By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
TO THE ASTONISHMENT OF ANYONE familiar with L.A.’s history, that role has chiefly been filled over the past decade by the city’s labor movement. Indeed, I’d argue that the most consequential Angeleno during the years that I’ve written this column was Miguel Contreras, the farm workers’ son who became the head of the County Federation of Labor in 1996 and who, using largely immigrant-dominated local unions as his spearhead, mobilized immigrant Los Angeles into a political force. By the time he died, suddenly, in 2005, the union movement had become the dominant electoral power in nine of the city’s 15 city-council districts. Capitalizing on the backlash to Proposition 187, labor transformed such venerable Republican strongholds as Glendale, Pasadena and Long Beach into Democratic terrain — changing the political profile of the L.A. region, making California a solidly blue state, paving the way for Antonio Villaraigosa to become mayor.
Just as important, with the county fed serving as the muscle and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy serving as the brain, labor prodded city government to enact the kinds of growth-with-justice policies that the Weekly was calling for, however imprecise our suggestions, as far back as the ’80s. The steady expansions of both the living-wage ordinance (which may shortly be extended to cover employees at airport hotels) and of community-benefit agreements guaranteeing decent wages and benefits to employees at major new developments across the city are among the precious few policies that provide at least a modicum of upward mobility to a working class that is otherwise fighting just to stay even.
Contreras’ death was a loss not just to the city, but to his longtime friend, the new mayor. Villaraigosa has spent his first year in office promoting some of these economic-equity strategies, but they have taken a distinct second place to his battle to win control of the schools. That L.A. would benefit from a better-educated work force is beyond question, but a more plausible and far-reaching solution to our crisis of downward mobility would come from unionization and higher wage standards in service sector, retail, construction and transportation jobs that can’t be offshored. Local government can only do so much to foster such transformations, but Contreras was a genius at pushing local government to the max, and Villaraigosa could do more if he were pushed more.
That the labor movement of the past decade and the civic left that has grown up around it are flawed institutions is apparent every day, and this paper has always criticized them when they’ve gone off track. But they remain, at their best and even when not, the one force in Los Angeles with the creativity, muscle and desire to rebuild the middle class, and they’re a force — with thanks to my editors, colleagues and readers — that I’ve been fortunate to both chronicle and champion over the past 17 years. I’ll continue to do that in other publications, and I hope that the Weekly continues to do that here.