No matter who wins the runoff Tuesday for Los Angeles County supervisor in the 1st District, electoral democracy and the Latino community have a victory in hand. But organized labor, a pillar of Democratic liberal politics, will be the loser if Councilwoman Gloria Molina is the victor.
Molina, having failed to obtain organized labor's coveted endorsement and contributions, has launched an assault on State Sen. Art Torres, who did get labor's nod, as the tool of a "special interest." While receiving substantial developer contributions, she has proclaimed "independence" from special interests or political parties, accusing Torres of being controlled by the unions.
It is unsurprising that Torres won organized labor's support. He has authored many workers' rights laws, including farm-worker and workers' compensation legislation and the last bill to increase the minimum wage in California. Molina, in contrast, has repeatedly refused to support union organizing drives and strikes, including the Justice for Janitors movement and the El Centro Mental Health strike in East Los Angeles, both actions involving the Service Employees International Union, which also represents county workers.
But Molina's attacks on Torres are surprising, especially for a liberal Democrat. This is vintage anti-union strategy, reminiscent of the 1984 Reagan campaign against Walter Mondale. The Republicans, by calling organized labor a "special interest," equated unions with developers, bankers and the tobacco and liquor industries. It was a devastating move that that undercut Democratic attacks on Reagan for receiving huge corporate contributions.
Molina's campaign may be calculated on the premise that the end--her election--justifies the means. However, if she is not truly anti-union, she should be aware that she is undercutting the strength of the Service Employees union and its county-employee members. This greatly affects the 1st District. The Latino community is predominantly working class and Los Angeles County is the largest single employer of Latino residents of the 1st District. The AFL-CIO estimates that almost one-third of the households in the district include at least one union member.
This is a time of recession, when all workers are struggling just to keep their jobs. In the case of the county, unions have been instrumental in the preservation of services. If they are able to save jobs, they save services to the public.
Labor has been an important ally in the Latino struggle for economic and political rights and has played a role in our electoral gains since the 60's. For example, Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente), one of Molina's key backers, was elected in part because of labor's support.
To be sure, organized labor is an institution that reflects our society's problems and biases. It deserves criticism from our community and from Latinos in its ranks. But Reaganesque anti-union campaigns are destructive, not constructive.