IT'S NOT EASY TO PICK A SINGLE MOMENT when it became clear that Los Angeles -- political Los Angeles -- had changed. There was the afternoon, nearly a year ago, when striking janitors (with the blessing of the cardinal and the backing of the mayor) sat down in a busy Westwood intersection, tying up traffic for the better part of an hour, and motorists got out of their cars and cheered. There was the day the City Council unanimously amended an ordinance so that USC -- a pillar of the civic establishment that's been around here longer than the movies -- would be forced to meet the demands of its kitchen and cafeteria workers, most of them Latino immigrant women.
The numbers are almost as striking as the anecdotes. The city whose fundamental raison d'être over many decades was that it was the anti-union alternative to San Francisco saw 90,000 new workers organized in 1999 -- far more than anyplace else in the nation. The county that was the political home of Richard Nixon, Howard Jarvis and Ronald Reagan voted Democratic on the presidential and senatorial lines last November in exactly the same percentages that the eternally left-leaning Bay Area did. The nation's largest county has become among its most liberal, and such venerable Republican strongholds as Pasadena and the South Bay now vote the straight Democratic ticket for partisan offices.
At one level, our politics are simply tracking our demographics. With the collapse of the aerospace industry in the early and mid-'90s, the middle fell out of the L.A. economy. Hundreds of thousands of white Angelenos up and left (and it's the areas that were home to the greatest concentrations of aerospace -- Burbank, Long Beach, the South Bay -- that have seen the greatest political change). Before they left, some of them had a parting shot for the immigrants who'd inherit their town: Proposition 187. In one of the great illustrations of dialectics in history, however, a ballot measure designed to drive California's Latino immigrants back across the border had the boomerang effect of driving them to the polls. Where, due in part to the efforts of L.A.'s new-model labor movement, they proved to be more liberal than anyone had predicted.
As L.A. moved leftward, and became home to more organizing campaigns than any other American city, the city's social-change organizations began to break new ground, and write new law. The L.A. locals of the hotel workers and janitors unions won contractual pledges from their employers to keep safe the jobs of workers whom the INS deported. Under prodding from a remarkable coalition, the City Council unanimously enacted one of the nation's most far-reaching living-wage ordinances. Progressive Council Member Jackie Goldberg okayed the construction of the massive Hollywood & Highland project on the conditions that the hotel on the site not oppose the efforts of its workers to form a union, and that the shopping-center workers there be paid a living wage. The Santa Monica City Council similarly conditioned a hotel expansion on its neutrality in its workers' unionization campaign, and is considering mandating a living wage for all the employees of large beachfront employers (again, chiefly hotels). In Los Angeles, worker rights, minimum wages, affordable housing and health insurance -- all traditionally areas of federal responsibility, though all largely neglected by the federal government in recent decades -- are becoming the responsibility of the city, at the insistence of some tenacious and brilliantly creative community organizations.
In October 1998, many of those organizations' activists and members found their way to Occidental College (no easy task; try it sometime) for a daylong conference celebrating L.A.'s progressive past and cerebrating on L.A.'s progressive future. The Progressive L.A. conference marked the 75th anniversary of the Liberty Hill incident -- when novelist Upton Sinclair was arrested for reading the Bill of Rights to striking longshoremen on a San Pedro hill -- and the 20th anniversary of the Liberty Hill Foundation, funder extraordinaire of L.A.'s many social-change groups. But it also marked the beginning of a new venture for a large number of those groups.
What has emerged over the past two and a half years is the Progressive L.A. Network -- PLAN, for short. With the city approaching this spring's watershed election, in which half the City Council and all three citywide elected officials are termed out of office, PLAN's plan was to hammer out a platform for a progressive Los Angeles. Over the past year, representatives of roughly 50 groups, along with some unaffiliated policy wonks, formed nine task forces to assess and make suggestions for the city's policies in such fields as housing, economic development, transportation and land use, community development, the urban environment, health policy, and democracy and participation.
This Saturday, at Patriotic Hall downtown, PLAN will present its platform -- the key recommendations of its task forces for new directions in city policy. Some of these policies have been tried in other cities, like the establishment of an affordable housing trust fund financed in part by a fee imposed on developers of large projects. Some are specific to L.A.'s environment, such as the greening of the L.A. River, and some to our political topography, such as inclusionary criteria for neighborhood councils. And some -- conditioning development on living-wage policies, establishing a municipal health-care pool for living-wage workers and employers -- would move L.A. further down the road toward a municipal minimum wage and health coverage than any other American city.
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NINETY YEARS AGO, ATTORNEY, SOCIAL THEORIST AND future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis looked at the cities and states that were just then establishing municipal power companies, child-labor laws and anti-sweatshop provisions, and termed them "laboratories of democracy." Los Angeles had more than its share of turn-of-the-century progressives and socialists; it's because of them that we have the DWP, which they battled for three decades first to establish and then to preserve.
Today, L.A. is poised to become a laboratory for the next century's democracy. No other major city has so polarized an economy and so dynamic a movement for social and economic equity. No other major city will play so large a role in determining the destiny of America's third great wave of immigrants. No other major city is changing so fast. In the struggles of immigrant workers for a living wage, of parents for decent schools and medical care for their kids, of families for homes, of motorists for time, of a city for air it can breathe, the American future is being born.
Saturday's PLAN conference begins at 9 a.m. with a session in which activists unveil and discuss their platform. It concludes with a noon-to-2 p.m. mayoral-candidate forum, in which the candidates will be questioned on issues -- poverty, housing, labor, bus service, inner-city environment, outer-city sprawl -- that don't routinely surface in electoral politics. Members of the public are invited to join the members of the groups that constitute PLAN at Saturday's conference. Patriotic Hall is at 1816 S. Figueroa St.; parking is behind the hall or on side streets. For further information, and for PLAN's platform, call (323) 259-1412, or go to www.progressivela.org.