Recently, Ada Briceno has been accumulating titles like a British monarch. She’s co-president of UNITE-HERE Local 11. She chairman of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD). She’s chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County. Now she wants to add Democratic National Committee member.
Her track record raises legitimate questions at whether her election to the DNC would be in the best interests of the DNC?
Stunting Growth at Local 11
Briceno has been Local 11’s leader for many, many years. Under her leadership, Local 11 has not added organized workers at any additional hotels in the Anaheim Resort. Local 11 represents housekeepers at the Anaheim Hilton, the Sheraton Park Anaheim, and the Disneyland Resort’s three hotels. But that was the case when Briceno took over leadership of Local 11.
In fact, thanks to her tactics, Local has botched opportunities to grow its membership. It was her decision to spend Local 11 funds to qualify and campaign for the Measure L “living wage” initiative in November 2018. Measure L would hike the minimum hourly wage to $15 starting in January 2019, and increase it a dollar each year until it hits $18 an hour. However, it only applies to hotels which receive specific types of economic assistance such as a TOT rebate.
While Measure L narrowly passed, it only applies to four approved hotel projects, one of which is completed, and the other nearly so. None of these projects are unionized. Disney was going to spend nearly a billion dollars on a new 4-Diamond hotel that would have employed hundreds of people paying dues to Local 11. However, after Measure L qualified, Disney pulled the plug on the luxury hotel project.
In other words, Briceno’s expensive Measure L campaign resulted in zero new members for Local 11. At the same time, Briceno also spent large amounts of her members’ dues money on two failed referendums seeking to revoke development approvals for two hotel projects that wouldn’t meet Local 11’s demands to organize their workers.
While Briceno presents herself as a champion of the disadvantaged and opponent of discrimination, she engaged in racial and age discrimination against long-time UNITE-HERE staff, beginning with taking over the leadership Local 681 in 2001 – according a successful 2003 lawsuit against the union.
The lawsuit stated that Briceño called non-Hispanic employees as “gringos,” criticized employees’ work-related medical conditions, and fired workers based on age. According to the lawsuit, Briceno told a union vice president “I’m going to fire these f—ing old ladies, and we can get someone else for less money.”
UNITE-HERE ultimately paid nearly $1 million in damages and legal fees. The union appealed the ruling but lost.
According to the lawsuit, Briceño routinely discriminated against non-Hispanic employees, while favoring Latino employees with preferential treatment. She conducted union meetings in Spanish with no translation for non-Spanish speakers, disparaging those who complained as “contra.”
Briceño also engaged in age-based discrimination against her staff, and disparaged those with medical conditions. After one of her staff took time off for work-related medical conditions and injuries, Briceño “made her feel she was wrong and not entitled to do so..” The employee cancelled doctor’s appointments in order to make up for missed time. Briceño went on to terminate multiple employees after stating she was going to “fire these f—ing old ladies” and “get someone else for less money.” She described the fired workers as “old and slow and time to go.”
Click here to read the lawsuit. It’s pretty shocking.
Even after losing the lawsuit, Briceno and the union sought to have $239,122 in damages for one of the plaintiffs dismissed because the plaintiff “publicly criticized the union’s leadership shortly after her employment ended.” After being terminated, plaintiff Suzann Milkey wrote a letter to Briceno that was critical of her leadership. The state court of appeal wrote:
“None of the cases cited by the union supports limiting Milkeys available remedies against the union in spite of her postdischarge letter to Torres. The union does not challenge in this appeal the jurys findings that the union fired Milkey and that the decision to fire Milkey was unlawfully motivated by her ethnicity, national origin, age or medical condition. Milkey testified that she was hurt by the unions termination of her employment, and that she wrote and distributed the letter to Torres in reaction to that termination. There is no evidence Milkey would have written that letter, or engaged in any other act that could be construed as disloyal to the unions leadership, had she remained employed by the union.”
Note that the appellate court points out that UNITE-HERE didn’t challenge the jury verdict that Briceno’s termination of Milkey was motivated by the latter’s “ethnicity, national origin, age or medical condition.”
Briceno hasn’t exactly grown as a manager and leader.
She is chair of OCCORD, an organization she co-founded. After long-time executive director Eric Altman left in 2015, Briceno filled the ED spot with a veteran labor organizer Ann Werboff – who left after less than a year on the job. According to sources, her sin was focusing more on OCCORD’s core mission than on Briceno’s political priorities in Anaheim.
Briceno then hired firebrand Shakeel Syed to be the next OCCORD executive director. However, Syed’s management style was so abrasive it ultimately produced a mass exodus of OCCORD staffers last summer – culminating in Syed’s resignation. Again, excessive focus on Briceno’s political priorities was cited as a driving force behind the exodus.
Briceno has brought the same ham-fisted touch to the Democratic Party of Orange County. She was elected chair of DPOC after the November 2018 election, when OC Democrats were flush with victory after sweeping every Orange County congressional election and knocking out a Republican incumbent to capture the GOP-leaning 74th Assembly District.
Staff instability has followed in the wake of Briceno’s chairmanship. In little more than a year, the DPOC has gone through three communications directors, a political director and an office manager. One of these staffers requested an exit interview; this perfectly normal and reasonable worker request was denied by Briceno, a labor union leader.
Poor Election Track Record
Briceno election track record as a party leader doesn’t inspired confidence. Shortly after Briceno took over leadership of the DPOC, there was a special election to fill the vacant Third Supervisor District seat, where Republicans had a slight registration advantage. Former Rep. Loretta Sanchez ran as the Democrat standard bearer against Irvine Mayor Don Wagner, a Republican. Wagner beat her 42% to 37%.
A year later, during the March 3, 2020 presidential primary, Supervisor Wagner was up for re-election to a full term. Democrats were at parity with Republicans in terms of party registration. The Democrat candidate was Ashleigh Aitken, who had narrowly lost her race for Anaheim Mayor in 2018. Wagner defeated her, 52% to 47%.
With general voter excitement and Democratic presidential campaigns helping to drive turnout, the March 2020 primary should have been a good one for OC Democrats.
In addition to losing the 3rd Supervisor District, Democrats lost heavily contested elections for the OC Board of Education – a focus of teacher union efforts to reverse a pro-charter school majority. There were three Democrat candidates in the Area 4 election – which worked to the advantage of the lone Republican candidate, who won. In Area 3, a rich progressive named Andy Thorburn spent nearly $800,000 to get walloped by the conservative Republican incumbent. Part of a party leader’s job is to winnow a crowded candidate field down to one strong candidate – and to recruit strong candidates in the first place – in order to maximize chances for victory. Briceno may excel in driving staff out the door, but she failed miserably to clear the field in Area 4 or recruit someone other than Thorburn, a terrible candidate.
In the 39th Congressional District, Republican Young Kim outpolled incumbent Democrat Rep. Gil Cisneros 48.4% to 46.8%. In CA48, another freshman Democrat, Rep. Harley Rouda, garnered only 46.7% against a combined Republican vote of 50.6%. This despite vigorous Democrat turnout efforts from the presidential campaign level on down.
The 29th Senate District is a top Democrat target. Republican Sen. Ling Ling Chang took 47.5%, while the man who was ousted from the seat in a 2019 recall, Josh Newman, got lackluster 33.5%. Democrat Joseph Cho peeled off 19% from DPOC-endorsed Newman. According to a number of Democrat sources, Briceno is less-than-enthusiastic about returning Newman to the legislature. These sources say Briceno harbors ambitions to follow the example of former UNITE-HERE leader Maria Elena Durazo, and run for the 29th Senate District herself in 2024.
Confusion Over Briceno’s Roles
Briceno’s tenure as DPOC chair spotlights to tensions and difficulties of serving simultaneously as party leader and union leader. The interests of the DPOC and UNITE-HERE do not always coincide. When they conflict, which organization does Briceno serve? Co-president of Local 11 is her actual, paying job.
Her behavior during the March primary campaign starkly illustrates this conflict of interest. The DPOC did not endorse any of the presidential candidates. Yet, Briceno was a featured speaker at Bernie Sanders’ pre-primary campaign rally in Santa Ana. She lamely rationalized that she was endorsing Sanders’ as a private individual.
At the same time, Briceno was organizing “ballot parties” at Anaheim hotels where Local 11 represented the workers. Hotel employees would bring their ballots to designated locations, where Briceno and others would advise them on how to fill out their ballots, then collect them.
Was Briceno operating in her capacity as Local 11 co-president? Or as DPOC chair? She and her entourage provided Local 11 members with “sample” ballots in which candidates for office were already marked – including for DPOC Central Committee.
If Briceno was running these ballot parties as DPOC Chair, then was it appropriate for her and her staff to encourage Local 11 members to vote for Bernie Sanders? If she was there as DPOC chair running a DPOC voter outreach activity, was it appropriate for her and her entourage to be lobbying Local 11 members to vote for some Central Committee candidates and not others?
The ballot parties were adorned with DPOC banners and clearly identified as a DPOC event – in conjunction with UNITE-HERE Local 11. But Briceno and her entourage clearly went beyond the bounds of appropriate behavior by encouraging Local 11 members to vote for some Democrats but not for others.
The questions facing electors in the Democratic National Committee race are troubling: do they want to advance Briceno’s confusion and conflicted leadership to the party’s top national body? Do they want to insert someone with a leadership track record marked by conflict, discriminatory behavior and poor judgment?
My answer would be “yes” – but I’m a Republican, and the idea of injecting an abrasive left-wing wrecking ball into the DNC leadership is an attractive one. For Democrat electors concerned with electing party leaders with undivided loyalties, the answer will be different.