Ludlow Wins Nomination to Be Labor Chief

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles City Councilman Martin Ludlow won the nomination Tuesday to become the next leader of the County Federation of Labor and promised that his ties to Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa would yield dramatic results in improving the lives of union workers.

“The public will see one of the greatest signs of solidarity, one of the greatest signs of unity, and one of the greatest periods of advancement for working families in Los Angeles,” Ludlow said, his voice booming during a news conference with executive board members at the federation’s downtown headquarters.

Ludlow, a former political director of the federation, was chosen by a unanimous vote of the 37-member board. Federation President Rick Icaza predicted that the more than 300 delegates would approve the nomination on June 20 in an “overwhelming” vote.


Ludlow would become the first African American to head the federation and one of the nation’s highest-profile African American labor leaders. He said he expects to play a prominent role, not only in Los Angeles, but also in the nation and state, vowing to fight Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bid to change working conditions for nurses and alter pension plans for state workers.

Ludlow, 40, said the decision to give up his council seat with two years left in his term was difficult. He said he would announce the timing of his departure within the next day or two.

He described his nomination as “bittersweet,” noting he would take over the executive secretary-treasurer job from Miguel Contreras, his mentor who led the federation for nearly a decade until his death from a heart attack May 6.

The federation, which is an umbrella group for 357 unions with 800,000 members, faces challenging times, but Icaza said Ludlow was trained by Contreras and is perfectly suited to the job.

“It will be very difficult for anyone to fill Miguel’s shoes,” Icaza said. “But Martin has demonstrated the qualities of character and leadership that are needed now more than ever if we are to move forward with the ambitious labor, political and social agenda Miguel set in place.”

Contreras turned the job into one of the most powerful in the county. Part kingmaker, part social activist, Contreras helped launch the political careers of many local elected officials, including Ludlow and Villaraigosa, and mustered the federation’s significant resources on issues that included defeat of an Inglewood ballot measure to ease the approval of a Wal-Mart in that city.


Icaza, who is also president of the union that represents supermarket workers, recalled how Ludlow brought 10,000 of his members to their feet during an impassioned speech in the midst of last year’s grocery workers strike.

Ludlow will immediately confront some major challenges, including efforts by private security guards to organize a union, a labor-backed drive to pass an initiative to provide textbooks and equipment to community college students, federal labor reforms that could reduce the federation’s membership, and efforts to defend an $11-billion modernization of Los Angeles International Airport that is largely opposed by the city’s new mayor.

Perhaps the biggest threat is a proposal by some national union activists to have the Service Employees International Union end their affiliation with the AFL-CIO, which Icaza said could cost the federation a quarter of its membership. He said he is optimistic a split can be averted when labor leaders meet next month, but said Ludlow is needed to help make the case for the federation.

Ludlow’s promise to work with Villaraigosa to advance labor’s cause drew a wait-and-see response from the business community.

The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce endorsed Ludlow for City Council two years ago. “We have worked pretty well with him,” said Brendan Huffman, director of public policy for the chamber.

Huffman noted that Ludlow and the chamber both supported the LAX modernization plan. “I’m sure there will be some issues we won’t agree on,” Huffman said. “In that case, we will agree to disagree or work out some solution.”


Federation leaders wanted Ludlow so badly that they agreed to match his $143,837 annual council salary, a significant increase from the $106,000 salary received by Contreras.

Contreras’ widow, Maria Elena Durazo, who leads a hotel workers union, persuaded Ludlow to take over her husband’s work. On Tuesday, she stood beside Ludlow and endorsed his appointment.

“We are in the midst of very hostile and aggressive hotel contract negotiations,” she said. “We need the county fed’s activism and mobilization.”

The son of an activist Methodist minister, Ludlow said he walked his first picket line at age 6 during efforts by his father and others to organize sugar-beet pickers in Idaho. His mother organized the first secretaries union at Oberlin College.

“I will absolutely continue to fight the good fight, and I will strive to never let you down,” he said as more than 30 union leaders and activists cheered.

Ludlow entered the world of politics when he became an intern for Julian Dixon, a Democratic congressman from Los Angeles who died in 2000. He shipped off to Washington just in time for Dixon to become a key figure in the investigation of the Iran-Contra affair, and was bitten by the political bug. When he returned to California, Ludlow became deeply involved in a low-income voter registration drive.


Ludlow later went on to represent county healthcare workers, helped run a program to keep kids out of gangs, and went to work for Villaraigosa, then an assemblyman. He won election to the City Council in 2003, running as a progressive.

Ludlow, who supported Villaraigosa in both bids to win the city’s top elected office, remains a close ally of the mayor-elect.

Villaraigosa did not directly comment on Ludlow’s promise of a close partnership, but said he looked forward to working with him. “Working families in L.A. will be well represented with Martin Ludlow at the helm of the County Federation of Labor,” Villaraigosa said in a statement. “He has been a tireless advocate for working families in Los Angeles.”

State Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City) said that having Villaraigosa as mayor and Ludlow as the county labor leader will help solidify political ties between the African American and Latino communities.

“This is a good thing for black-Latino relations,” said Murray. “Antonio Villaraigosa, of all the Latino leaders, was the most adamant about building coalitions with the African American community, and Martin had an overwhelming number of Latino leaders and some very aggressive Latino activists express confidence in Martin Ludlow.”

In accepting the appointment, Ludlow joins the ranks of other African American labor leaders including Clyde Rivers, president of the California School Employees Assn., and Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Assn., both of whom are on the national executive council of the AFL-CIO.


Ludlow’s imminent departure has sparked the inevitable jockeying by others interested in filling any vacancy, assuming the City Council decides to hold a special election. Murray and former Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson have emerged as the most likely contenders.

Wesson had intended to run for Murray’s state Senate seat in 2006, when Murray will be forced out by term limits. But he said Tuesday that he would talk with supporters about Ludlow’s seat.

“I am excited and I will seriously consider running for this seat,” said Wesson, who is currently a consultant to Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.

Murray said that he is also weighing a run.

“It’s something that I would consider, since I’ve represented the majority of that area for most of my political career,” said Murray, who also served in the Assembly.

But Murray also described Wesson as a close friend and ally. “I’m not that interested in running against Herb,” he said, “so we will probably be talking about that.”