Downtown arena deal creates unlikely alliances

09/08/2013 12:00 AM

10/01/2014 1:48 PM

When Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson held a news conference last week announcing a deal to build the planned downtown arena with union labor, he was joined at the podium by some of the very people who have tried to end his political career on more than one occasion.

Just last year, the local building-trades unions commissioned a poll to gauge support for potential rivals in the mayoral race. Political observers saw it as an effort to persuade a candidate to run against Johnson, though none of the big names on the list followed through.

What a difference a year – and the potential for 3,500 union jobs – can make.

The prospect of a new arena at Sacramento's Downtown Plaza has caused political foes to unite and groups with opposing philosophies to occupy common ground. Unions and business groups have joined in support of the project, while some left-leaning Democrats find themselves aligned with conservative anti-tax and anti-union interests.

The Sacramento-Sierra Building & Construction Trades Council, for instance, has never given a dime to Johnson and instead put its money behind Mayor Heather Fargo, whom Johnson unseated in the 2008 mayoral race. But on Wednesday, the group was out in force to back the mayor. Dozens of sheet-metal workers, electricians and carpenters cheered as Johnson unveiled the labor deal, which says the majority of the workers on the arena job will be union, and the hiring will be done out of union halls.

"There's no question that the arena has created odd bedfellows through a synergy that you probably couldn't find under any other circumstance, and that's jobs and economic development," said Sacramento political consultant Doug Elmets, who handled public relations for the failed 2006 campaign to pass a sales tax increase that would have funded an arena in the downtown railyard.

"When it comes right down to it, this arena is not only going to provide a political boost to people within this community, it's also going to create thousands of jobs, and it's something that the trade unions and the business community can bury the hatchet on," Elmets said.

Although city officials for months have said that the $448 million arena would be built with union labor, a formal agreement eliminates any possibility of union interference with the project, experts said. In the past, labor unions have filed lawsuits challenging major developments in the Sacramento region and elsewhere on environmental grounds.

Unhappy unions also could have lent their organizing and financial prowess to a group collecting signatures for a ballot measure that could delay the arena financing plan.

"I don't think any coercion was needed. Sacramento's a pro-union town," said James Moose, an attorney who represents developers.

'A meaty issue'

By formalizing a labor pact, however, the Kings' owners and the city have mobilized a different foe: nonunion contractors.

Soon after Johnson spoke, members of a group that has fought labor agreements in cities throughout the state jumped in front of reporters to denounce the agreement, saying it unfairly squeezes nonunion contractors out of the arena project.

The San Diego-based Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction has now vowed to fight the arena deal. It said it likely would donate to the effort underway to force a June 2014 public vote on subsidies for sports facilities in the city. So far, the group has not contacted the ballot measure campaign or donated money to that effort, said John Hyde, a spokesman for Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork (STOP), the group working to force a vote on the arena issue.

STOP is spearheaded by two long-time neighborhood activists in Sacramento, Julian Camacho and Jim Cathcart. Both are Democrats, and Camacho in particular has a history of voicing support for workers' rights and progressive politics.

On most issues, Camacho's background would put him at odds with a group that fights union contracts on public projects. The arena is different.

"STOP is building a big 'tent,' one that's large enough to hold a broad coalition of people and organizations who may have different opinions on the downtown arena and Kings, but who share a common goal – to let the people of Sacramento vote on the arena subsidy," Camacho said in an email.

For an issue this significant, it's not unusual for groups with different ideologies to band together, political consultants said.

"This issue involves a lot of money, and it potentially impacts the entire city," said Andrew Acosta, a Sacramento political consultant. "Does everyone who's opposed to it feel that way for the same reasons? No. But it's a big topic, it's a meaty issue."

One person in particular embodies the contradictions at play. Sacramento developer Mark Friedman, part of the Kings' new ownership group, donated $4,000 in 2011 to a group of nonunion contractors that tried unsuccessfully to put a measure on the ballot banning agreements to use union labor on taxpayer-funded projects such as the arena, city records show.

And yet, there was Friedman, standing by the mayor's side Wednesday as Johnson announced the labor deal. Friedman's back was turned to a small group of protesters calling for an end to project labor agreements, the same people whose effort he once backed.

"I'm proud to see so many people setting aside past differences to do what's best for Sacramento," Friedman said in an emailed statement Friday. "We may not agree on every issue, but on this project, we agree on the important ones. It's time to put people back to work. It's time to rebuild our downtown and it's time to give our fans the world-class experience they deserve."

Labor pacts common

While union leaders and some politicians reacted with jubilation to the labor agreement, observers said there was never much doubt that the arena would be built with a union workforce.

Even the mayor, who has endured a strained relationship with unions since taking office, has said for months that he expected unionized workers to lead the project. Labor officials sat on various task forces Johnson appointed to support a new arena.

Ken Jacobs, a labor relations expert at UC Berkeley, said "with projects of that scale in California, it would be rare for it to be done without" a project labor agreement.

"Having a well-trained workforce and having the labor peace that comes with it is a rational business decision," he said.

Still, the threat of union opposition lingers in the background on any big project, given that unions have sued developers and cities to block developments that did not include such pacts.

In 2008, Sacramento Citizens Concerned about the Railyard sued over the planned downtown project under the California Environmental Quality Act. The group's lawyer was William Kopper, a Davis attorney who frequently represents labor unions, and it was widely believed the lawsuit was a bid to force a labor agreement. The lawsuit was tossed a year later.

A coalition of building-trades unions filed a lawsuit in 2009 to halt the massive Delta Shores housing and commercial development planned for south Sacramento. The suit charged the project would harm wildlife and the area's air and water quality, but the project's developer argued the complaint actually stemmed from the unions' demand for a project labor agreement.

"I think it was pretty clear that was the motivation," said Gregory Thatch, an attorney who represents the Delta Shores project.

Thatch, who has represented many of the region's large developments, said a labor agreement was expected for the arena.

"It's not surprising, given the size of the job and the amount of public funding," he said. "On a project like that, you're almost always going to have union labor."

Call The Bee's Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at


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