Union boss demands political quid pro quo

In a fiery, fist-pounding speech, the leader of Los Angeles County's largest labor organization issued a warning Monday to elected officials that unions want to see firm support for labor efforts in return for backing in the upcoming elections.

The strident challenge came as contracts are set to be negotiated next year for 30 unions covering 350,000 workers ranging from actors and longshoremen to home-care workers, teachers and janitors.

Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, told some 1,000 delegates at the group's second annual congress that labor is in no mood for being used for political purposes.

"Truth be told, we have a lot of fake political friends and precious few real ones," Durazo said. "How many times do we hear our political friends tell us, 'I can be with you on some issues but not on others.' Or, 'You don't understand the pressure I'm under.'

"What risks do politicians take in standing up for heroic workers? Do they risk their re-elections or their comfortable lives they live in largely safe, Democratic districts where our members ... make up the majority of voters? Or do they risk their ability to solicit generous political donations from wealthy big business and corporate special interests?"

Election year important

Durazo did not single out specific elected officials, but spokeswoman Mary Gutierrez said she was referring to all lawmakers who have voted against the union on issues including tribal gaming compacts and health-care reform.

The pressure comes as labor seeks to use an election year to boost gains in its demands for better pay and benefits for workers.

"Each contract is unique and every union is different," Durazo said. "But there is a commonality of interests and concerns. Workers are not looking at breaking new ground. Their basic goals are better wages and holding on to their hard-won health-care and pension protections."

Durazo said contract negotiations will be designed to save and build the middle class.

"Our fight for good jobs doesn't just benefit union members," she said. "The community realizes the benefits of our fight for good jobs."

A $3-an-hour increase in wages and health benefits for security workers translates into a $150million investment in the city, she said.

Durazo said the union is planning a 28-mile march from Hollywood to the ports this spring to focus public attention on contract issues.

And she said labor will launch an aggressive political campaign.

"Every resource we spend on politics will help us win contracts," she said. "Every organizing resource will help us win political races."

In addition to state and federal legislative contests this coming year, Durazo said the County Fed wants to play a major role in the race for the 2nd Supervisorial District seat, which retiring Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke is vacating.

The two major candidates for the seat are Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks and state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas, D-Los Angeles. Ridley-Thomas already has received the backing of the SEIU, Local 721, which represents city workers.

Union invites mayor

Officials said Durazo hopes to have the County Fed issue an endorsement before the end of the year.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was one of two officials, along with State Controller John Chiang, invited to appear before the delegates.

Villaraigosa, a former union organizer, pledged to continue to back union efforts, including requiring labor agreements for major developments, backing a living wage for workers and developing training programs for minorities to prepare for union construction jobs.

"The fact of the matter is that anyone who understands what America is about understands it is because of our middle class - a middle class built largely by the labor movement," Villaraigosa said.

"We should share the idea that as we grow and prosper as a city, everyone benefits from it. That's what the labor movement is all about. I say yes to an L.A. where we are all growing and prospering together."

As part of Monday's gathering, the County Fed released a study by the Economic Roundtable on the impact of the labor movement in Los Angeles.

It estimated there are more than 818,000 union workers in the county accounting for 15percent of the total work force.

Union membership has remained relatively flat since 1990 and union workers are paid an average of $41,000 per year, higher than the average for nonunion members, the study said.

Even with that, however, the study noted that per-capita income in the county is below the state average and continuing to decline despite the rising costs of living.


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