June 27 2012 10:20 AM

Election losses make for strange whispers

Jerry Butkiewicz
Photo courtesy of Rancho Santiago Community College District
"It is essential that there should be organization of labor. This is an era of organization. Capital organizes and therefore labor must organize."

—Theodore Roosevelt

In early May, Jerry Butkiewicz— the sparkplug of San Diego's labor past—strode into the San Diego Electrical Training Center in Kearny Mesa and ignited a debate.

Speaking to a group of 20 youthful fellows participating in the months-long, progressive-minded New Leader Council Institute training sessions, the man credited with making the local labor movement a political force came to speak about his more recent job as manager of workforce training at Sempra Energy.

But when an attendee asked how Butkiewicz viewed labor's role in today's turbulent times, the former head of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council apparently uncorked. Some who witnessed the 40-minute speech called it "inspiring." Others, noting the f-bomb nature of the Butkiewicz speaking style, called it "embarrassing," "rambling" and a "rant." Being that these training sessions were intended as opportunities for frank discussion, there was an understanding that such conversations were not for public consumption.

But that didn't stop political wonks in town from discussing it. When Spin Cycle received a call from a political insider noting that the old labor leader had "repudiated" the tactics of the current labor leadership, the red flag went up.

Curiously, too, no one who actually heard the "rant" would go on record about its contents, but several agreed to speak about it without being identified.

Butkiewicz, witnesses said, argued that local labor shouldn't be hostile to the business community and needs to get back to basics, which is training workers. He noted that when he joined the board of the conservative San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, he caught flak from union members but knew it was better to be at the table with the corporate big boys than not.

"It was fun to watch," said one observer, who requested anonymity. "I could tell the kids were really kind of inspired. He's like an uncle, not mean or threatening. It was just Jerry being Jerry."

Spin Cycle contacted Butkiewicz to see if he had "gone off," as some described it. But the bombastic Jerry was nowhere to be found.

"What I said was people in the labor movement right now are dealing with a different situation than I had to deal with," said Butkiewicz, who retired as secretary-treasurer of the Labor Council in 2007, a job he'd held since 1996. "There was no Tea Party four years ago, and the atmosphere now is totally different.

"I don't know how it got to where it is, but it just seems now that there's not an effort put into sitting down and trying to work through things and hammer things out and reach a compromise position. It just seems like things are just pulverized, you know what I mean?"

Spin didn't, and asked if he meant "polarized."

"No, pulverized, where everybody's got to beat their fists on the table for their own position while not spending a lot of time listening to the other side. It's like, Oh my god, we hate each other."

What was interesting in researching this column was the realization that different sides of the left were interpreting the Butkiewicz "rant" for what they wanted to see. An inspiring message to some. A knock on current labor political tactics to others. A curse-laden lament about a bygone era to still more.

That got Spin Cycle to thinking: Are members of the local left on the same page heading into the November general election? Certainly, the right wing of the city is coalescing under one message: Unions are bad. And greedy. And aren't like you, oh voting public. (Anyone who says that isn't mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio's central theme isn't paying attention.)

Local Democratic Party Chairman Jess Durfee told Spin Cycle that these squabbles among progressives are par for the course.

"There are disagreements all the time," he said. "But that said, there is an important component missing in the conversation today, and that is the value that labor plays in San Diego today. The right has been very successful in misrepresenting the value of labor."

That the Labor Council backed Scott Peters over Lori Saldaña for Congress when the Democratic Party decided not to endorse, Durfee said, was "certainly within their right." And no labor endorsement for San Diego Councilmember Sherri Lightner, the Democratic Party pick whose runoff with conservative Ray Ellis will determine the majority slant of the council, was "a disappointment."

Evan McLaughlin, political director for the Labor Council, said he's heard the complaints before. "This is nothing different than what we're seeing at the national level. Labor unions have been demonized. But we've put our cards on the table, and if others choose not to recognize that, well—."

Some Democratic insiders still seethe about battles never fought, like coming up with a competing ballot measure against Prop. B, the pension-reform initiative that DeMaio drove home to victory. "They supposedly have a majority of council members in their pocket, but they couldn't get any agreement on a ballot alternative?" one party wonk sniped.

So, is the back-room backbiting going to continue into November? Durfee and McLaughlin said the teams are lined up solidly behind mayoral candidate Bob Filner, and a national political contest of great import will smooth over any past animosity.

Butkiewicz, meanwhile, said he meets frequently with his feisty successor, Lorena Gonzalez, whom he's known since the days she and his daughter were cheerleaders at Vista High School. "Every time I see her," he said, "I hug her and thank her for taking the job. And she tells me I look younger."

"Now, don't get me wrong," he added. "Lorena and I don't agree on everything, but nobody ever threw a rock through my living-room window while my kids were home. It's just a different atmosphere and situation, and I really feel bad for Lorena."

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