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Say It. Ain't So, Miguel.

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

L.A.'S LABOR BOSS, MIGUEL CONTRERAS, PULLED A nasty, fast one last week and needs to be rushed to the woodshed for some wall-to-wall counseling. As head of the 800,000-member County Federation of Labor, Contreras is often lionized as the linchpin of local progressive politics.

But when it came to an urgent, no-brainer, pro-consumer reform of some of the notorious practices of our morally bereft HMOs, Contreras took a dive. We caught him smack-dab in bed in the most compromising of positions with the HMO lobbyists and a kinky trio of spineless local Democrats.

This sordid affair began with a laudable reform measure introduced into the state Legislature by state Senator Martha Escutia (D-Whittier). Her bill would have allowed HMO patients (more than 90 percent of California's medically insured) to escape mandatory arbitration when they have a serious complaint against their medical provider. California's 1999 right-to-sue law theoretically allows aggrieved patients to take their HMO complaints to court. But increasingly, the medical-insurance giants are forcing patients to forfeit those Seventh Amendment rights by making them sign waivers upon enrollment in health plans that would bar any legal action.

In brief, Senator Escutia's bill would have restored and strengthened a patient's right to sue, especially in those cases where severe physical damage has been suffered because treatment has been withheld by one of those bottom-line, blood-for-profits HMOs.

You'd think that state Democrats would stand patiently in line to vote for this populist, pro-consumer measure. But you'd be wrong. When the bill came before a key Assembly committee last week, it fell just short of passage and quietly expired on the table. Three local Assembly Democrats -- Ed Chavez, Gloria Negrete-McLeod and Paul Koretz -- get equal credit for smothering the bill. In legislative parlance, they "took a walk" on the bill. Lacking the minimal courage of their convictions, this trio of cowards didn't vote against the measure. They simply didn't vote, and thereby deprived the bill of the necessary votes to pass it.

Some critics have pointed to the $42,000 that Chavez has gotten in campaign contributions from the insurance lobbies as an explanation for the rollover. But Chavez himself admits to a darker truth. He wasn't flagged off the bill by Big Business, but rather by Big Labor. Miguel Contreras had vigorously lobbied him and just about anyone else who would listen to oppose the bill.

And as Chavez, Negrete-McLeod and Koretz were all elected with union support and dare not risk the scorn of the County Fed, they dutifully fulfilled Contreras' prescription. Contreras doesn't deny his role. He told local reporters he opposed the reform bill because rank-and-file union workers were happy with the mandatory-arbitration system as is. But no record can be found showing that any of the 360 unions that make up the County Fed opposed the reform measure. And yet Contreras unconvincingly and pathetically argues, "We did what was best for our members."

What a load of baloney, says Jamie Court of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, the good people who brought us car-insurance-slashing Proposition 103 and who have been in the forefront of the battle against health-care-industry greed. "Contreras has got a stable of politicians at his call, and he's using them at cross-purposes for his workers," says Court. "Here you have a labor chief who is lobbying hand in hand with the state's biggest HMO to prevent workers from having a choice to go to court if they are injured by an HMO. Miguel Contreras is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of Kaiser."

There may be something to what Court alleges. Indeed, it's hard to find any principled reason for Contreras' championing of the industry hard line. Except, and this is a big exception, for organized labor's "partnership pact" with Kaiser. The most powerful of L.A. unions, the Service Employees, entered into the pact a few years ago -- getting a clear path to organize in return for their support of industry issues. Now it looks like the first big invoice has come due.

SUCH LABOR-MANAGEMENT COALITIONS ARE DEfensible when both sides pull together on issues of mutual benefit. But in this case, Contreras simply did the bidding for the bosses, and without any visible plus for the workers he represents -- not to mention all those mere "consumers" related to those same union workers. This isn't the first time that Contreras has strayed. He was on the wrong (industry) side of the global-warming bill, last year he wrote an embarrassing op-ed piece in the Times defending a financial bailout for the electrical utilities, and under his leadership local labor has too often defended unnecessary corporate developments in exchange for . . . well . . . a few crumbs. (When you get a chance, stop by the monstrous Hollywood-Highland mall and ask yourself if this is the sort of crap progressive labor should be fighting for.)

It's nothing new when labor acts opportunistically in its narrowly perceived interests. Except in Contreras' case. He's supposed to be all about the "new" pro-community unionism, the notion of organized labor as the motor force of a progressive alliance. If that's to be the case, Contreras is going to have to go cold turkey on any more backroom deals that hose down ordinary consumers and working people -- no matter what his industry partners think.

A last word on this topic: While Contreras' behavior on this health-care measure has been disappointing, the antics of Assemblyman Paul Koretz are downright scandalous. As a representative of West Hollywood, Koretz knows very well the complicated health issues that his gay and lesbian constituencies face and the sort of epic battles they have to fight against their ill-named medical providers. It was bad enough that he let the HMO-reform measure collapse. But worse, after it was dead, after the last roll call was finalized and he had abstained, only then did he have his name added as a yes vote -- knowing full well that it no longer mattered. How's that for a Sleaze of the Year nomination? "They ought to be out burning pictures of Koretz on Santa Monica Boulevard," says Jamie Court.

Let me know when the festivities begin. I'll bring the marshmallows.