Meet the women leading San Diego’s two most powerful labor organizations at same time – The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — 

For the first time women are simultaneously leading San Diego’s two most powerful labor organizations, bringing new perspectives and priorities to the local labor movement during a crucial period.

Former San Diego City Council candidate Carol Kim took over the 22-union San Diego Building and Construction Trades Council from longtime leader Tom Lemmon in November. The council represents 30,000 construction workers.

And local labor movement veteran Brigette Browning took over the 136-union San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council from Keith Maddox in May. The council represents 200,000 nurses, teachers, firefighters and other workers.

Both organizations have been led by a woman once before, but not simultaneously. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez led the labor council from 2008 to 2013, and Xema Jacobsen led the Building Trades from 2000 to 2003.

Browning and Kim said during a joint interview this week that women who rise to such positions are typically more practical leaders who deal better with adversity because of the challenges they’ve faced.

“I feel like we don’t have the same issues that men have — I feel like their egos get in the way a lot,” Browning said. “Women leaders aren’t allowed to behave like that. I just think we’re more practical.”

Both said women often struggle to rise to the top of labor organizations, even when the membership of a union is primarily female.

“The amount of sexism I’ve had to overcome has really well equipped me for doing this work,” Kim said. “We really do have to be twice as good as the next guy to be considered on par.”

The two women rose to their new roles at a time when the Democratic Party has taken over San Diego’s City Hall and the County Board of Supervisors.

“The blue wave has been super helpful to us,” Kim said. “These elected officials have values that are built around their support for workers. We would love the Republican Party to be more pro-worker, but they’re not.”

Browning agreed, adding that the shift in political power gives labor unions significantly more leverage.

“We had to make concessions constantly because we didn’t have political power,” she said. “We got crumbs because business and developers were really good at dividing us. That’s not going to work anymore — everybody needs to be taken care of and all the workers need to be lifted out of poverty.”

While local labor has arguably more power than ever it might also be facing its most daunting challenge, as the housing crisis makes the middle-class dream of home ownership steadily harder to achieve for working people.

Browning said she wants to focus on middle-income people who make too much for government assistance but not enough to afford what has traditionally been a middle-class life.

Kim said the housing crisis, which has expanded into a cost-of-living crisis, is particularly bad in San Diego because the region has relatively low wages compared to other metropolitan areas with relatively high housing prices.

Both women said they plan to focus on ensuring that local projects funded by President Biden’s Build Back Better infrastructure deal use unionized workers.

“We want to make sure that when those dollars hit San Diego that the public investment is done through the lens of supporting workers,” Kim said.

Browning said another priority is the transition, particularly in California, away from fossil fuels and toward solar and wind — new industries that haven’t typically had unionized jobs.

“If we aren’t there advocating for those workers, they will turn into bad jobs,” Browning said.

While environmental groups are typically allied with labor on many issues, Browning said, the desire to move quickly on climate change has sometimes prompted environmental groups to make deals that aren’t labor-friendly.

She said there aren’t job-quality provisions in many community choice energy deals across the state, which are efforts to have local governments supply power instead of companies like San Diego Gas & Electric.

Kim stressed that most workers installing rooftop solar power systems earn close to minimum wage because they aren’t unionized.

Browning, who has led unions representing local hotel workers, said another priority is preventing hotel companies from permanently shifting away from everyday cleaning of guest rooms, an experiment many launched during the pandemic.

“The biggest risk for the hotel workers is the companies moving toward not cleaning the rooms every day, but only at checkout,” she said. “That could cut our workforce by 30 percent.”

Browning said she also wants to focus more than Maddox, her predecessor, on organizing non-unionized workers. Roughly 10 percent of San Diego workers are unionized, down from about 40 percent during the middle of the last century.

She said Maddox focused much more on politics than organizing.

Kim said the transition to her from Lemmon, her predecessor, will be mostly seamless because she had served as one of his top lieutenants for several years. But she said there will be stark differences in style.

“I think it will be a little bit less spectacular — not in terms of achievement, but in terms of the way it unfolds,” she said.

“Tom liked to be a big presence — he was fun and interesting that way,” she said. “It’s a different approach with similar goals. As women, we are expected to get the work done and not quibble about it.”

Kim, 45, grew up in Los Angeles and Orange County before moving to San Diego in 2006.

After losing to San Diego Councilman Chris Cate in a 2014 runoff for the District 6 seat, she worked for the United Way and was then hired by Lemmon as political director for the Building Trades.

Browning, a graduate of UC San Diego and University of San Diego High School, lives in Chula Vista with her husband Dan Rottenstreich, one of the region’s top political consultants.

Now 48, she joined the labor movement shortly after college when her mother, a cocktail waitress, encouraged her to take a “union summer” internship focused on organizing hotel workers.