California’s Voting Rights Act of 2001: A Weapon for Unions

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It’s not just the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that construction unions exploit for their own ulterior purposes. The State Building and Construction Trades Council of California (a Sacramento-based umbrella group for construction unions) has apparently found inspiration from an organized campaign to use lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (Election Code Section 14025 et seq.) to force California local governments to abandon at-large voting and instead adopt districts that are deliberately drawn to increase Latino representation on elected boards.

An article published by www.CaliforniaWatch.org on March 9, 2012 (White-Dominated Boards Face Legal Threats Over Racial Makeup) reports on how the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California was among the plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against the City of Escondido in December 2011 alleging that the city violates the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 by not having city council districts designed to elect more Latinos to the city council. (Demetrio Gomez v. City of Escondido, Case #37-2011-00060480-CU-CR-NC). Compared to the naïveté or timidity seen in much of the mainstream news coverage of the case, this article is surprisingly blunt about the true motivation for the union involvement in the lawsuit:

But labor unions and other groups also could use the law as a weapon in disputes with cities and school boards. 

The first such case came in December, when the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California sued the city of Escondido, in San Diego County, alleging that at-large elections leave Latinos without fair representation. The union targeted Escondido because officials there have been trying to lower wages on public construction projects.

The brief submitted by the State Building Trades can be found here. Of course, it says nothing about the underlying objective of the lawsuit: dissuading cities from including provisions in their charters that allows those cities to establish their own state-mandated construction wage rates (prevailing wages) for purely municipal construction. A honest perspective about the lawsuit is revealed in excerpts below from the State Building Trades web site:

Members of SBCTC Affiliates Demand Fair Elections by Bob Balgenorth, head of the State Building and Construction Trades Council – January 2012

It’s not surprising that a city council that treats its Latino citizens disdainfully also has plans to worsen the quality of life for all construction workers. As the San Diego Union-Tribune reported in its coverage of the lawsuit, the current council will try to convince voters to make Escondido a charter city, in hopes of lowering construction wages on public works projects – for all workers, Latino and non-Latino alike.

“They want to take away the prevailing wage,” Demetrio Gomez, the lead plaintiff, told the paper. “They want to take away the things that make the average worker’s life worthwhile. We believe that’s wrong. And we believe if we had the ability to elect Latinos we would have better representation.”

(Also, see Members of SBCTC Affiliates Demand Escondido Change to District-Based Elections – State Building and Construction Trades Council of California web site – December 8, 2011.)

In response, the City of Escondido asked the San Diego County Superior Court to dismiss the State Building Trades as a plaintiff because it obviously lacked standing to sue: see here.

A judge ruled on March 16, 2012 (Superior Court Decision – Gomez v. City of Escondido) that the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California did NOT have standing to be a plaintiff in this lawsuit:

In addition, Plaintiff Council does not satisfy the requirements for associational standing because voting rights are not germane to its purpose. The purpose of the Council is to protect the members’ rights with relation to their work and trade in construction. Voting rights are separate and distinct. Registering members to vote and providing voter education does not make members’ voting rights germane to the Council’s purpose.

Surely this is not the last time California unions will be manipulating the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. At the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) in California’s “Day at the Capitol” program on April 18, 2012, I asked a panel of three California elections experts if they thought unions and other special interest groups will routinely use the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 as a weapon to achieve their political objectives at local governments. The unequivocal answer was YES.

“Absolutely,” said Paul Mitchell, a political consultant with Redistricting Partners, a firm based in Sacramento. He agreed with me that “that’s exactly what happened” at the City of Escondido and noted that the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 is “a card able to be played.” He expressed surprise that police, firefighters, and other public employee unions in cities such as Stockton had not already used this powerful weapon to win concessions from governments during negotiations for collective bargaining agreements.

Additional Recent News Media Coverage of Union Exploitation of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001:

Judge Bars Union from Voting Rights Lawsuit – San Diego Union-Tribune – March 17, 2011

ESCONDIDO: Judge wants union removed from voting rights suit – North County Times – March 17, 2011

Lawsuit Aims To Elect More Latinos In Escondido – KPBS – April 4, 2012

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