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Local Labor Flexes Muscle

November 03, 1996|Joe Domanick | Joe Domanick is author of "To Protect and to Serve: LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams (Pocket Books)

When the AFL-CIO's newly elected leader John J. Sweeney decided to link the survival of the union movement to the re-emergence of its once-powerful political influence, he demonstrated his understanding that concentrating labor's energy on pay and working conditions, supporting labor-friendly candidates and being the Democrats' cash cow were no longer enough to keep labor viable. Sweeney decided instead to shake things up by adding issues and enemies to the mix, and to spend unlimited soft money on "education campaigns."

His innovative strategy has not been lost on local union leaders. Politically astute labor veterans like Art Pulaski, who heads the California Federation of Labor; Miguel Contreras, the executive secretary-treasurer of the powerful 102-year-old L.A. County Federation of Labor; Maria Elena Durazo, the president of one of the county's strongest unions--Local 11 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union, and Steven T. Nutter, the AFL-CIO's regional director of the L.A.-based Union of Needletrades and Textile Employees (UNITE) have all recently risen to the top of their union leaderships while still in their early to mid-40s. They and other local organized-labor leaders have been emulating Sweeney's political activism.

Currently, for example, labor is fiercely fighting to defeat Proposition 209, which would end government-sponsored affirmative-action programs. They have little choice. Unions in Los Angeles, after all, are filled with blacks, browns and women who understand that, at least in part, they owe their jobs--and their chances for promotion--to affirmative action. Their leaders, in turn, understand that these workers are L.A. labor's core constituency as well as its future. You hurt them, you hurt labor, not just as a movement, but as a cohesive political force.

But local unions are not merely reacting. They are spearheading, financing and championing their own ballot initiatives. They are, for example, battling for passage of Proposition 217, which would lock in the temporary income-tax rate increase that was imposed on the top 1% of state taxpayers during the 1991 recession. The money the state will get to keep if 217 passes will be distributed to schools and local governments. Key beneficiaries will be members of the state's public-sector unions--teachers, social workers, police officers, firefighters, bus drivers, etc.

With the exception of the growth industry of law enforcement, governmental institutions and agencies have, after all, been under great pressure to reduce costs, curtail services and limit jobs and pay increases ever since Proposition 13 became law in 1978. The unions supporting Proposition 217 all understand that the measure is a way for organized labor, as well as municipalities, to reclaim some lost revenue.

Meanwhile, precisely in those local industries that are thriving--clothing and garment manufacturing, services in restaurants and hotels, janitorial and custodial work--are conditions at their bleakest for workers. Perhaps at no time since the union-busting days of the '30s, in fact, have so many workers in Los Angeles been living so close to the edge, and just getting by. By the early 1940s, the region's historic, often brutal hostility toward organized labor had begun to ebb. It was then--thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt's alliance with organized labor--that L.A. County became, first, the unionized hub for the war industry on the Pacific Coast, and then the heart of the astounding growth in the nation's defense industry.

William R. "Bill" Robertson, the head of the L.A. Federation of Labor, along with other postwar state and local labor leaders, would use the union movement's new-found political clout. In 1958, for example, a Republican Party intent on emasculating the trade-union movement placed a proposition on the ballot that would have made California a "right-to-work" state. The proposition, which would have allowed workers at a unionized shop to skip union dues, would have financially decimated the union movement. Labor beat back the GOP's proposal and, in so doing, helped elect their great Democratic ally, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Sr., governor.

During the eight years Brown served, and the eight years his son, Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., was governor, labor won representation, bargaining rights and agency shops for public employees, got the Agricultural Labor Relations Act that gave farm workers the right to organize and succeeded in obtaining increases in workers' compensation and in unemployment benefits. They were tremendous accomplishments that helped build Southern California's middle class.

Tom Bradley's 20-year rein as mayor of Los Angeles would prove particularly fruitful for Robertson, who was one of Bradley's key allies. Robertson's members benefited enormously from the union jobs generated by the high-rise construction downtown and on the Westside.

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