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New Labor Chief Shows Mettle in Election Battle

Taking over after the death of the powerful Miguel Contreras, Martin Ludlow molds county unions into a potent force.

November 12, 2005|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

Martin Ludlow had been crisscrossing Los Angeles to get voters to the polls since 4:45 a.m. when he took the stage at a downtown ballroom late Tuesday.

But the leader of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor held nothing back as he whipped up union members celebrating the election-day shellacking of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"Elections are won by the people who turn out to vote, and we turned out the people to vote!" Ludlow bellowed into the microphone, his voice cracking over cheers from the crowd.

It was a heady moment for the former Los Angeles city councilman who took the helm of the nation's largest local labor council in June after the death of its leader.

In less than six months on the job, Ludlow had helped hold local unions together in the face of a contentious split in the national labor movement. And he helped mobilize tens of thousands of voters to beat back the governor's frontal assault on the political muscle of California's unions.

Though more political battles loom next year, the labor federation that Ludlow's legendary predecessor, Miguel Contreras, built into a powerhouse had scored another victory.

And Ludlow emerged from Contreras' shadow to establish himself as a political force in his own right.

"Labor under Martin Ludlow is alive and well in L.A. County, and their political muscle is stronger than ever," said longtime local Democratic political strategist Kerman Maddox, who did not work on the November campaigns.

When Ludlow took the reins of the county federation last summer, there was much less to celebrate.

The local labor movement had split over the reelection effort of Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, with the county federation and most unions backing Hahn and a few dissenting locals rallying behind Antonio Villaraigosa.

Then, days before the mayoral election, Contreras, who was widely credited with making the Los Angeles labor movement into a national model of political activism, suffered a massive heart attack and died.

Ludlow, a stocky former labor organizer who had won a seat on the City Council in 2003, was chosen in June to lead the federation, a coalition of more than 350 locals representing about 800,000 workers in Los Angeles County.

Within a month of succeeding Contreras, Ludlow, who had played a somewhat peripheral role on the City Council, was thrust into the middle of a schism within the labor movement that cleaved several of the nation's most dynamic unions from the AFL-CIO.

Compounding labor's problems, early opinion polls showed several Schwarzenegger-backed initiatives garnering strong support even among union members. Most distressing was the support for Proposition 75, which would have limited the ability of public employee unions to collect political money from their members.

"That circumstance alone, let alone the split nationally and the split after the mayor's race ... created an enormous challenge for Martin," said veteran Democratic political consultant Bill Carrick, who ran the opposition to Schwarzenegger's proposition to allow retired judges to redraw state legislative districts.

State unions, led by teachers, nurses and firefighters, would eventually pour about $100 million into the campaign to beat back Schwarzenegger's initiatives with a blizzard of television ads.

At the grass-roots level, the job of persuading union members in Los Angeles to oppose the governor's agenda fell to Ludlow and local union leaders.

Drawing on the organization developed by Contreras, Ludlow and other local leaders began fanning across the county two months ago, visiting union members at their jobs with PowerPoint presentations highlighting the concerns about the propositions.

Regardless of whether their parent unions were at odds, they worked together to set up a phone bank that would eventually reach more than 200,000 people, according to the county Federation of Labor.

They turned a cramped room at the group's headquarters in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles into a war room with enormous calendars plastered with hundreds of yellow Post-it notes denoting which slices of the county union volunteer teams would hit.

Ludlow said union members in Los Angeles County logged about 20,000 volunteer shifts during the campaign, more than twice as many as during the 2004 presidential election.

"This was mammoth," Ludlow said. "But we knew we had to dig deeper than we ever had before."

The campaign drew the attention of national labor leaders, including John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, and Anna Burger, chairwoman of Change to Win, a coalition of unions that broke with the AFL-CIO last summer. Both leaders campaigned with Ludlow and other labor officials.

"More and more, folks are realizing the potential of the labor movement in Los Angeles," Sweeney said. "Our strength is in our people power, and they did a damn good job mobilizing that."

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