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Labor's Dirty Move

No good deed goes unpunished. Just ask City Councilman and mayoral hopeful Antonio Villaraigosa. I saw him the other night at the second mayoral debate, and he was still pretty steamed over the way his biggest former political allies had royally screwed him.

Just the week before, the County Federation of Labor — the umbrella for L.A.’s union movement — gave its endorsement not to Villaraigosa but to Jimmy Hahn. This is the same County Fed that threw in a pot of money and 2,500 field workers to back Villaraigosa’s first mayoral run in 2001. "An old labor saying reminds us that labor rewards our friends," said County Fed boss Miguel Contreras in justifying the rollover for Hahn.

And Villaraigosa? He’s what to labor? A potted plant? While Jimmy Hahn was building his political career off the name of his father, Villaraigosa spent his younger years working as an organizer for three different unions. As a California Assemblyman, Villaraigosa got a 100 percent pro-labor rating. Indeed, his run at the mayor’s chair four years ago was torpedoed in part by a $200,000 smear campaign financed by the Morongo tribe precisely because Villaraigosa had sided with the union trying to organize the Indian casinos. Now that same union has turned its back on Villaraigosa and joined in the endorsement of Hahn. Thanks for taking it in the shorts for us, Tony. Now, don’t wiggle as we step over your body.

The County Fed’s abandonment of Villaraigosa really should come as no surprise. Four years ago, after Villaraigosa’s near-miss campaign, the votes were barely counted when Contreras signaled that he was ready to make a deal with Hahn. When asked, the morning after the election, if he was "bitter" by the way Hahn played the race card to defeat his candidate Villaraigosa, Contreras told the L.A. Times: "No . . . for me, there were no tears last night. This is a game of hardball, and we know how to play it."

No kidding. Soon Contreras and Hahn were best buddies, with the new mayor agreeing to comply with a modest labor wish list. Contreras ally Madeline-Janis Aparicio, who had led the city’s earlier Living Wage campaign, was appointed by Hahn to the Community Redevelopment Agency. With his eye on a couple of thousand union construction jobs, Contreras went to bat for Hahn’s $11 billion LAX expansion. Hahn returned the favor by supporting embattled supermarket and hotel workers.

Which brings us back to last week and the decision by the powerful County Fed to cast its lot with a wishy-washy, near-invisible mayor whose City Hall is under two separate criminal investigations for Davis-like pay-to-play propensities. Progressive apologists for Contreras argue that he really had no choice. That with an incumbent Democrat mayor who has gleefully granted the wage increases demanded by city workers and has thrown in the requisite slabs of contracting pork, Big Labor was more or less obligated to keep things harmonious.

Poppycock. Villaraigosa might, indeed, be much more of a corporate-backed establishment candidate than some of his more fervent supporters wish to acknowledge. But he’s undeniably a much more pro-labor candidate as well. And a more liberal candidate. And apparently a more ethical one.

Further, Villaraigosa, with the help of labor, had tried to build a bona fide new politics coalition to govern Los Angeles — one that better reflected the city’s shifting demographic and economic character. This is in sharp contrast to Hahn’s old-guard patronage model of piecing together an electoral alliance that at times reflected the oily ethos of George Bush’s so-called "coalition of the willing."

Indeed, the brighter bulbs within the American labor movement have been arguing for a solid decade now that the fate of the union movement, and of progressive politics itself, rested on the ability of labor to lead new urban liberal coalitions that would supplant the sort of insider machine that Hahn prefers.

Los Angeles was, supposedly, the national showcase for this new strategy. Our city was ground zero of that fabled Latino-labor alliance that would push the Democrats to where they should be and that — on the local level — would displace the Old Boys network with a cross-city, cross-racial progressive coalition. And, oh yes, Antonio Villaraigosa was the point man. Or he was supposed to be. In that same morning-after-the-2001-election interview, Contreras said, "There are two ways of seeing this election: Either Villaraigosa was going to be the first Latino mayor in the modern era . . . or Hahn was going to be the last Anglo mayor."

Or Contreras was going to help re-elect Hahn, he forgot to add.

Well, one silver lining in all this. I suppose we can now officially close the books on the fairy tale of an ascendant Latino-labor alliance. With five Democrats dominating the mayor’s race, there isn’t a single "practical" or "pragmatic" argument available to defend the County Fed’s lay-down for Hahn other than sheer, rank opportunism. No danger of splitting ranks, of spoiling, of playing into the hands of the Right, of inadvertently electing some Evil Republican. We’re looking instead at a cold, hard lack of principle and guts. More annoying, Contreras’ helping hand to Hahn comes just when the mayor is most vulnerable. Two of the three legs on which Hahn limped into office are buckling: the Valley vote and the black vote. The County Fed to the rescue! And to hell with any corruption indictments that might soon be raining down.

Those who genuinely care about labor, about some sort of new politics for L.A., ought to be roasting Contreras this season, not apologizing or spinning for him. A decade’s worth of lip service to a new politics tossed into the trash for some old-fashioned union patronage at LAX. Hurrah.