A Devil of a Problem for Labor in the City of Angels

AP Photo,File

Tomorrow, Angelenos go to the polls to select a new mayor. Well, some Angelenos—actually, not a hell of a lot. Indeed, turnout is projected to be so low that the winner may get fewer votes than Fletcher Bowron did in winning the election of 1938, when Los Angeles was less than half as populous as it is today.

The reason for the low turnout is straightforward: Not all that much differentiates the two candidates. Both City Controller Wendy Greuel and Hollywood-area City Councilman Eric Garcetti are mainstream Democrats. Unlike the election, say, of 1993, which pitted Republican businessman Richard Riordan against liberal Democratic Councilman Mike Woo—two candidates with widely divergent views on how to fix the L.A. police in the wake of the Rodney King riots—no great issues separate the two candidates this year. Unlike the election of 2005, in which former California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa ousted incumbent Mayor Jim Hahn, this year’s election won’t be a milestone marking the political progress of Latinos or any other ethnic group.

In the absence of contesting philosophies or electoral manifestations of demographic waves, this year’s candidates haven’t had all that much to excite people about. Not surprisingly, then, their campaigns have been disproportionately negative, even though neither has unearthed anything genuinely damning about the other. Also not surprisingly, in response to the mud-slinging of trivialities, not many Angelenos are making the trek to the polls.

But this year’s election does have one odd and surprising distinguishing feature. Despite the fact that both candidates have consistent records of support for the city’s underpaid working class, despite the fact that with two pro-labor candidates in the run-off, there should have been no way that unions could come out badly, the real loser in this year’s election is L.A.’s union movement.

Los Angeles, I hasten to add, is not an anti-union town. It has voted consistently for union-backed candidates and causes. Over the past 15 years, three anti-labor statewide initiatives that would have made it harder for unions to fund their election-time activities were overwhelmingly rejected by Los Angeles voters. (They lost statewide as well, but by much smaller margins.)

Moreover, Los Angeles is home to the most vibrant and smartest union movement in the nation. When Miguel Contreras became leader of the L.A. County Federation of Labor in 1996, he built a political program that spoke to and enlisted not only union members but L.A.’s huge immigrant population as well. In short order, the city council—and eventually, the state’s legislative and congressional delegations—became, and remain, dominated by pro-labor Democrats.

Crucially, in Los Angeles most of the union ferment wasn’t on the public-sector side, as it was in most American locales. The focus of union activity in L.A. was on helping underpaid private-sector workers. In the mid-'90s, the living wage movement began in Los Angeles, and has used labor’s political power to win raises and benefits for city contract workers, and, more recently, hotel and private trash collection employees, too. Unions won local hiring preferences for inner-city residents and affordable housing construction for them as well. SEIU’s Janitors local waged a series of local strikes over the past 20 years that not only made their members heroes in the immigrant community but also built broad support throughout the city. In short, L.A. became a home for social unionism at its best, even as the union movement in other cities became increasingly identified with taxpayer-supported municipal unions at a time when wages and benefits in the private sector were fast disappearing.

But this year’s election has been a setback for Los Angeles labor, which will come out of it more identified with those taxpayer-supported unions than it was before—more particularly, with the local union whose members are paid a good deal more than their counterparts in either the private or public sector. That union, IBEW Local 18, which represents workers at the city’s Department of Water and Power, has spent more on the election than any other institution or person, waging an independent-expenditure media campaign on Greuel’s behalf into which it has so far sunk $1.65 million. That has made the union the subject of understandable public scrutiny, which has included an Los Angeles Times story documenting that Local 18 members make on average 50 percent more than other city employees.

Local 18 has one of the most effective and visionary inner-city training and recruitment programs of any union in the country, but its leaders very seldom talk about it, and, accordingly, it gets no mention in the media. Instead, local president Brian D’Arcy, boasts of his union’s clout and has made clear that he expects raises for his members if Greuel is elected. He may have saddled Greuel with an insuperable handicap: Somewhat more conservative than Garcetti, she cannot win without getting majority support from the city’s more conservative voters, but in the most recent Times poll (which shows Garcetti with a seven-point overall lead), she trails Garcetti among those voters largely due to her presumed closeness to Local 18.

When Local 18 began spending so much money on Greuel’s behalf, Garcetti’s campaign opted for standard campaign ploy 1-A: It began attacking Greuel as a pushover for the union in any future contract negotiations. Greuel’s campaign fired back with standard campaign ploy 1-B, attacking Garcetti as the Los Angeles version of union-busting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. In fact, Garcetti has a history of support for union initiatives and of backing the living-wage and community-benefit agreements that the city has required of developers and other employers. He’s backed by some of the city’s most progressive locals—including the janitors, the longshore workers, and the teachers. And Greuel, while she’s been the beneficiary of vast union spending, entered the race as the preferred candidate of those city leaders most critical of municipal unions, including former Mayor Riordan. Greuel has spent much of her campaign trying to placate successively (though not successfully) her anti-union-business-leader backers and her city-employee-union-leader backers. With a coalition that resembles nothing so much as a 7-10 split in bowling, that’s not been easy, as the new Times survey makes clear.

With other polls showing a closer outcome than the Times’, it’s not clear who tomorrow’s winner will be. But labor’s image in Los Angeles is definitely the loser, as the city’s attention has drifted from L.A. labor’s innovative efforts to raise living standards for many thousands of working-class and immigrant workers, union and otherwise, to the campaigns that the city employee unions (including the cops and the firefighters) have so lavishly funded for Greuel.

The damage is anything but irreparable. Labor’s battle for underpaid hotel and sanitation workers, its work with environmental organizations to clean the air around the harbor, and its campaign to require that the rail cars and buses bought by the local transit agency are manufactured in the United States—these are more representative of the fights that Angeleno labor picks, and more often than not, wins. L.A. labor federation chief Maria Elena Durazo made that very point in a recent L.A. Times op-ed column. But other L.A. labor leaders—most especially the leaders of municipal employee unions—need to remember that it’s those fights, and not their defense of their own members’ interests, that have made the Los Angeles union movement that all too rare success story at a time when American labor is embattled nearly everyplace else. 

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