cleared a major hurdle."

Backers of the expansion agree that continued opposition from organized labor, both in the courtroom and at the Coastal Commission, could have killed or at least slowed the project. However, there still remain legal challenges from open government advocates represented by attorney Corey Briggs.

"Labor and labor's lawyers are competent and well-financed and neutralizing that as a threat to this project is a very important milestone," said Charles Black, the city's project manager for the expansion.

In recent months, Gonzalez had hinted at a possible detente, toning down her rhetoric on the center and indicating that she was working on alternatives to avoid litigation. She noted on Thursday that she recently was able to finalize an agreement with the Convention Center Corp. that would continue to guarantee that workers employed within the expanded center would be unionized.

One of the suits being dropped, which was filed by the local hotel workers union, challenged the legality of the hotel tax approved overwhelmingly by San Diego hoteliers to finance the bulk of the expansion. Labor had argued that the surcharge should have been put to a vote of the people and that the mechanism for implementing it violated the state Environmental Quality Act.

The San Diego City Attorney's Office already has filed a suit of its own aimed at confirming whether the tax is legal. The surcharge, if implemented, would range from 1 percent to 3 percent of room rates, depending on how close hotels are to downtown. A hearing on that suit has been scheduled for February, said City Attorney Jan Goldsmith.

In exchange for agreeing to dismiss the suit and support the project, the hotel workers union will be reimbursed $30,000 in legal fees by the city.

With the unions now dropping their legal challenges, the city's effort to resolve the hotel tax question should be hastened, Goldsmith said.

The expansion project, which Sanders has been spearheading for the last several years, calls for roughly 740,000 square feet of additional space, including 220,150 square feet of exhibit hall space, 101,500 square feet of meeting rooms and nearly 80,000 square feet of ballroom space.

Sanders, along with other city leaders and hotel operators, contend that the city is missing out on millions of dollars in revenue each year because the center is too small to accommodate larger conventions.

By: Lori Weisberg

North County Times

UT San Diego