WILMINGTON — He grew up in a union family, played football at Banning High, for years toiled as a construction worker sinking pier pilings in the harbor, and prefers driving a Pontiac to a fancy foreign import.
Any way you look at it, Michael Schwab is a Wilmington kind of guy.
"I am just somebody who grew up in this town who wants to help solve its problems," Schwab said last week. "I can build a dock, I know the area, and I can tell people what the problems are."
Schwab, a union leader with lots of savvy about this working-class community, made Wilmington history last Wednesday when he attended his first Los Angeles Harbor Commission meeting--as a commissioner.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, the Korean War had just ended, and Schwab was in the third grade when then-Los Angeles Mayor Norris Poulson appointed the last Wilmington resident to the powerful commission. Lloyd Menveg, a prominent property owner in Wilmington, served from 1953 to 1961 on the commission, which governs the 7,000-acre Port of Los Angeles spreading across Wilmington, San Pedro and parts of Terminal Island.
Area Not Represented
For 25 years, the harbor-front community has gone unrepresented, while residents from distant corners of Los Angeles have descended on the port to serve on the five-member commission.
"I doubt that somebody born and raised in Burbank or even San Pedro is going to give a damn about Wilmington," said Peter Mendoza, president of Wilmington Home Owners and one of many residents who has repeatedly called for local representation on the influential commission. "Our best hope for change has always been getting somebody from Wilmington on the commission. Now we at least have a chance."
Schwab was appointed to the commission early this month by Mayor Tom Bradley, but the move was eclipsed by a political brouhaha that surrounded the mayor's decision to first fire Commissioner Frederic A. Heim. Heim, a wealthy San Fernando Valley entrepreneur, had served on the board for 13 years and was a longtime supporter of Bradley. Schwab willcomplete the final two years of Heim's term.
A fiery relationship between Heim and Ezunial Burts--executive director of the harbor and a close Bradley assistant before that--preceded Heim's dismissal. While public attention focused on that relationship, Wilmington residents and union officials quietly celebrated the appointment of one of their own.
Schwab is business manager of Wilmington-based Pile Drivers Local 2375, which has about 1,000 members in Southern California and Nevada. The union represents pile drivers; bridge, wharf and dock carpenters; welders; rig-builders, marine divers and tenders.
Schwab joined the union in 1969 in an apprentice program after working as a marine machinist for a year at Todd Pacific Shipyards in San Pedro and serving with the U.S. Army for three years in West Germany. In 1981, he was elected vice president of the union, and he left the docks and offshore platforms to become a union organizer. One year later, he rose to business manager and recording secretary--the highest positions in the local.
Not surprisingly, Schwab is also an avid Bradley supporter, an allegiance made clear on the glass front door to the union hall. Vistors to Schwab's office can't miss two stickers conspicuously plastered on the door. One proclaims, "Buy American." The other, "Bradley for California," promotes Bradley's bid for governor.
John Stodder, press secretary to Bradley, said the mayor selected Schwab for the post because of his labor affiliation and his strong ties to the community.
"He is familiar with the harbor area, its strengths and weaknesses, the people there, and their problems and needs," Stodder said. "It is not just that he is with labor. He is very familiar with some of the industries in the harbor owing to his work experience."
Bradley's decision to appoint Schwab came after several years of lobbying by members of labor groups who haven't had a representative on the commission since 1981. Bill Robertson, who heads the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, which represents 700,000 union members, said he submitted Schwab's name for consideration.
"Labor has not had enough appointments to the Harbor Commission for a number of years," Robertson said. "I thought it was extremely important that we get somebody with a harbor background. Mike Schwab is well respected in the labor movement."
Bernie Evans, chief deputy to Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents the harbor district, said Flores also had urged Bradley to name a labor representative to the commission. Los Angeles harbor provides about 20,000 jobs, most of which are union-related.
"Michael Schwab presented a real good situation for the councilwoman, because he had grown up in the area, knew Wilmington, went to school there--and had a labor position," Evans said. "It was a natural. The appointment accomplished two things--we got a labor commissioner and a Wilmington commissioner."