Some lifeguards say they’ve been motivated to leave the Municipal Employees Association because of its role in the pension crisis and because of allegations raised against its longtime leader, Judie Italiano, who now serves as general manager. Those allegations have included charges of special treatment by the City’s pension board and personal use of a union credit card, both of which Italiano denies.
“We have been contacted by big groups who want out of the MEA, people who are pretty much fed up with Judie Italiano,” said Chester Mordasini, president of Local 911.
Mordasini insisted Local 911 would handle affairs differently than the association has. On contract ratification, for example, he said that “911 would have distributed the information a week in advance.”
Daryl McDonald, a lifeguard for 23 years and a member of the association’s negotiating team, says the organization has been responsive to lifeguard issues.
“Everything I have presented [on behalf of the lifeguards], MEA has supported 100 percent,” said McDonald, a Mission Valley resident. “And there has been nothing but open communication.”
McDonald said many of the younger lifeguards are unaware of what the association has accomplished for the group. He acknowledged that lifeguard towers and other facilities and equipment are deteriorating. “But that’s not the fault of our union,” McDonald said. “It’s the fault of the economy. Our union has fought for years to get us better conditions.”
McDonald says he is skeptical that dissidents have gathered the signatures of more than 70 percent of the city’s lifeguards. The number could not be independently verified.
Italiano said that within any union there are dissatisfied members. But she said that the Municipal Employees Association has negotiated added retirement benefits — a so-called supplemental pension savings plan — for lifeguards that exceeds those for fire and police.
“No other safety employees have that,” said Italiano.
She rejected criticism of the organization’s role in the pension-underfunding crisis and her personal conduct. Representatives of the Municipal Employees Association on the pension board agreed to underfunding only after receiving expert advice at the time that the proposal was actuarially sound, Italiano said.
“Our job was to ask and the City’s job was to fund,” said Italiano. “Am I going to quit asking? No.”
Italiano said there are drawbacks to being an AFL-CIO–affiliated labor union. She said the Municipal Employees Association was not bound by a central labor organization’s dictates and preferred its financial independence.
“We want to keep our money here,” she said. On several occasions, she noted, a local government AFL-CIO union has been placed in receivership by the big central organization.
Regarding allegations that she has inappropriately steered union business to a company run by her son, Italiano said the deals have been good for the association’s members and not particularly good for her son. She noted that her son’s company also does business with other labor organizations in town.
Italiano declined to respond to questions about other union business directed to relatives. But she said allegations that she used the association’s credit card for personal business have been “put to bed” by the association’s internal investigation.
Teamsters Local 911 has its own history of family business. Mordasini was hired as a Teamster organizer in the early 1990s by his mother, who headed the union after an indictment against her was dismissed.
Mordasini says the Teamsters have for 20 years worked to rid their organization of corruption. Since a consent decree with federal justice officials, he said, “We are mob-free and a democratic union.”
For lifeguards, representation issues boil down to the brass tacks of working conditions and compensation. Many guards said that the public doesn’t understand the full scope of their work. The guards note that few know they provide law enforcement services such as issuing citations and making arrests, along with their better-known activities such as ocean and cliff rescues and providing emergency medical assistance.
While top-paid lifeguards earn around $70,000 annually, roughly two-thirds of the 300 lifeguards are seasonal and earn much less. But even veteran lifeguards believe they earn substantially less than others doing similar work in police and fire departments.
Guards don’t expect raises during the economic crisis, but they say the City should make improving and replacing deteriorating equipment and facilities a priority. Towers have been condemned, stairways have collapsed, and lifeguards have suffered from the effects of gas leaks and sewage spills, which in one case doused a guard with sewage. Alex Riley, a lifeguard for 14 years, suffered a serious injury when the shutter on a tower that guards had long complained about came unhinged and slammed into his shoulder. “We have dismal facilities,” said Riley.
Bill Russell, who has also worked for the lifeguard service for 14 years, says the Teamsters would allow them to represent themselves, and he says the Teamsters’ lower dues structure provides a better bargain. Others, like Maureen Rabe, a guard with 3 years’ experience, support a move to the Teamsters unless the Municipal Employees Association reorganizes the lifeguards into their own bargaining unit.
Darrell Esparza, a lifeguard for more than 30 years, argues that the association has been helpful. He agreed that injuries and working conditions make it difficult for most lifeguards to serve as long as he has and said he has wished at times that the association had taken more strongly supportive positions.
“But this is the wrong time to make a move,” said Esparza. “With the economy the way it is and the City going through what it is, it does not seem wise to make a move now.”
Charles Davey, a 28-year veteran, says younger guards fail to appreciate what the association has accomplished for them. “This has nothing to do with MEA and the Teamsters, it’s a generational gap,” said Davey, who lives in La Jolla.
John Bahl, a lifeguard for 24 years, says he has no reason to believe the Teamsters would do better for the lifeguards. “The Teamsters [Local 911] are an 8000-person union, and we would be their only public safety union,” said Bahl, an Alpine resident. The association has done a good job in contract negotiations and in dealing with workplace grievances, given the current circumstances, Bahl said, although he says it could do better at lobbying for improved working conditions.
That is something lifeguards on both sides of the union-representation issue seem to agree on: the City is being shortsighted in not assuring that lifeguards have adequate equipment and facilities.
“If San Diego did not have a beach, it would be Columbus, Ohio, with a nice view,” said Alex Riley.
“People really come here for the beach and the coast, and the City does not invest enough in one of the most import parts of the beach — public safety.
“If the beaches got a reputation for not being safe, that would hurt tourism.”