By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
If labor had a parochial agenda, none of this would matter much. In many cities, unions champion the interests of city workers and lobby for major construction projects that benefit the building trades — legitimate agendas both, but neither one calculated to change the power equations, much less the socioeconomic profiles, of cities. In Los Angeles, what makes Contreras’ tenure notable is that labor has always used its clout to promote organizing the unorganized, increasing the number of living-wage jobs, and other measures to enhance working-class interests.
One indication of how labor’s clout pays off in myriad ways will be on display this Thursday at the board meeting of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). The board is scheduled to take up a citywide policy for all establishments in developments that receive CRA assistance, and is likely to enact a living wage, domestic-partner benefits and other worker protections. (Up to now, such understandings have been negotiated project by project, a painfully slow way both to build a city and make it livable.)
The spearhead of the conversion of the CRA board to an agency for social justice has been Madeleine Janis-Aparicio, the brilliant attorney-activist who heads the city’s living-wage movement and whom Jim Hahn appointed to the CRA’s board last year at Contreras’ insistence. When Hahn needed the unions’ help in defeating secession, he agreed to meet a series of Fed demands, and the appointment of Janis-Aparicio — and the shift in policy that that portended — was just one of his commitments.
Hahn is not a mayor who’s overflowing with an agenda of his own, and as a mainstream Democrat he’s responded to some of Janis-Aparicio’s policy suggestions with alacrity. Later this summer, the CRA board will consider a proposal to adopt a community-impact report on all its projects, which will subject such projects to assessments of their social as well as their environmental impact. Such reports would look at the effects of a development on jobs created, the affordable-housing needs created, and the impact on neighborhood services and amenities. To a certain degree, they would substitute a legal process for what is now the thoroughly messy and anarchic process of obtaining community support for a major project. The movement behind this project — it’s called the Growth With Justice Coalition — grows out of all the fights to place social conditions on some of the city’s major projects in recent years, from Hollywood & Highland to Staples Center.
With Villaraigosa and Ludlow joining the City Council on July 1, the Growth With Justice forces, most especially including labor, hope that such innovative policies may someday be enacted not just for projects receiving CRA assistance but citywide as well. How exactly the new council will shape up is still unclear; Contreras was fond of telling his fellow unionists as they prepared for the elections that with Villaraigosa and Ludlow in council chambers progressives could at least be sure that their motions would be made and seconded. “Okay, they’ll be seconded,” one somewhat more skeptical liberal said after Ludlow’s election, “but I don’t know where the third and fourth votes are.”
Actually, the identity of those votes is fairly clear: They belong to council members Eric Garcetti and Ed Reyes. How far the rest of the council would want to proceed toward ambitious extensions of the living wage, or toward requirements that developers build a certain number of affordable housing units in return for building market-rate housing, remains to be seen. But then, no one would have predicted that the council would unanimously have a living-wage ordinance in 1997, either.
Contreras is plainly eager to test the council’s — and the mayor’s — limits. This winter, the Fed will convene a first-ever L.A. Union Convention to formulate a far-reaching agenda for the city. “The living wage is just the beginning,” Contreras says. “We’re talking about affordable housing, health care, land use, the right to organize — and not Mom-and-apple-pie stuff — this will be controversial. We want a public fight with those parts of corporate L.A. that aren’t interested in justice in this city, and we want local elected officials to take a stand on these proposals, so we can hold them accountable. We’re not here to be labor statesmen. We’re here to be warriors.”
Even if Contreras is just talking — and he’s not — his words are both wondrous and strange, for the simple reason that liberals don’t talk like this anymore. Not like this, with confidence, without apology, with a sense that they can push the envelope and get real results. In the nation’s capital, where I live now, this is how the neoconservatives talk, with their cocky insistence that they can convert America into an empire or bring the New Deal’s handiwork toppling down. They have the vision and the power, and they drive the agenda here, with liberals reduced to pointing out the dangers and looniness of their designs.
In L.A. — and of all of the nation’s major political jurisdictions, only in L.A. — the situation is substantially reversed. Here, the business community is scattered and leaderless, and it’s the progressive civic left — the living-wage and affordable-housing activists — who are proposing the directions for a new Los Angeles. Behind them is the power of a labor movement that can win elections more reliably than anyone else in town. And in Contreras, they, like Martin Ludlow, have found their godfather.
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