In Miguel’s Shoes

“He’s more operational than anyone,” says one union staffer of Martin Ludlow, who announced Tuesday that he’s leaving the City Council to succeed the late Miguel Contreras as head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor. “He has a great feel for how to put together a political campaign — the candidate, the funding, the coalition. He did it for Karen Bass [who won election to the state Assembly from a South-Central district in 2002, when Ludlow was serving as political director of the Fed]. He’ll do it for lots of other candidates now, too.” Certainly, there was no greater tribute to Contreras than Ludlow’s decision to leave a powerful council seat to assume the leadership of the Fed, which agreed to match his $143,837 annual council salary. There’s not another city in the United States where the position of leader of the central labor council is clearly more powerful than that of a major elected official. In Los Angeles today, however, the head of the Fed leads an organization that is the dominant political player in roughly nine of the city’s 15 council districts, and the most important force in most of the county’s congressional and state legislative districts as well. Arguably, the position is the second most powerful on the local political scene, following that of the mayor. Inarguably, it’s a damned sight more powerful than a City Council seat. Ludlow assumes office, however, just as the national labor movement seems on the verge of a split, with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) soon likely to secede from the national AFL-CIO and just possibly to take the Teamsters and UNITE-HERE (the apparel and hotel union) with it when it goes. In Los Angeles, members of SEIU locals constitute roughly 40 percent of the Fed’s membership and pay 40 percent of the Fed’s dues. SEIU locals and Local 11 of UNITE-HERE have long provided the lion’s share of precinct walkers in the Fed’s election-season campaigns. Their departure could decimate the Fed and compel it to lay off about half its staff. To avert such a dire prospect, Contreras had already been developing a new structure, which both the Fed and a seceded SEIU would fund and staff, to conduct much of the campaign work that the Fed has up to now coordinated by itself. On May 31, however, national AFL-CIO president John Sweeney put out a memo to union leaders across the nation proscribing just such a process, and making it clear that if an affiliate stops paying dues to the national body, its locals may no longer belong to local councils such as the Fed. “The AFL-CIO does not condone the use of state, area, or local central body funds, resources (including but not limited to voter files) or personnel to establish or support . . . parallel or related labor federations or the like, which could include participation by unions that are not part of the AFL-CIO,” Sweeney wrote. The national labor movement is currently engaged in a deadly game of chicken, with the dissident unions threatening secession unless certain programmatic changes are made and Sweeney is replaced by a candidate more to their liking. Sweeney, however, commands the support of unions that constitute at least 65 percent of the AFL-CIO’s membership, and he is trying to make the secession option more difficult for unions thinking of taking that plunge. Because the sundering of local labor councils could greatly disrupt labor’s political-operations program, the leaders of 15 labor councils from across the country are meeting in D.C. this week to consider their options — and Sweeney’s memo notwithstanding, some of their meetings are with leaders of the SEIU. In short, it’s a hell of a moment to take over the Fed, what with a split looming and Arnold threatening to call a special election to pass an initiative that would cripple labor politically. Ludlow, at least, can boast a breadth of support that should be helpful at such a moment: He won the backing of the old bulls of the building trades no less than the leaders of the SEIU. Talking with the Weekly an hour after the Fed’s executive board voted to appoint him, he said that the labor leader whose support most persuaded him to take the position was Contreras’ widow, Maria Elena Durazo, who heads Local 11 of UNITE-HERE. “When Maria Elena said, ‘We need you,’ that was very compelling,” Ludlow said. His first job in L.A. labor, he recalled, was his work for Durazo at Local 11 in 1988, followed by a stint working as a political director for SEIU (through a faulty phone connection, he initially thought the offer came from the Circus Employees International Union). The job that may have commended him most to L.A.’s labor leaders, though, was probably his stint as Southern California field director for Antonio Villaraigosa when the mayor-elect was Assembly speaker. For a labor movement seeking to ingratiate itself with Villaraigosa after backing incumbent Jim Hahn in the mayoral election, the opportunity to elevate one of Villaraigosa’s biggest backers to its leadership position was hard to pass up. “Antonio and I have had a 20-year friendship, which I will undoubtedly call on and so will he,” Ludlow said. “There will be times when we will disagree. But we are joined at the hip in our commitment to working families.” Ludlow’s resignation from the council, coming on the heels of Villaraigosa’s elevation from the council to the Mayor’s Office, only further ensures that any progressive civic initiatives in the next couple of years are more likely to come from the Mayor’s Office than from council chambers. Former Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, hardly a fount of progressive initiatives, is expected to seek Ludlow’s seat; low-income policy maven and advocate Denise Fairchild has been mentioned as a possible candidate as well. Ludlow acknowledges that he arrives at a difficult moment in the politics of both the state and the labor movement. “Signs of comfort are not easily found these days,” he says. “And Miguel’s shoes were gargantuan. But you don’t just shy away in times of struggle.”

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