LA’s Progressive Mosaic: Beginning to Find Its Voice

LA’s Progressive Mosaic: Beginning to Find Its Voice

LA’s Progressive Mosaic: Beginning to Find Its Voice

When members of the LA janitors’ union decided to go on strike this past April, their success was far from guaranteed.


When members of the LA janitors’ union decided to go on strike this past April, their success was far from guaranteed. The union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877, was up against some of the city’s wealthiest and most politically powerful businessmen. Any strike is a gamble, and this one was particularly risky in that the building owners were threatening to replace the largely immigrant workforce.

But when the strike came, the public response was overwhelmingly supportive. Not a day went by without an article or column in the Los Angeles Times about how the struggle of the primarily Latino janitors reflected LA’s class and ethnic divisions. Republican Mayor Richard Riordan, who refused to sign a living-wage ordinance three years ago, told the building owners they should pay up. LA’s Cardinal Roger Mahony held a mass for the strikers, while Rabbi Steven Jacobs conducted a labor-oriented Passover Seder. During the janitors’ numerous marches through the city’s wealthy areas, office workers emerged from highrise buildings to raise a fist in support or flash a sign of victory.

As SEIU official Eliseo Medina remarked, “In the past we were used to getting only one finger, so this [victory sign] was a welcome change.”

For union organizers and community activists, the janitors’ triumph after three weeks on strike signaled that Los Angeles–a sprawling city of almost 4 million people, at least one-third of them immigrants, with the widest economic divide in the nation–might become a test case for whether progressives can forge coalitions strong enough to transform the daily lives of millions who have not benefited from the stock market frenzy or the rosy promises of the global economy. The potential for an urban progressive renaissance is the result of painstaking organizing, small victories that have been consolidated and built upon, and the recognition by activists that dramatic economic and population shifts required a dynamic response.

“Community groups and unions have always talked about economic justice, but now these issues are resonating with the mainstream, the media, United Way and even some business folks,” explains Torie Osborn, director of the Liberty Hill Foundation, which funds grassroots organizing projects. “It’s a whole different atmosphere than it was just three or four years ago.”

The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor has become a solid institutional base for organizing, research, coalition-building and political muscle. Under the leadership of Miguel Contreras, formerly of the United Farm Workers, the labor federation has reached out beyond its membership to forge coalitions with community-based organizations, the clergy and housing and immigrants’ rights activists. “Community allies are essential for obtaining workplace goals, and issues important to union members are not exclusive to the workplace,” says Contreras.

One sign of progress is the city’s successful living-wage movement, which pushed through a law in 1997 despite Riordan’s opposition. Although the law reaches only a small proportion of the working poor–fewer than 15,000 employees–organizers view it as a building block for organizing low-wage workers and changing public consciousness about the market’s inability to provide a fair wage. Activists have also worked to expand the scope of the law. With strong labor, clergy and community support, Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) has won provisions requiring that all businesses with city contracts over $25,000 and of three months or longer pay their employees at least $7.72 per hour with health benefits ($8.97 without). And on major development projects, LAANE–with the strategic support of progressive City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg–has helped secure local and minority hiring guarantees and “card check” union organizing neutrality agreements. In seaside Santa Monica, activists have proposed a living-wage law that would cover employees in prosperous local hotel, restaurant and shopping districts, which have benefited from large-scale public investment.

Unions are also taking on social issues once considered beyond the purview of organized labor. “Housing is the biggest financial problem our members face,” says John Grant, vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770. “We can’t just focus on problems in the workplace.” Indeed, LA spends less on housing than any major city, has one of the lowest homeownership rates in the country (39 percent) as well as a serious slum problem, and almost three-quarters of low-income families spend more than half their income on housing. The UFCW has been working with housing activists on a campaign to subsidize new units through a local Housing Trust Fund, to be endowed in part by a new “linkage” fee on the city’s booming commercial development projects.

Meanwhile, new alliances among environmentalists and community and labor groups are attempting to link clean air and economic concerns through issues like community development, housing, mass transit, job creation and workplace health. At a recent state AFL-CIO convention, a panel focused on increasing cooperation between labor and enviros on such issues as low-emission vehicles and promoting pro-union “smart growth.” “When you add labor to the mix” of environmental and community groups, says Tim Carmichael of the Coalition for Clean Air, “that can be a powerful force.”

In greater Los Angeles, which remains one of the nation’s most polluted areas, the poor and communities of color have borne a disproportionate share of the environmental degradation. Even the siting of proposed new schools has been delayed because of widespread contamination of land by toxic chemicals. But a recent federal court victory by the Coalition for Clean Air will lead to reductions in air pollution sooner than was planned by local air-quality officials. Communities for a Better Environment, a grassroots group, helped lead a successful campaign to strengthen regulation of toxic chemicals. And other environmental and community groups, together with the Bus Riders Union, a local group that fights for improved mass transit for the poor, recently pressured the Metropolitan Transportation Authority into voting down what looked like a slam-dunk staff recommendation to purchase cheaper, cancer-causing diesel fuel buses. The MTA board eventually voted to purchase clean fuel alternatives.

“During the eighties and early nineties, the movement lost momentum,” says Denise Fairchild, who runs a community organizing and economic development training center based at LA Trade Tech College. “Now we’re back in business, but we have to organize and develop on a larger scale, and find issues that connect us.” The Los Angeles branch of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the national community-organizing network, illustrates this pattern. After waging successful campaigns in the seventies and eighties, the IAF fell on hard times in Los Angeles. Now, under the direction of Ernesto Cortes and Maribeth Larkin–who both recently moved back to LA after more than a decade of organizing in Texas–as well as long-term leaders such as Father Bill Delaney of St. Agnes Church, the local IAF is staging a comeback. It is working to link unions, churches and synagogues, and school parents’ groups in LA and nearby suburbs around issues that cut across race and neighborhood, such as education, housing and healthcare.

In a public show of strength, on June 10 the IAF brought 4,000 members to rally alongside more than 15,000 other union members and supporters in favor of amnesty for undocumented immigrants. The AFL-CIO’s call for amnesty this past February marked a dramatic shift in policy, applauded by local organizers who know that employers often try to thwart union drives and intimidate immigrant workers by threatening to contact the much-despised la migra (the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service) and have them deported.

Rocked by several recent scandals, Los Angeles’s major public institutions–schools, police and government itself–are in a state of crisis. Movements are percolating to break up the school district and the city government, and the federal Justice Department has threatened to take over the police department. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of LA’s new political topography is the disarray in the business community. During LA’s postwar boom, the city was run by a shadowy handful of businessmen–the Committee of 25–who spoke with one voice, typically through the then-conservative Los Angeles Times. Today there is no such coherent corporate power structure; LA has become a city of absentee-owned firms that have little long-term stake in local affairs. The most conspicuous symbol of this trend is the recent sale of Times Mirror, owner of the Los Angeles Times, to the Tribune Company of Chicago. The city’s largest private employer is now the University of Southern California. Major banks, aerospace firms and oil companies have left, causing local nonprofit groups to worry that absentee-owned firms won’t fill the coffers of philanthropic foundations.

Politically, this business leadership vacuum is mostly filled by elected officials’ reliance on contributions from a wide variety of firms with a direct stake in local policy-making. These include contractors that do business with the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the port, the airport and other government agencies, and developers seeking zoning approvals and tax breaks. A multimillionaire and former corporate lawyer, Mayor Riordan has cobbled together support from these (racially diverse) political supplicants.

Can LA’s progressive labor and community groups transform their grassroots successes into a political force that will fill the leadership and policy vacuum? A key test will be the mayoral race (Riordan is being forced by term limits to step down) and the City Council contests next April. The major themes are likely to be the widening economic divide and frustration with the city’s public schools, police and the housing crisis. The favorite mayoral candidate among progressives is 47-year-old Antonio Villaraigosa, a longtime activist who was, until a few months ago, Speaker of the California Assembly, the second most powerful post in the state. During his two years as Speaker, Villaraigosa surprised observers with his ability to move progressive legislation–including major funding for schools, parks and health insurance for children–through the state Capitol’s political maze. Since it’s unlikely that any mayoral candidate will obtain more than 50 percent of the vote in the April election, Villaraigosa needs to make the runoff. To succeed, he must mount a coalition campaign that dramatically increases turnout among Latino voters (who represent about one-fifth of the city’s eligible voters but have been thwarted by low turnout), garner substantial support in the liberal (and heavily Jewish) west side and get respectable support in the more conservative San Fernando Valley.

Since he faces intense competition even for progressive and Latino voters, organized labor could prove crucial to Villaraigosa’s campaign. Led by the LA County Federation of Labor, unions have recently resurrected their political activity, demonstrating that they can make the difference in close races. Moreover, LA unions recently sent a signal to Democratic incumbents that their support will not be taken for granted, most concretely by defeating eighteen-year Democratic Congressman Matthew Martinez (who had a decent AFL-CIO voting record but who on fast track and several other issues parted ways with labor), replacing him with State Senator Hilda Solis, a woman whom labor leader Contreras describes as “a warrior for working people.” Immediately after the election, union leaders began receiving calls from sitting Democrats who hadn’t been in a union hall in years. Unions are relearning how to mobilize members to work in campaigns, and are even recruiting some of their own activists, such as Gil Cedillo–previously general manager of a large SEIU local, now an effective State Assemblyman–to run for public office.

Of course, Los Angeles is still the dirty US capital of low-wage labor. Unions have concentrated their resources and energy on the so-called immobile sectors such as hotels, public employment, healthcare and transportation; last year, in the single largest organizing victory since the thirties, the SEIU unionized 75,000 homecare workers. But the heavily unionized aerospace, auto and steel industries left years ago, replaced by light manufacturing jobs in textiles, food processing and metal finishing. Hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers, many of them recent immigrants, toil in these plants, but so far unions remain virtually locked out.

No one should underestimate the difficulties of building progressivism in a city this complex. And there are many strategic, ideological, turf and personality disputes within the Los Angeles progressive world. But neither is LA the citadel of despair most famously depicted in Mike Davis’s City of Quartz. There is a serious battle going on for the city’s future–fought in skirmishes on the City Council, labor precincts and workplaces, and through a hundred tactical and strategic decisions that union leaders, environmentalists, community activists and religious leaders are making in their daily struggles.

“We’re definitely at the dawning of a new era,” said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, director of LAANE. “There’s a myriad of groups, some old and some new, that not only work together but also really believe in each other and support each other.” Adds longtime activist Anthony Thigpenn, head of the community organization AGENDA: “Activists in LA today are more self-conscious about building alliances. We can’t win unless we work together.”

After years of defending against conservative attacks on affirmative action, immigrants and unions, progressive forces are taking the initiative. The Progressive Los Angeles Network (PLAN), for example, is developing a comprehensive policy agenda intended to serve as an organizing guide and a common vision for the future. Based at Occidental College, PLAN ( is bringing activists and academics together across the boundaries of issues, constituencies, race and geography. Through its grassroots affiliates, PLAN aims to inject its ideas into the upcoming municipal elections and beyond.

In many ways contemporary Los Angeles resembles New York City at the turn of the previous century. Back then, New York was a caldron of seething problems–poverty, slums, child labor, epidemics, sweatshops and ethnic conflict. Out of that turmoil, activists created a “Progressive” movement, forging a coalition of immigrants, unionists, middle-class suffragists and upper-class philanthropists. Tenement and public health reformers worked alongside radical socialists. While they spoke many languages, the movement found its voice through organizers, clergy and sympathetic politicians. Their victories provided the intellectual and policy foundations of the New Deal.

LA’s progressive mosaic is also beginning to find its voice. It is learning to say “living wage” and “social justice” in English, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese. Like the unions, community groups often hold meetings in several languages. Leaders are developing trust and finding common ground, while running a diverse range of campaigns. While ACORN works on welfare reform and predatory bank lending, AGENDA is mobilizing residents around police-community relations and job development; Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates organizes workers to improve conditions in local restaurants; high schoolers and their parents in the Community Coalition pressure the school board to repair inner-city schools; and the Alameda Corridor Jobs Coalition fights for the region’s largest public-works project to provide jobs for residents of adjacent cities.

Whether a powerful movement with political staying power will emerge remains to be seen. But for the first time in years, progressives are optimistic. “There’s a real sense that a movement is building here,” explains Vivian Rothstein, campaign director with the hotel workers’ union, who has more than three decades’ experience in civil rights, women’s, antiwar and community activism. “The wind is at our back. We can barely keep pace with it.”

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