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Valley Perspective | VALLEY PERSPECTIVE INTERVIEW

Madeline Janis-Aparicio

Union Leader Aims to Tie Labor Issues to Development in Universal's Expansion Plans

July 26, 1998|BOB RECTOR | Bob Rector is op-ed page editor for The Times Valley and Ventura County editions

A coalition of labor unions has recently joined the battle over the proposed expansion of Universal Studios by seeking better jobs and benefits for workers as a condition of approving the development.

Universal wants to expand the square footage of its complex by about 60% over 15 years. The expansion may include 1.2 million square feet of office space, 1,200 hotel rooms, a 50% expansion of the theme park and a smaller-scale version of CityWalk. It would create about 8,300 jobs.

The labor group, known as the Coalition for Accountability in the Universal Studios Expansion, or CAUSE, believes that economic factors should be considered in making land-use decisions. Its strategy is to use union political leverage with elected members of the Los Angeles City Council and County Board of Supervisors, both of which must approve the expansion.

The Times recently interviewed coalition spokeswoman Madeline Janis-Aparicio of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy about this unique strategy.

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Question: Is using the zoning-approval process to further your goals a new approach?

Answer: This is definitely a new approach that's been devised in the last seven or eight years, especially as we've seen development turn around. And given the changes in the structure of our tax system with Prop. 13 and increased reliance on sales taxes, which in turn has developed a dependence on big-box retail and mini-mall retailers, there's been a greater concern about the proliferation of low-wage, nonunion jobs and the consequences of that.

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Q: Have these developments changed the local labor movement?

A: There's been a real change. We're seeing a lot more of these labor-community coalition approaches, where we're looking at the relationships and the intersection between labor issues and community issues, rather than really segmenting labor on one side and community on the other and having completely distinct interests. We've been working for the past year to build a coalition involving people from the San Fernando Valley to deal with a development of this size because we're dealing not only with an environmental-impact report and the proposed development on already entitled property, but a whole change in the entitlement for the land all around Universal.

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Q: Is your goal then to extract economic concessions from the Universal people as they go through this zoning process?

A: I really wouldn't put it like that, because it sounds like it's having to do with the bargaining table, which is what Universal is trying to make it seem. We want to see a whole range of commitment that Universal makes both in terms of the quality of the jobs and the commitment to not rely on social services as a backup, but to provide benefits. And we have a number of groups in the coalition that are concerned about getting access to jobs for low-income families and so are real excited about the possibility of 8,000 permanent positions. What that could do for economic development in some of the blighted areas of the Valley is pretty incredible.

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Q: Do you want to upgrade the salaries attached to the so-called service jobs?

A: Upgrade the salaries attached to those jobs, and ensure that there's not a downgrading of the higher quality jobs. The other thing we want is for Universal to work with community organizations in the San Fernando Valley so that the local folks can get access to the jobs.

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Q: How do you accomplish this?

A: There are some basic things that we're going to do, and then there's some other things that we're researching. We're looking at what the City Council and the Board of Supervisors could require within the context of the state and federal law. Right now, the coalition is saying that we're opposed to the expansion as it's now being proposed. And we think that there's a relationship between the environmental consequences and the economic consequences, and they have to be considered together. The expansion plan is now before the county planners and it's going to go to the Board of Supervisors, then it will go to the City Council. We're going to be working really hard to educate and involve all the council members and supervisors and planning commissioners about Universal's record and our concerns and why this is relevant to the regional economy and to the consequences of the development.

We're not going to the City Council and saying Universal either has to give us these salaries or you vote no. We're going to be saying Universal has to commit to standards that are going to have a direct benefit to the local community, such as a job-access program so that people who live near Universal in low-income neighborhoods can get access to those jobs. And working out a commitment that no workers will be paid less than a living wage.

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Q: Has this approach worked in the past?

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