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L.A. businesses to form new federation

The lobbying group, which will represent 70,000 businesses, aims to emulate labor unions' effectiveness.

January 29, 2008|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

Hoping to provide harried business owners a way to influence decision making, several Los Angeles business groups have formed a coalition to copy and counteract unions' organizational clout.

The Los Angeles County Business Federation, which will be formally unveiled today, so far includes 44 organizations that represent more than 70,000 businesses employing more than 1.2 million people, said Tracy Rafter, chief executive of the group and a former publisher of the Daily News.

Although many of the local chambers of commerce and other groups in the federation already lobby for business, federation members said they weren't speaking quickly or often enough to influence elected officials on important matters. The new organization's leaders say it is important to emulate the fast footwork of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor in bringing together large groups of people to address issues.

The labor movement nationally is struggling to maintain membership, but experts say Los Angeles has been a bulwark, with strong union ties to elected officials including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles).

"It's not like they're running things, but it's one of those regions in the country where labor has been very effective," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at UC Santa Barbara.

David Fleming, chairman of the new group, said labor has "done a fantastic job. Businesses are not organized, and because of that, we do not get our message across. We tend politically to be an afterthought."

The federation formed "to organize businesses, the collective chambers, trade groups and business organizations so that we can put together the numbers and get the attention of the political leaders" as a way to boost economic vitality, said Fleming, who is also the outgoing chairman of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

The business federation said it would release the results of a poll today of its members finding that most believe the biggest need is to reduce worsening commute times, curb urban crime and gang violence and reform education.

Businesses, Fleming said, are tired of their employees spending too much time and energy on the freeways, are concerned about the threat of gangs and are fed up with having to spend money to educate new hires in basic skills they failed to learn in school.

If such poll results are going to set the group's agenda, there could be common ground with labor.

"That is something that labor can cooperate on because labor has been talking about things like that for decades," Lichtenstein said, adding, that it was more likely to be an adversarial relationship.

"I think they will end up going toe to toe with labor over things like living wage ordinances and expensive healthcare mandates," Lichtenstein said.

Although Fleming said the group would take stands on matters it thought hurt business, he added, "We are not anti-labor. We are pro business."

Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, found it curious that business would present an image of itself as unorganized and lacking clout.

"Business has a very strong and active presence with regard to the political decisions made in the city and county of Los Angeles, and it always has," she said.

Still, Durazo said she was hopeful about potential points of agreement between labor and business.

"It could be good if they use it in a positive way, and not just as another tool to defeat reasonable proposals made on behalf of workers in Los Angeles," she said.

Helen Han, CEO of the National Assn. of Women Business Owners, said she hoped the federation would spur action by her group's primarily small-business members.

"This group has the kind of resources that we can really leverage to the fullest extent," Han said.

The chief tool, said Rafter of the new group, will be an "action-alert" website that can be accessed from computers or Web-capable phones. The site would outline issues and offer phone numbers or e-mail links to decision makers, allowing business owners to quickly air their feelings without having to meet physically.

Fleming says he remembers when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board of directors once reneged on a promise to transport Los Angeles marathon runners to the starting line for free. Within five hours, he had received 600 e-mails from irate runners, and the board quickly rescinded the decision. Fleming says he never forgot that, and considers it a standard.

"I want to see businesses sending 600 e-mails in five hours," he said.

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ron.white@latimes.com

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