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VOTE FOR THE UNION LABEL

While plotting his campaign for mayor of Los Angeles, former California Assembly Speaker

Antonio Villaraigosa

About the Author

John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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The 2012 vice presidential candidate is just trying to rebrand himself for 2016.

Officials have temporarily suspended water shutoffs, and activists are working to create permanent protections for low-income families.

said, "We will only succeed if we can pull together the broadest possible progressive coalition--labor, environmentalists, women, Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, community activists." It was a tall order for a former Service Employees union organizer who entered politics only in 1994 and who faced a half-dozen prominent opponents for the top job in America's second-largest city. But as the April 10 primary approaches, Villaraigosa is building the coalition he envisioned. Early backing came from the

National Organization for Women

, the

League of Conservation Voters

, the

Sierra Club

,

United Teachers of Los Angeles

, the

Stonewall Democratic Club

--the largest gay and lesbian Democratic club in the United States--and such progressive leaders as State Representative

Jackie Goldberg

, US Representative

Hilda Solis

and the

Rev. William Campbell

of LA's historic Second Baptist Church. Then Villaraigosa was endorsed by the powerful

Los Angeles County Federation of Labor

, whose commitment to activist politics is being watched closely as a possible model by national AFL-CIO officials. "We won't settle anymore for politicians who simply vote right; we want committed, activist leaders who march with us on the picket lines, who see themselves as part of a movement for justice for workers," says secretary treasurer

Miguel Contreras

, who helped engineer critical labor support for Solis and Goldberg in the 2000 Democratic primaries. He adds, "We have a chance to make history by electing the first union mayor in the history of Los Angeles."

BLUE-GREEN ALLIANCE

If Villaraigosa wins in LA, he won't be the only labor-backed activist mayor in southern California.

Mike Feinstein

, a key player in the California Green Party, has parlayed a big November win for an at-large Santa Monica City Council seat into selection by the council as mayor. With solid backing from

Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights--

one of the nation's savviest local political groups--Feinstein placed first among thirteen candidates for four council seats. Feinstein ran especially well in low-income neighborhoods, where the Greens touted his record of support for organizing drives at the city's oceanfront hotels and an endorsement from Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 814. Feinstein is using the largely ceremonial mayor's post as a bully pulpit to advocate a living-wage ordinance establishing a mandatory $10.69-an-hour pay rate in the city's tourist district. "In Europe, there are a lot of examples of Greens and unions working together," says Feinstein. "I think we're providing an American model that's good for Santa Monica and useful for the whole country."

GETTING A JOB FOR LABOR

AFL-CIO president

John Sweeney

has long argued that the best way to give working people a voice at the local, state and national levels is for union members to run for and win elected office. That's exactly what

Paul Plesha

did after LTV Steel announced that the taconite mine on Minnesota's Iron Range, where he had worked for twenty-eight years, would shut down. A United Steelworkers of America activist, the soon-to-be-unemployed millwright entered a nonpartisan race for a seat on the St. Louis County Commission and topped a field of twelve candidates in February voting. Plesha, a Democrat, beat his closest challenger, an aide to Senator Paul Wellstone, with a campaign that emphasized his blue-collar roots. "I know what it's like to carry a lunch pail to work," he said. Though he sought a local office, Plesha did not hesitate to address national and international trade issues--no surprise, since his union sent one of the largest grassroots delegations to the anti-WTO protests in Seattle. "I cut my teeth on the fight against NAFTA, and I've recognized ever since then that the pain we're feeling in these parts has everything to do with these trade deals," says Plesha. "I realized when we lost that fight that what's been missing from our politics for too long--at every level--is the voice of labor." Along with 1,400 other LTV Steel workers who lost their jobs, Plesha will be collecting unemployment until he is sworn in on March 13.

REAL PAYCHECK PROTECTION

Ever since labor stepped up its political education and mobilization efforts in 1996, business lobbies have pushed for so-called paycheck-protection measures that would impose on unions complex administrative burdens designed to make it difficult to use union funds for political purposes. California voters rejected the scheme in 1998, and Oregon voters did the same in 1998 and 2000. But the fight goes on in legislatures across the country. In South Dakota AFL-CIO unions, rallied outside the state Capitol in Pierre on a blustery February day and succeeded in convincing the Republican-controlled House to reject "paycheck deception," 44 to 25. Labor has also beaten back similar proposals in North Dakota and Mississippi but lost a legislative fight in Utah (a court challenge is expected). The Montana AFL-CIO continues to battle a determined Republican effort to keep the legislation alive in that state. A frustrated Montana AFL-CIO president

Don Judge

bemoans the fact that "good ideas have gone by the wayside" as unions have been forced to defend "labor's ability to represent our members."

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