In a scene reminiscent of a bygone era, Dianne Feinstein entered a smoke-filled banquet hall Tuesday to receive a cheering endorsement from California labor leaders who had just reveled in firebrand attacks on a “conservative, reactionary” Republican governor and on capitalists intent on stripping labor of its basic rights.
The major difference from the old days of big-labor politics was that the Democratic candidate for governor of the nation’s richest, most-populous state this time is a woman. And she is one who failed to get the endorsement of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, in the Democratic primary battle with Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp.
Nevertheless, the former San Francisco mayor circulated among delegates to the federation’s biennial convention with ease, standing shoulder to shoulder on stage with John F. Henning, the state AFL-CIO executive secretary-treasurer and a California labor staff member since 1949, and President Albin J. Gruhn, who got his first union card from the Lumber and Sawmill Workers in 1934, when Feinstein was a year old.
The more than 400 delegates stood and cheered again when Feinstein welcomed their endorsement, to be bestowed on her formally tonight, and said it sends a “very loud signal. The signal is that once again working men and women are going to play a major role in state government in California.”
Less than an hour later, however, Feinstein came perilously close to souring her new-found relationship with organized labor when she expressed a lack of knowledge about Gov. George Deukmejian’s prison labor initiative measure, Proposition 139 on the Nov. 6 ballot, and uncertainty about whether she supported it.
The proposal to make state convicts work for private enterprise in prison to help reimburse the state for their living expenses is despised by organized labor. Deukmejian qualified the issue for the ballot through initiative petition after failing for two years to get the plan adopted by the Democratic-controlled Legislature over labor’s bitter opposition.
“I don’t know,” Feinstein said when asked in a hallway by a reporter if she had endorsed the proposal. “Do they leave the prison? I’m not in favor of that. Do they leave the prison--that’s what I need to find out.”
Turning to go to lunch with the labor chieftains, Feinstein added, “Probably not,” seeming to say she most likely would not support the governor’s plan.
Deukmejian’s office said the initiative does not specify whether work is done inside or outside the prison, but that existing correctional policy is that all work must be done within the walls. The only exceptions are when minimum-security prisoners go out for fire prevention and other public service work.
In her address, Feinstein pledged herself to a strong labor agenda if elected governor over Republican U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson in November. She said she would have a labor liaison among her top staff, would “reinvigorate” the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board, try to protect workers against plant closings, expand health insurance for the working poor and provide day-care services and parental leave.
Once in office, Feinstein said, she would convene a summit meeting of business and labor to establish a California economic agenda for the 1990s.
“But today,” she added, “there is no more urgent responsibility than to see that the workplace is safe and free from hazard. That’s why I am determined to restore Cal/OSHA to full authority.”
The Deukmejian Administration eliminated the California office of Occupational Safety and Health several years ago, saying it merely duplicated the work of its federal counterpart. But organized labor backed an initiative petition approved by voters two years ago to re-establish Cal/OSHA as a division of the Department of Industrial Relations.
“We’re complying with the law as provided,” said Robert Gore, Deukmejian’s press secretary.
In addition to her usual stump-speech attacks on Wilson, Feinstein homed in on his labor record, arguing that he voted against labor positions 85% of the time in the Senate. She said he specifically opposed legislation providing for federal intervention into the Eastern Airlines strike, a higher minimum wage, repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act for payment of prevailing wages on federal construction projects, and the federal plant-closing act.
A Wilson aide said the senator supported raising the federal minimum wage to the California level, but not as high as Democrats wanted it. On the other issues, the Feinstein recitation seemed to be accurate, he said.
Before Feinstein arrived, the labor delegates were treated to a rare occurrence on the modern political campaign trail: a fire-and-brimstone speech by Henning, the veteran labor leader--and onetime ambassador to New Zealand--whose raspy voice and flowery rhetoric are reminiscent of the late United Mine Workers Union leader John L. Lewis.
“Never forget this,” he implored the delegates, “the basic interests of the employer have never been and never shall be the basic interests of the workers. We can adorn it. We can embellish it. We can go to luncheons where we sit together in good will. All right. Those things we do for the advancement of the trades. But never forget the underlying clash of economic interests.”