Labor Federation Endorses Riordan
The largest labor group in Los Angeles County on Tuesday unexpectedly endorsed Mayor Richard Riordan for a second term, depriving state Sen. Tom Hayden of labor backing he had expected to receive and revealing a sharp split in the county’s labor organizations.
Although both Riordan and Hayden appeared before the board of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor on Tuesday to make their case for endorsement, few Riordan aides had expected the mayor to come away with it.
Hayden is a longtime labor booster and a Democrat. Just last week, he received thunderous applause at a labor “teach-in” at UCLA, and he marched with workers in support of a boycott of the New Otani Hotel, a major union organizing effort with national implications. Hayden’s wife, Barbara Williams, sang at the rally.
Riordan, meanwhile, is a Republican businessman who has campaigned on improving the city’s business climate and who has clashed with unions representing city workers. He also has opposed adoption of a so-called “living wage” ordinance for city contractors, a proposal Hayden supports.
The living wage is one of labor’s top priorities in the city, so Riordan’s ability to oppose it and still come up with the endorsement represents a startling political victory. The federation includes 320 local unions with membership of 700,000 people, making its endorsement a plum in any mayor’s race. Seventy unions, including those representing truck drivers, garment workers and hotel workers, are voting members of the federation board, which approved the endorsement and will forward it to the individual unions.
“I think it shows that the unions and the mayor want to be partners,” Riordan said in an interview. “They recognize the importance of bringing quality jobs to L.A. . . . We’ve worked very well together.”
Hayden characterized the vote as a victory for a predominantly white, old-guard labor establishment over a younger, more diverse group of up-and-coming activists. And some labor leaders who have long been at odds with the mayor said they were dismayed by the board’s decision to endorse Riordan.
“I just can’t understand it,” said Bill Robertson, former head of the federation. “He’s conservative, he’s for privatizing city services. This guy is anti-labor.”
“I’m really, really angry,” said Julie Butcher, a spokeswoman for Local 347 of the Service Employees International Union, one of the largest labor organizations representing city workers, and a member of the county labor federation board. That union independently endorsed Hayden on Saturday.
At the same time, union leaders said Riordan’s support among labor leaders was stronger than it first appeared. While angering some unions by advocating privatization of some city services and by opposing the living wage, the mayor has won important allies on a variety of levels.
He has courted the support of AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney--with whom Riordan traveled to Ireland in 1994 and with whom he met last week--and he has won the backing of a number of building trades unions, partly because of his backing for the expansion of the city’s rail, airport and port, as well as for construction of a downtown sports arena. Those projects would be expected to create jobs, making them popular among labor union members and leaders.
In addition, some labor leaders feared that even though Hayden more closely reflected their views, he is unlikely to win. For some of those officials, Tuesday’s vote for Riordan was a practical political decision.
“This was not an anti-Hayden vote,” said one labor official who was present at the meeting. “But it was a vote for practicality. We read the polls, too.”
Believing that his labor backing was deeper than it appeared, Riordan recently began courting votes on the federation board, personally calling members and asking for their support. That personal lobbying helped the mayor eke out a narrow victory in Tuesday’s endorsement vote.
Sources described the vote as extremely close--several participants in the board meeting said Riordan had met the two-thirds requirement by just one vote. Nevertheless, Riordan campaign staffers were ecstatic.
“The working men and women of Los Angeles have spoken,” Riordan campaign manager Julio Ramirez said. “They want Richard Riordan to be their mayor.”
Hayden, however, pronounced himself satisfied with the vote, which he said emphasized his allegiance with activist unions but not “old-guard” ones.
“I’m very delighted at the way the lines were drawn today at the County Fed, between the activists and the defenders of the traditional bureaucracies of labor,” Hayden said. “I’m very proud of the people who stood with me because I think they matter much more in the grass-roots campaign ahead.”
Hayden, who is a longtime and outspoken critic of the city’s subway construction, said the building trades supporting Riordan was the result of “the old guard making deals with Riordan, particularly on the subway tunnel.”
Miguel Contreras, secretary-treasurer of the county federation, dismissed Hayden’s suggestion of a back-room deal, noting that Riordan drew support from more than just building trades unions. Union leaders representing automobile workers and retail clerks voted to endorse Riordan. Unions representing city workers and textile workers are among those who voted for Hayden.
“Mayor Riordan has not been the most pro-union mayor in the history of Los Angeles, but he has a record to run on,” Contreras said. Although Contreras declined to discuss the deliberations that led up to the vote, he added that Riordan promised to include labor in city committees and commissions, a pledge the union representative said contributed to the board’s endorsement of the mayor.
“I think people judged him on two things: his experience and his pledge to work with labor in the future,” Contreras said.
But the decision to back Riordan bothered some labor leaders.
Butcher, of the Service Employees International Union, described herself as “befuddled, bewildered, aghast” by the vote, adding that she was particularly concerned that labor leaders were registering their support for a candidate who has opposed the living wage proposal and has advocated privatization of city jobs.
“Those concerns are so at the core of what labor cares about,” she said.
Steve Nutter is western regional director and vice president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, another group that has endorsed Hayden. Nutter stressed that Tuesday’s vote was a democratic one and that Riordan prevailed, although narrowly.
Like other labor leaders who oppose Riordan, Nutter said his group would weigh what to do next: accept the board’s recommendation that unions side with Riordan or forge ahead on its own in support of Hayden.
“We’re looking now to see what our prerogatives are,” he said.
Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein contributed to this story.