Labor leader Miguel Contreras took a huge gamble in backing mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa--a longtime friend, former union organizer and would-be "warrior for Los Angeles working families."
Setting up a Villaraigosa win as a symbolic triumph for the progressive, pro-immigrant labor agenda, Contreras persuaded national unions to pour money and resources into the campaign and mobilized an army of paid precinct walkers, many of them on leave from jobs as janitors, hotel workers and farm workers.
But on election day, Contreras' man lost--to James K. Hahn, a labor-friendly Democrat who was supported by key city unions. Leaders of some of those unions bitterly resented the intervention of Contreras, who, as secretary-treasurer of the county Federation of Labor, is the figurative head of labor in Los Angeles but has no direct control over member unions.
"There's not enough of us to be working against each other," said Julie Butcher, general manager of Service Employees International Union, Local 347, which represents 9,000 city employees and was the only SEIU local to support Hahn. "When we forget what we do and who we work for, I think we make a big mistake."
Traditionally, in making political endorsements, the 750,000-member Federation of Labor has deferred to unions that directly work with an officeholder. But in this case, Contreras overrode Butcher's plea for neutrality in the April 10 election, engineering a slim vote for a Villaraigosa endorsement by the federation's political committee. At the time, Contreras said the Los Angeles labor movement had gained enough clout to groom and elect leaders, rather than merely backing the most palatable likely winner.
Butcher and other union leaders were quick to criticize that strategy Wednesday, portraying Contreras' involvement as a waste of resources and goodwill. Many also noted Hahn's track record on issues of concern to labor, including support for the city's living wage law, and chafed at the implication that their support for him represented a vestige of old labor.
"It really is a situation where they feel the new face of labor is their interpretation of it," John Hall, business manager for the Plumbers Union, Local 78, said, referring to Villaraigosa's supporters. "We don't happen to agree with that interpretation. . . . Labor is all working people. This pits us against ourselves, which is pretty stupid."
Added Bill Luddy, political director for the carpenters union, which recently split from the AFL-CIO and which actively supported Hahn, "It's a cheap shot. It may have a certain ideological appeal to some people that they're on the vanguard of some grand social movement, but I think there is a basic flaw in the whole construct that says unions that are doing a good job at organizing somehow are not as correct as unions that are not able to get that done."
Taking a shot at a long-running campaign to organize workers at luxury hotels that has failed to show significant results, Luddy noted that the carpenters union has hired hundreds of organizers in the past year, including many Latinos who are targeting immigrant construction workers. "I reject the notion that this is the old white guy guard," he said.
Yet Contreras insisted that the federation's effort helped mobilize Latino voters, adding to Tuesday's turnout, which featured Latinos casting a larger share of the city's ballots than ever before, and expanded the coalition of union members, community activists and immigrant rights advocates that he methodically has been building since taking the top labor position five years ago.
"People shouldn't write obits about the labor movement because of this," he said Wednesday. "It's the birth announcement of the new labor-Latino alliance, and that's only going to grow."
Indeed, Contreras seemed far from humbled as he set the stage for Villaraigosa's concession speech early Wednesday morning at a rowdy election-night street party.
"We have built a coalition that won't be stopped," he told a cheering crowd. "This is just the beginning. From this point forward, they're going to talk about our issues. This movement keeps on going."
Despite the political setback, none of the labor leaders or analysts interviewed Wednesday suggested that Contreras' position at the federation--or his emerging importance in the nation's resurgent labor movement--was in danger. But several added that his intense campaigning for Villaraigosa could mean a frosty reception in the new mayor's office, at least initially.
"Miguel is an important leader in the city of Los Angeles and therefore his views are going to be important to the mayor," said Bill Wardlaw, Hahn's campaign chairman. Wardlaw added, however, that "Jim Hahn was blessed with the support of outstanding labor leaders in his campaign and he is extremely appreciative to those labor leaders who stood by him in this election."