Ed HarrisThe following is a guest post authored by  lifeguard, union leader and former San Diego City Council member Ed Harris in response to Councilmember Chris Cate’s July 31st opinion piece in the San Diego Union Tribune.

Dear Councilmember Cate,

Inaccuracies that you laid out in your UT editorial need some factual support.

I want to ensure that the reader understands why we formed as our own bargaining unit or as referenced “union.” For several years we had trucks that would not start and boats that would not run, with maintenance backlogs. Our training budget was eliminated and we were at a point where we were losing our ability to adequately guard beach patrons. It seems you use the term “Union Leadership” to try and disparage working people who have organized. Lifeguards are a service to the public like many other “labor” departments of the city work force. We live and work side by side with the rest of the middle class. Many of our working class Lifeguards live in your district.

Over the years, I have had to sit with moms for several days as guards searched the ocean for their lost child. Our ability to serve needs to be supported similarly like police and fire departments. The cuts to our budget were made under the “Strong Mayor” form of government and inability to attain funds according to need rather than political influence has always frustrated me. Forming a union comprised of seasonal staff and 100 full time guards allowed us to speak and be heard. It allowed a small group of dedicated professionals to have a voice. It allowed us to go to the taxpayers and councilmembers with our concerns and ideas to better serve. We had to bring the Toyota deal to the City, we scrambled and hoped existing equipment worked, during the 2.5 years it took to get the City to accept 34 free trucks. That deal did not need to be negotiated with the union because our efforts dropped it in the lap of the City who took credit for making it happen. The Toyota deal is in its fourth year and has saved the City a large part of the millions of dollars you credited to the success of the Corporate Partnership Program.

“The Agreement with Tommy Bahama was a great deal”

If it was such a great deal one has to ask: Why was it kept secret for long? Why were the community groups left in the dark, as seasoned representatives know San Diego’s strength and historic fabric is made up by its communities? Why were the guards not consulted? You state that the union hurt its members because they would not be getting free t-shirts.

San Diego Lifeguards make 4-6,000 water rescues annually. Our professionalism in Cliff, River and Dive Rescue is internationally recognized. Like many agencies, we have deals that give us discounts on apparel, wetsuits, footwear and sunglasses from a variety of companies. Lifeguards consider these deals in good faith and ensure we can use the apparel and equipment that best fits performance needs and has nothing to do with turning lifeguard towers into billboards. None of those companies are the “official sponsor of the San Diego Lifeguards.”

The “great deal” cut by the City would sell beach advertising on over forty towers, numerous volleyball poles and naming rights to an organization that is in the media three to five days a week. TB would get exposure to millions of beach goers and others via the media. The total net for the city is at the most $120,000. As a former councilmember I am amazed at that we continue to virtually give away City assets for corporate identity. The Lifeguard Union looks forward to working with the City on deals that are fiscally prudent, transparent and have been publicly vetted. We have no intention of supporting proposals when we are not given the full details. The Lifeguards enjoy wide support and great working relationships with the local community groups, beach public and environmentalists. We cannot support a plan that uses our good reputation to crack the door on beach advertising.

As cited in your email, the union believes the City should focus its attention on operational issues. The recent City Auditors report highlighted the fact that 40% of the full time guards are eligible to retire in five years or less. What it did not say was that those identified are 95% of our boat operators. The City has funded an advanced academy to help deal with the projected massive loss of experienced Lifeguards. The “Union” believes that there should be standards, lesson plans and criteria. Despite the fact that there have been numerous academies in recent years, the City has failed to develop basic criteria for success or failure. This has nothing to do with negotiations or Tommy Bahama. We just want to ensure the millions of locals and visitors are protected by the best guards in the future.

– Ed Harris

© 2014 San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council
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