Unions representing workers in Vernon were placed into an interesting position after a “good friend of labor,” State Assembly Speaker John Pérez, introduced AB 46 to dissolve the city of Vernon last December.
Though Pérez insists the bill is aimed at rooting out corruption, and not an attack on jobs, unions are joining the city and local businesses in opposing this bill.
They have seen their employers’ financial books and are convinced that by getting rid of the city of Vernon, and leaving it open to annexation to other cities, legislators are jeopardizing the union jobs that seemed to have found refuge in Vernon, say union leaders.
“Next time we sit down at the table with everything going through the roof, how are we going to negotiate around those cost increases?” said Janet Schabow spokesperson for the International Association of Machinists, which represents workers at rendering plant Darling International, glass manufacturer Owens-Illinois and the the UPS trailer shop in Vernon.
Some say Vernon is “dense” with union employers. One Teamster said Vernon employers have long “stepped up to the plate and paid the prevailing wages.”
The electricity costs in Vernon are substantially lower than in surrounding areas, they say, making all the difference for these companies, many of them operating under tight profit margins.
Vernon has also tolerated, if not welcomed, industries that are shunned in most other cities. “Every business you don’t want in your own back yard is in Vernon,” Schabow said.
The city started out as a center for the meatpacking industry, but there is no reason for any meatpacking company to stay in the state if the price is not right. Vernon still has a few, including Farmer Johns, which would be affected if AB 46 passes, say union leaders.
“People don’t understand what goes on in Vernon,” says Teamster Martin Perez. “It’s easy to be on the outside looking in. Who wants to work there? It smells there. Go look at the time cards. You’ll see who works there.”
A loose coalition of five or six unions in Vernon, formed with the help of an independent consultant hired by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, IBEW, have been getting together every week since the beginning of this year, hoping to influence the outcome of the resolution.
“It is truly unusual to be at these Wednesday meetings with basically the Chamber of Commerce and Vernon,” said Schabow, who just started attending the meetings.
The coalition has gotten its own lobbyists to meet with Pérez, and is trying to get the ears of officials at Los Angeles City Hall where annexation of Vernon is being considered.
“We’re talking to any legislator that will listen to us about how this is a bad idea, and we’re offering alternate solutions,” said Stan Stosel of IBEW, Local 47, which represents utility workers at Petrelli Electric, the contractor that runs Vernon’s municipal power plant.
The L.A. Labor Coalition’s Executive Secretary-Treasurer Maria Elena Durazo has gone up to meet with the Speaker’s staff on the unions’ behalf, he said.
Union members have also participated in a marketing campaign spearheaded by the city, which is spending $65,000 a week to air television and radio commercials, and place ads in local newspapers, including this one.
In the television commercial , union employees join with public safety employees, other city staff, and a local teacher in extolling the benefits of working in Vernon.
Pérez comes “from labor, so it should resonate with him how important this is to us,” said Stosel. Before he became a state assemblyman, Pérez was a labor organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers. Labor has been credited with getting him into office.
“It certainly makes it an interesting discussion,” said Speaker Pérez’s spokesperson John Vigna, who maintains they are “targeting corruption,” not jobs, with the bill.
“The Speaker understands the difficulties workers in Vernon face. He’s worked for a company that has to meet the bottom line while also paying their employees wages,” he said, adding Pérez is known for being strong on job creation.
They are working on refining the bill to address the concerns of the unions, Vigna said, but Vernon’s government must be addressed.
Even if the city’s adherence to their motto “Exclusively Industrial” seemed to have benefited some employers and workers, “you don’t have a real democracy, regardless of the different nuances of all this,” he said.
“At its core, cities provide services to its people,” and if a city puts its focus on anything else, “you have the inevitable results of corruption indictments,” he said.
But while Pérez’s office argues that Vernon’s history of corruption indictments and charges makes the bill necessary, some union leaders are faced with a history of their own – the decline of good paying union jobs.
The local International Association of Machinists represented 30,000 members because of the “manufacturing that once existed in California,” but now they only represent a few hundred, said Schabow. “We were huge, but now we’re not.”
As a result, they “have to hold the line on every job we can,” she said.
Meanwhile, Ed Rendon of the Teamsters says they “agree in principal” with the bill. “What’s gone on in city hall is pretty bad,” he said.
He feels the meetings with Pérez have “turned the tide,” and that “there is a lot of real thoughtful conversation and analysis of the bill.”
He applauds Pérez, as well as Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn and County Supervisor Gloria Molina for “wanting to do something,” and the unions “would like to find a way to help that process, however, if it negatively impacts our members and employers” they will not support it.