The Union That Cried “CEQA!”

This article originally ran in the Santa Monica Lookout. 

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is under well-deserved bipartisan scrutiny after a neighborhood group in Berkeley used the law to bar a chunk of UC Berkeley’s incoming class from the campus.

While CEQA abuse may just now be making news headlines, Unite Here Local 11 has been weaponizing this misguided law for years. Unsurprisingly, genuine environmental concerns have little to do with it.

Signed into law in 1970, CEQA was intended to provide public and transparent information on how development projects would impact the environment. However, in the more than 50 years since CEQA was passed, interest groups – especially labor unions – have used the law to block even popular developments under the guise of environmental concern.

It’s one of Unite Here Local 11’s favorite tactics to employ against hotel developers that refuse to play ball with the union. It can tie these developers up in time consuming litigation, all the while driving up costs until there’s little choice but to submit to the union’s will. Once a hotel agrees to sign a neutrality agreement with the union, CEQA concerns tend to magically disappear.

Here’s a prime example of the union’s hypocrisy when it comes to crying “CEQA!”

In 2019, the union called on Burbank residents to “tell your City Councilmembers to vote NO on the Front Street hotel project.” Local 11 was allegedly concerned about the building’s negative environmental impact. In a letter to the Burbank Planning Board, the union called for the project’s “impacts on Greenhouse Gas (‘GHG’) emissions” to be reassessed, among other CEQA-related concerns.

But where were the union’s environmental worries when the “Plaza at Santa Monica” development was being debated? Slow-growth groups worried that the mixed use structure would “bring more traffic to the City’s most congested area.” But Local 11 supported the project, and even pushed for the tallest version of the development.

The union’s logic was simple: the developer agreed to sign a neutrality agreement before the project was even approved. That agreement would translate into more dues paying members for Local 11.

The union’s attempt to masquerade as a “green” activist is even more transparent given its own campaign against the popular “Make a Green Choice” program. The program enables hotels to reduce their environmental footprint by allowing guests to skip housekeeping—encouraging them to reuse towels, and cut back on the energy, water, and chemicals used to clean their rooms. But the union has leafleted guest’s rooms telling them to “Say NO” to the green choice program.

In 2020, Local 11 tried using CEQA to fight a hotel development in Santa Ana — despite several other unions and businesses supporting the project. In 2021, the union argued that another hotel development in Manhattan Beach did not comply with CEQA. That same year, the union succeeded in convincing the city of Fullerton to reverse its decision on short term rentals by threatening to sue, asserting that the City Council did not review CEQA in their decision. One lawyer commented that union members were “not addressing CEQA issues” in their arguments. Instead, concern centered around competition for hotel jobs (read: dues-paying union members).

This is a tale as old as time for Local 11. Lacking a neutrality agreement with Los Angeles’ Hotel Clark back in 2013, the union resorted to bogus accusations that the city “failed to require the use of building materials that mitigate greenhouse gas emissions” during construction. This was hot air from the union: The city’s Building and Safety department adopted a state standard for green buildings, which the developer complied with.

Critics at the time rightfully called for reform that would “avoid a situation where CEQA is used as a leverage tool for someone to gain other advantages that have nothing to do with the environmental welfare of the community at large.” But years later, CEQA is still a popular tactic unleashed by the union to block hotel developments.

Hopefully this latest abuse will open the lawmakers’ eyes to much-needed CEQA reform. Until then, you can bet Local 11 will continue to take advantage of this harmful law.