For most of this decade, organized labor has been the ascendant power in Los Angeles politics. But last week's election marked a significant setback to labor's power, prestige and even moral standing.
On three critical fronts the school board, charter reform and the 14th District council race labor backed the losing side. In all three cases, business and community leadership, galvanized by a resurgent Mayor Richard Riordan, proved the victor. Labor won some other races, but emerged from the election with its aura of invincibility clearly diminished.
Although still arguably the strongest single force in city politics, notes longtime liberal activist David Abel, labor clearly can be defeated under the right circumstances. "Labor is still winning most of the time and will continue to win, but it can be stopped when the leadership can be rallied to do something, as the mayor did on the charter and school board," says Abel, a longtime critic of Riordan.
In terms of power politics, this marks a significant reversal from the pattern of recent years in which labor increasingly has been able to almost totally reshape Los Angeles politics. Until this election, labor had won almost every major election, from the governor's race to the City Council. Ironically, it also bested the business community for control of charter reform itself, only to abandon its own vassals in the end.
Labor's reputation for effective organizing also took a hit. The defeat of its hand-picked candidate, Victor Griego, in the 14th District revealed that it was capable of losing even in the heart of Latino L.A. when the opponent is a motivated, community-based candidate like Nick Pacheco. They also failed to put enough money, or build a compelling case, against charter reform, essentially ending up as little more than allies of power-mongering council members and the more incendiary fringe of the secessionist movement.
"A component campaign could have defeated the charter," suggests veteran campaign strategist and pollster Arnie Steinberg. "People were looking for a reason to say no. That was what made this loss so impressive."
Labor's betrayal of charter reform and its backers, including such left-leaning figures as Elected Charter Reform Commission Chairman Erwin Chemerinsky and the influential, normally pro-union L.A. Weekly, also weakened its once-powerful moral authority. In recent years, labor had done much to win over the hearts of the city's media and academic elites, particularly over such issues as the living wage and unionization of low-wage workers, that pulled effectively on liberal heartstrings.
But now, by playing short-sighted, conventional politics, labor showed that it is essentially no less self-interested than any other major power block.
On the charter, and on the school board in particular, it ran up not only against business interests, but a broad coalition of community, church and reform groups traditionally sympathetic to labor's demands. Essentially, it is seen as having opted for the dysfunctional status quo that has made Los Angeles an educational and administrative basket case.
One well-connected labor official suggested that perhaps the liberal "goo-goos" need to learn a lesson that unions are primarily there to bolster the pocketbooks of their members. "The left always makes the same mistake," this official explained. "They think that labor exists to promote progressive social policy and good government. But labor really will support the worst incumbents and policies if they agree to their narrow agenda."
Labor has further weakened its moral authority by continuing to nominate and promote politicians. Assembly members Scott Wildman, Gil Cedillo and Antonio Villaraigosa are themselves not only products of labor itself, but the public employee unions. They are in danger, in fact, of wanting to turn government itself into little more than a beneficial society for its employees. This is not a strategy likely to win over those voters who may be sympathetic to a broader social justice agenda, but are not so enamored with paying more taxes for less services.
Historically, labor has done best when it allied with a broader agenda and found candidates from Franklin Roosevelt to Pat Brown and Tom Bradley whose roots lay in other sectors of society, such as ethnic communities or even parts of the aristocracy. By narrowing their agenda and even their candidates, the unions are in danger of limiting their appeal to broader sectors of the political community, including those traditionally sympathetic to working-class interests.
The long-term implications of this defeat are less certain. In terms of the future mayoralty, it has clearly boosted the prospects of those who strongly backed the charter, such as City Attorney James Hahn and City Councilman Joel Wachs, as well as arguably the most capable of the region's politicians, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
It may also give impetus for a possible anti-secession coalition of business, good government and religious leaders one that labor may want to join if it hopes to preserve its privileged political stake in a unified city of Los Angeles.
Yet none of this suggests that labor is dead in the water or that business and other civic forces are on the verge of assuming hegemony. It just means that labor and its candidates, notably Villaraigosa, must develop some sense of common cause with somebody other than its own members and hired guns.
Without this, labor will end up as just another, albeit important, element in the ever-shifting, fractured politics of Los Angeles, winning some, losing some, but never really fully realizing its agenda.
Business Journal columnist Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow with the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and a research fellow at the Reason Public Policy Institute.
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