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Union Members Rally to Denounce Secession

Cityhood: Hundreds of blue-collar workers who see breakup of L.A. as a threat to their economic survival are cheered on by city's political elite.


Energized by the rousing beat of a gospel choir, hundreds of union members jammed into a stuffy auditorium Saturday at Los Angeles Valley College to denounce secession as a threat to their economic survival.

It was the largest turnout by far for any secession-themed event and a reminder of the broad spectrum of interests fighting a city breakup in the Nov. 5 election. A parade of some of the city's best-paid public servants--politicians--took to the stage to cheer on about 700 blue-collar workers who earn modest wages collecting trash and mopping floors.

Their message was clear: If voters approve cityhood for the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood, workers will suffer. City jobs could be lost, salaries and pensions slashed. Laws meant to protect working families in Los Angeles--including rent control, anti-discrimination and living-wage ordinances--could be undone by the new cities. Labor unions plan to unleash thousands of volunteers and spend more than $1 million on the anti-secession campaign.

Secession leaders argue that union fears are overblown and that labor will have a say in the new cities just as it does in Los Angeles. But if any separatists were among the audience Saturday, they kept a low profile as speaker after speaker denounced a breakup.

"Many of the people in this room come from corners all over the earth," said former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, whose 2001 campaign to become Los Angeles' first Latino mayor in modern times made him a hero among many workers.

"Make no mistake about it, Los Angeles is the preeminent city in the world.... The reason this city is so special is because of the people in it. You don't break up the family just because there's a problem," Villaraigosa said, calling on the man who defeated him at the polls, Mayor James K. Hahn, to join him at the podium.

Pumping their fists skyward like champion boxers, the former rivals led the crowd in the perennial chant made famous by the United Farm Workers of America: "Si, se puede!" Yes, it can be done.

The state commission that sent the secession proposals to the ballot studied their financial impact for more than two years. It concluded that a breakup would not harm the new cities or the remainder of Los Angeles, but left many questions unanswered about job availability, salaries and benefits for employees transferring to a Valley or Hollywood city.

If secession wins, the newborn cities would adopt all Los Angeles ordinances for four months. But then it would be up to the new governments to decide which laws to keep. Some secession leaders have predicted that the Valley and Hollywood would, for example, enact rent control--but they don't speak for officials yet to be elected.

"I think we can lose all of that progressive legislation and all those protections for seniors and workers if the city breaks up," Hahn said. "The people who are selling secession are selling snake oil."

For two hours, workers sat patiently as the city's political elite made its case. Former Mayor Richard Riordan, City Council President Alex Padilla and labor boss Miguel Contreras, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, all took the mike to criticize secession, as did an assortment of religious leaders and legislative aides.

Applause coursed through the audience, a sea of union colors, each time someone praised their hard work and hard-won benefits. The restaurant workers wore blue T-shirts. The city librarians chose hunter green. Janitors were decked out in purple, shoulder to broad shoulder with the electricians, whose gray jerseys featured wild bolts of electricity zigzagging down the back.

"If Cesar Chavez was alive today, he's be working against secession," said Irv Hershenbaum, a leader of the United Farm Workers, who sported a straw hat for the occasion.

After the speeches, everyone poured into the noonday sun to gobble down free hot dogs and chips. Some secessionists had suggested that union members were paid to attend the rally, a charge that organizers and many members denied.

"Nobody had to pay us," said Manuel Morales, a janitor who left his three children behind in Guatemala to seek work in the United States. Now he scrubs bathrooms on the night shift at the CBS television studios.

"Secession will cut our benefits and our health insurance and salaries," he said in Spanish. "We will not have as much strength when we negotiate our contracts."

Marc Reynolds, a cameraman who belongs to the International Cinematographers Guild, agreed.

"It would affect the economy in every way," he said. "If the dockworkers can't make enough money to go see a movie, then the producers aren't going to pay me to make a movie. It'll just be another way for big corporations to divide and weaken us."

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