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L.A. Labor Federation Vote Divides Along Ethnic Lines

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a historic election dividing the local union movement along ethnic lines, two candidates have squared off for the influential top job at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

The fight for the executive secretary-treasurer’s post at the county federation--pitting a Latino front-runner against an Anglo challenger--marks what is believed to be the first contested leadership election in the 102-year history of the union council.

The winner will fill the remaining two years of what was to be the four-year term of longtime union leader James M. Wood, who died of lung cancer in February at the age of 51. Wood and other previous county AFL-CIO chiefs have been major power brokers in local politics, and the new leader also would serve as the advocate and spokesman for the roughly 600,000 workers in federation-affiliated unions.

With the campaign for the May 20 election now beginning in earnest, the candidate believed to be far in the lead is the federation’s current political director, Miguel Contreras. If elected, Contreras would achieve a milestone in California labor history by becoming the first non-Anglo to serve as chief of the county federation, the nation’s second-largest metropolitan labor council.

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But catching some labor officials by surprise, a second candidate entered the running just in time for this week’s nominating deadline: Michael A. Straeter, president of Santa Monica-based United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1442.

While Contreras has the solid backing of the county’s increasingly powerful Latino union leadership, Straeter has drawn the support of some key Anglo and black labor officials. Both candidates downplayed the ethnic issue, saying the campaign should focus on their qualifications for the office.

Both also emphasized the need for stepped up grass-roots political campaigning and more aggressive membership-recruitment efforts, endorsing the use of civil disobedience, when necessary.

Straeter, moreover, emphasized that his wife of nearly 30 years, Maria Leonor Straeter, was born and raised in Mexico. “It’s not a race-issue campaign. By knowing the fact that my wife is Hispanic, it should ameliorate that concern,” Straeter said.

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Still, the ethnic and racial fault lines dividing the two sides prompted accusations that Straeter’s candidacy was propelled largely by old-guard unionists who wanted to resist further inroads by Latinos.

“It’s the first contest in 102 years, and it isn’t a coincidence that it happened the first time that a Latino was nominated for the position,” said Rick Icaza, a Contreras backer who heads one of the county’s biggest unions, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 in Los Angeles.

The contest pits candidates with sharply varied backgrounds. The 43-year-old Contreras, who never attended college, got his start in the union movement in his teens when his family, all of whom picked grapes in the San Joaquin Valley, joined the United Farm Workers.

He eventually moved through the ranks at both the UFW and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union. That was followed by a stint as deputy campaign manager for Kathleen Brown’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign and, finally, joining the county federation as political director.

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Straeter, 54, is a licensed pharmacist who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from USC in 1965. He initially went to work as a Sav-on druggist, but in 1972, took a job as a union representative. In 1974, Straeter won the presidency of his local, and he has held the office ever since.

Straeter faces long odds in his election battle. Several of the county’s biggest unions and those having the most votes--including the Latino-headed Service Employees International Union Locals 660 and 399, along with Icaza’s UFCW Local 770--already have pledged their support to Contreras. Another prominent Latina labor leader in Contreras’ corner is his wife, Maria Elena Durazo, president of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 11.

What’s more, Straeter, considered a maverick in some circles, has not galvanized the support of all of Contreras’ opponents. For instance, Bill Robertson--who was head of the county federation for 18 years until retiring in 1993 and who has served as interim chief since Wood’s death--said he has not decided whether to endorse Straeter.

Robertson said, however, “In my judgment Miguel Contreras is not qualified. Period.” He declined to elaborate.

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The fight at the county federation, proving a distraction to union leaders in a pivotal election year, has emerged the same week that an election battle at the California Federation of Labor appeared to be winding down. On Monday, the two union officials believed to be the leading candidates to replace Jack Henning as head of the state federation agreed to join forces and run on a combined slate.

That quietly negotiated pact calls for 43-year-old Art Pulaski, head of the San Mateo County Central Labor Council, to move into Henning’s job as executive secretary-treasurer.

Los Angeles County labor officials, however, say no similar deal is in the cards for the Southland union election fight.

* UNION POWER STRUGGLE

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A power struggle within the county’s largest employee union could hinder it in budget talks. B1


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