In November, San Diego will go to the polls to decide whether or not it’ll let local NFL team the San Diego Chargers build a $1.8 billion stadium-convention center in the heart of the city. Most of the project will get backed by public dollars, with $1.15 billion getting funded through a 4 percentage point tax hike on the city’s hotel tax. The remaining $650 million will get financed through a combination of loans and private backing from both the NFL and team owners.
The funding part, at least, is clear. But when it comes to building and maintaining the stadium and its annex convention center over the years, the city is headed for a battle over who should get those jobs.
In April, when the Chargers announced they’d be working with a local union council to build a project labor agreement (PLA) into the plan, it left a lot of people scratching their heads. The PLA made news after owners met with a coalition of trade organizations, meaning it’ll likely give union-backed construction workers a direct pipeline to jobs building the infrastructure.
But nearly 94 percent of private-sector workers in San Diego are non-union, and for construction workers, that percentage hovers around 90 percent, according to anti-union advocate Eric Christen of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction.
“It’s a Hobbesian deal,” says Christen. “Just the fact that they’re willing to entertain it is so offensive and maddening to us.”
In 2010, San Diego County became one of the largest counties in the United States to pass a proposition that barred its government from requiring PLAs on construction projects. It passed with flying colors, gathering nearly 76 percent of voter support.
Chula Vista and Oceanside, two cities in San Diego County, also passed propositions that halted preferential treatment to PLAs in 2010. Two years later, the city of San Diego voted that the city couldn’t put PLAs on construction projects if they were driven by city funds.
“It’s a relatively well-known issue,” says Christen. “All you have to do is say ‘PLA’ in San Diego and there’s kind of a red flag that gets raised.”
The convention center and stadium, or “convadium,” will get built without government assistance, which means the NFL team is legally in the clear to attach a PLA onto the plan. If it passes in November, the Chargers will draft that agreement with the help of the San Diego Building and Construction Trades Council, a pro-union federation. (The council did not respond to requests for comment.)
But the convadium’s passage is still a big “if.” It has to get two-thirds of the majority vote in November, and it’s about to enter an uphill battle.
On top of fierce resistance from non-union groups in San Diego, the stadium is facing pushback from activists in the neighborhoods most impacted by its construction, like the predominantly Hispanic Barrio Logan area just south of Petco Park, home of Major League Baseball’s San Diego Padres.
That neighborhood’s population of around 4,000 is a minority voice in the conversation, but they’re on the same page as another key opposition group, Republican voters, who polled out of favor with the stadium plan earlier this year because it would get the majority of its funds from taxpayers.
Brent E. Beltrán, a Barrio Logan resident and founder of activist group Barrios Against Stadiums, adamantly opposes the stadium out of a fear of the common realities that hit most working-class neighborhoods like his own when cities clear surrounding areas for big central sports complexes. Prices go up, renters get pushed out, and, for San Diego specifically, the homeless encampments dotting downtown will inch farther into his streets.
That’s already been happening in Logan Heights and Sherman Heights, two areas on the rim of the East Village, since Petco Park opened there in 2004. The East Village is also home to San Diego’s largest concentration of homeless services.
Beyond that, he thinks it’s unlikely his neighborhood will jump to take advantage of the entertainment service jobs provided by the megaproject. “Any jobs that come from this are not going to be well-paying jobs,” he argues, shunning the idea of its larger benefit to the local community. “The vast majority are going to be service industry jobs that pay minimum wage. Most [residents] aren’t going to take them.” (The city enacted a new minimum wage in July of $10.50 an hour; that will increase to $11.50 in January.)
The PLA hasn’t been hashed out quite yet; the NFL team still needs to see what voters want in November. But even if they vote in favor, a PLA might not bring doom and gloom to non-union workers in the city, according to Carol Zabin, a labor economist at UC Berkeley. She says just because the PLA is closely affiliated with trade unions doesn’t necessarily mean the stadium’s construction will be closed off to non-union workers.
“What [a PLA] does is set an agreement that the contractors who are involved in the project have to pay at union standards,” she says. “So they have to pay a prevailing wage, healthcare premium, a pension premium and a training premium.” You can get in on a PLA without being part of a trade union, but you’re going to have to pass a number of assessments to prove that the work you do is at the same quality as union-backed workers.
The San Diego Tourism and Marketing District recently commissioned a report on the convention center’s economic benefits from a third party entertainment law firm based out of Chicago. It suggested that the Chargers’ plan is doomed to fail, and mentions three other convention-stadium projects in Indianapolis, Atlanta and St. Louis that were unable to deliver on the big benefits promised to those cities and their constituents. Of those three, Indianapolis’ RCA Dome has already been demolished, and the George Dome in Atlanta is slated for demolition.
For both Beltrán and Christen, unless the Chargers offer a particularly nuanced and giving PLA in the run-up to November’s elections, the plan for a new San Diego arena seems more like a project for the team than a project for city residents.
“All of them were opposed to the stadium,” says Beltrán, referencing one of two recent community meetings held among Barrio Logan, Sherman Heights and Logan Heights residents that attracted around 100 people. “And most of them love the Chargers. But we just love our community more.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, writer and photographer. His writing and photographs have been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera, NPR, Newsweek, VICE News, the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He was the 2016-2017 equitable cities fellow at Next City.