Angela Keefe, 29, won a bitter election last year to become the youngest head of a large union local in Southern California and one of the few women to hold such a job. The local has 5,000 members--half of them Latino--with mostly low-paying jobs at Disneyland, Anaheim Stadium and many of Orange County's largest hotels. Keefe, a very liberal activist, had been director of organizing; as president she has eschewed a raise and kept her old salary of $42,000. She spoke recently with Times staff writer Michael Flagg.
What are the biggest changes you've made in the local?
We were in the middle of seven open negotiations (with employers) when I took office in July. Our first goal was to get those contracts negotiated favorably. We accomplished that by December, the last holdout being the Inn at the Park (in Anaheim). We also put in motion our big program: to elect 50 new shop stewards and get them trained. We're going to bring them all together in May and put together a plan of action for the coming negotiations, because beginning in January we start with another round of negotiations with the major hotels. The goal is to get 5,000 people acting like one union. The whole purpose is to push down the authority of the union so we've got rank and file members out there who have the know-how and authority to settle grievances and keep management in line.
Has it worked?
We've gone from a local where we just barely made quorum for the monthly membership meeting, which is only 25 people, to standing-room-only with well over 100 people coming, and they're participating in the running of their local. We really feel like we're building a democratic base to the union, which means when you get in a fight with an employer, people are going to take it on as their own fight and act like a union. I'm convinced--I guess that's still to be proved, but I really believe it.
You said in your election campaign you were going to take a more aggressive tack with employers. Have you?
Yeah. We have about 10 times as many arbitrations and grievances being filed as under the previous administration. That's being aggressive, but it's also taking care of business. A union is supposed to police its contracts in the workplace, and if you're not doing that people don't believe in the union.
What are the employers' reactions?
Most of the employers who have been making mistakes have corrected them, because we're winning the grievances. So they know they've made some mistakes. Some of them think we dropped off Mars. But I think it works well, because when we get to negotiations maybe there'll be less hassle. Maybe everybody will have a better sense of where they stand. I hope that's the way it works, because we don't want to end up in two-year disputes again. We want to have enough muscle to get decent contracts.
Unions seem to have lost a lot of their moral authority, to have become just another interest group. Are you dealing with social issues as well as bread-and-butter trade union issues like wages?
Yes. We tend to be more active in the Latino organizations. We've worked with Hermandad (Mexicana Nacional, an advocacy group for Mexican-Americans and immigrants) and with groups that are registering Latinos to vote. We're trying to make ourselves less of a bread-and-butter union and get out more into the community. Fifty years ago, unions started a lot of the fights over fair housing and public education, and it's still part of our obligation to get out there and do it. We don't have a ton of money and a big political action committee, but what we do have are 5,000 members, half of whom are working poor.
How's your relationship with the local Democratic Party, given the fact that prominent Democrat Dick O'Neill had your union decertified at his restaurant?
We're not going to cut off our nose to spite our face. But I think Dick O'Neill should do a lot of soul-searching, and that he's not the sort of Democrat anybody in the party would want to get next to. The people who work at El Adobe live two or three families to an apartment in San Juan Capistrano and were promised $10 an hour if they decertified the union; we lost by two votes and nobody saw any $10 an hour after that. But there are a lot of good people in the party, and they can do a lot of good for our members.
Have you mended fences with your national union, which you said promised to stay neutral in the election and then didn't, or your colleague at the even bigger Los Angeles local, a Latina who also didn't support you?
I think there'll always be people in our international union who don't like the brand of unionism that we brought in. But for the most part, people respect the decision our members made. And when those locals have asked us for help, we've done it, and we've expected the same from them. I guess you could say fences were mended.
Other than the drywall workers, who won a union last year, the organizing picture has been bleak lately. Is it likely to change?