You may not have heard of Antonio Villaraigosa, but in about a month he is likely to
be on the cover of Time and Newsweek.
Villaraigosa is the front-runner to become the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in the June 5
election. Almost more important, his likely win is the fruit of a remarkable resurgence of the
labor movement in LA, based substantially on the organizing of the immigrant and low-wage
work force. His emergence is an emblem of the most interesting social movement since the civil
Villaraigosa less than a decade ago was a union organizer. He got elected to the California State
Assembly, quickly rising to speaker by 1998. That this man may soon be mayor of the largest
city in America's largest state is one of the few hopeful harbingers for liberals in an era that
seems not only politically conservative but politically dead.
Both parties in a sense have become the party of Washington, and most voters don't seem to be
paying attention. The Democrats, now in opposition, are having a hard time playing that role
because they still think of themselves as the party of government. And, indeed, they are doing a
valiant job defending those aspects of government that most Americans value: Social Security,
Medicare, aid to education, environmental protections.
But this sort of institutional role doesn't rouse much popular energy. And while the Senate
Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, and his House counterpart, Dick Gephardt, have done a
pretty fair job of playing leader of the opposition, both are necessarily focused on the midterm
elections of 2002, where a shift in a very few seats could catapult both men into the much more
consequential jobs of Senate majority leader and House speaker.
But that dramatic change depends on electing a handful more Democrats in a few swing
districts, a project that reinforces caution. This is why the grass roots are so important if
America is to enjoy a resurgence of progressive politics and government.
And, indeed, there are two noteworthy things going on at the grass roots - a revived labor
movement focused on getting all Americans a living wage and the new energy of immigrant
Both of these trends have come together in the Villaraigosa candidacy. In Los Angeles, unions
worked together with progressive legislators to organize some 60,000 home care workers and
win legislation requiring Medicaid reimbursements to pay them a middle-class wage. The home
care campaign, in turn, built on the success of the Justice for Janitors campaign, nationally and
in LA, which has resulted in middle class wages for janitors.
Home care and janitorial work are both heavily Latino in Los Angeles. But the resurgent union
movement there spans African-Americans and other immigrant groups as well.
This new energy also reflects new priorities at the national AFL-CIO, whose leader, John
Sweeney, former president of the service employees union, has made the organizing of
low-wage workers a priority. Under Sweeney, with prodding from the local movement in places
like LA, the AFL-CIO dramatically reversed its traditional position on immigrants, seeing them
as potential allies to be organized rather than threats to American workers.
By a fortuitous convergence, labor's shift to a pro-immigrant stance coincided with the reign of
California Governor Pete Wilson, whose flagrantly anti-immigrant position has wrecked the
Republican Party's hopes with Hispanics in California for at least a generation.
What almost killed the American labor movement was the idea that union leaders should behave
like statesmen. Sweeney, in contrast, has had the wits to recognize the power of grass-roots
movements, and to provide them resources - and not just in LA.
Though the national media have not paid much attention, local living wage campaigns, built on
local organizing, have succeeded in city after city. Harvard University finds itself badly on the
defensive because, despite its outsized wealth, it is refusing to pay several hundred service
workers the $10.25 an hour that the Cambridge City Council has determined to be a living wage
in Greater Boston.
By another coincidence, the AFL-CIO executive committee held its quarterly meeting in Boston
last week. The assembled union presidents found time to join the Harvard protesters, and also
to attend an amnesty rally organized by immigrant rights groups on Boston Common. That
probably wouldn't have happened in the dead years of labor statesmen.
Just when grass-roots politics looks moribund, it revives in unexpected places. Isn't that what
democracy is about?