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Byline: Rick Orlov Staff Writer

After years of wielding broad political influence and clout, Los Angeles unions this Labor Day find themselves facing a series of challenges that threaten to diminish their dominance.

As the largest labor group, representing 800,000 workers, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, is adapting to new local leadership because of the death of Miguel Contreras at the same time that it tries to stay united amid a national split that saw several major unions break away.

City employee unions are demanding equitable treatment as they eye a looming city showdown over a contract deal that would give lucrative raises to Department of Water and Power workers.

And a statewide assault is shaping up in the November special election, when voters will be asked to weigh in on Proposition 75 - a measure that would limit the role of unions in elections by restricting their ability to use members' dues to wage political campaigns.

``We are facing the biggest crisis we have ever had since the AFL and CIO first merged,'' said Jim Hilfenhaus, public affairs director of Laborers International Union. ``It is still somewhat of a mystery to a lot of us on how we will come out of this.''

The confluence of challenges began in May when longtime local federation leader Contreras suddenly died, and then in June unions including the Teamsters, Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers broke away from the national federation amid dissent over strategy.

Top issue

Union leaders say the timing of the new local leadership and national division is creating a particular challenge as they try to unify and mount opposition to the November ballot measure.

``This is the No. 1 issue facing unions in this state and across the nation,'' said Rick Icaza, president of the County Federation as well as head of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

``They are starting with public employee unions, but we all know the next step is to apply it everywhere else in the country and include private unions.''

With the national split among union leaders, California locals are being left to pretty much fight the battle on their own. Statewide, unions for teachers, nurses and public safety groups are waging high-profile advertising campaigns, leaving the get-out-the-vote effort to locals, Icaza said.

``It's a particularly big burden for us in Los Angeles, because this is where elections are decided,'' Icaza said.

Faced with leading the charge is Martin Ludlow, the former Los Angeles councilman who once served as Contreras' political director as Contreras built the umbrella organization of unions into a potent political force that today includes more than 300 affiliates.

``This has been a big gut check for me,'' Ludlow said in an interview last week. ``The suddenness of (Contreras) being gone and me being given this job was incredible. It came at a time of all this turmoil in the unions nationally and as we are looking at this special election and the issues it presents for labor.

``Where I'm lucky is that we were so close and talked so often that with me taking over his job, there has been no second-guessing. And he was so organized we are able to continue working on what he laid out.''

Staying together

Ludlow said he is concentrating on the November special election before even trying to focus on redefining the role of the federation in the wake of the breakup.

``On Nov. 9, we will start to talk about where we as a Southern California labor force go next,'' he said. ``I want to continue with what Miguel had been planning and keep the federation intact as much as we can.''

So far, Ludlow has been able to keep together all the main union players, including those from the groups that broke away from the national organization.

Icaza, also manager of the United Food and Commercial Workers local that voted to break away from the national AFL-CIO, has kept his post as president of the County Federation.

Likewise, the leadership of Unite Now, which represents hotel workers, and SEIU locals that represent government workers are remaining as part of the County Federation. Its general manager is Maria Elena Durazo, the widow of Contreras and a longtime friend of Ludlow's.

Ludlow and the unions' long and deep ties with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, himself a onetime union organizer, also could be a unifying factor.

Ludlow once worked as an aide to Villaraigosa, and even though the County Federation supported former Mayor James Hahn's re-election campaign this past year, many locals broke away to support Villaraigosa.

One union that gave the mayor strong support - with more than $100,000 in contributions to his election - was the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18, the union representing DWP workers in their pending contract with the city.

Under the DWP deal, the utility's 8,000 union workers would get a minimum 16.25 percent pay hike, worth nearly $69 million, over the next five years, with increases ballooning to 30 percent if inflation rises.

But the deal has come under fire as it comes on the heels of an 11 percent water-rate hike last year, with another water-rate increase proposed at 17.9 percent over the next five years.

Villaraigosa has questioned if the city can afford it - as well as the possible precedent it could set with other city unions as they look to their own contracts.

Already, Service Employees International Union, Local 347 - the union for 10,000 of the city's lowest-paid employees - has demanded a sweeping review of citywide pay policies and a meeting with city officials over equity issues.

DWP strike looms

The union for DWP workers is threatening to strike if the mayor and City Council do not approve the contract.

Faced with a pending showdown over the deal, Villaraigosa said his long labor background and his personal commitment to unions have inoculated him to be able to act independently.

``Everyone knows I am 100 percent for unions,'' Villaraigosa said. ``But that doesn't mean I can't question if a contract is good for the city. I absolutely support what unions have done to build and maintain the middle class. That's something we need to expand.

``But, I also have to look out for what's in the best interests of the city and what we can afford.''

Villaraigosa said he has been impressed with how Ludlow has stepped in to the County Federation job.

``What I see is he has been able to keep the local unions together so Los Angeles is better off than unions nationally,'' Villaraigosa said. ``And, it's an important time for the unions with the election coming up and the threats to them with Proposition 75. If there is one thing Martin Ludlow knows how to do, it's running a campaign.''

Kent Wong of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, said he believes local labor leaders will weather the storm of the national split.

``They have this common ground, politically, that has been very successful and the County Fed is the ideal vehicle for them to work together,'' Wong said. ``My sense is there is no interest in tearing it apart and then trying to replicate it with a larger bureau.''

At the same time, he noted, there is going to be pressure on individual leaders like Icaza of UFCW and Durazo of Unite Now to go along with the national breakup strategy.

The breakaway unions are planning a national convention this fall to develop a national strategy.

``We'll see what emerges from that and how effective it can be with the national elections coming up next year,'' Wong said.

Added Laborers International's Hilfenhaus: ``What's a shame for us in Los Angeles is that we have worked well together. You don't see the animosity that exists on the national level. Yet all that could be threatened.''

Rick Orlov, (213) 978-0390

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 5, 2005

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