Why Mayor May Face a Labor Struggle

Times Staff Writer

As Martin Ludlow, chief of the Los Angeles County labor federation, contemplates his resignation under threat of criminal indictment, the political repercussions of the controversy reach beyond Ludlow himself, most obviously to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

On Friday, Villaraigosa reiterated his support for a man who “is like a son to me,” a reminder that few people are more closely allied with the mayor than the now-embattled union chief.

“I know Martin Ludlow,” Villaraigosa told a crowd of reporters and spectators at a news conference with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and other public officials to discuss transportation issues. “Martin Ludlow is a good man.... I believe in him.”


Sources familiar with the case say federal prosecutors have offered Ludlow a plea deal that would bar him from union leadership but spare him jail time in order to resolve accusations that the Service Employees International Union Local 99 secretly spent $53,000 to help elect him to the Los Angeles City Council in 2003.

On Friday, Ludlow said in a statement that he would take the weekend to consider his options; prosecutors have given him until Tuesday to make up his mind.

For Villaraigosa, the pressure on Ludlow and his possible departure from the County Federation of Labor may be most wrenching on a personal level. As the mayor’s comments indicated, the men are long, close friends, and the federal government’s pursuit of Ludlow has shocked and alarmed some in Villaraigosa’s inner circle.

Moreover, if Ludlow does leave, not only would it deprive the mayor of a trusted ally, it also would do so precisely when Villaraigosa is preparing to launch a two-front conflict with his old friends in labor.

Next month the mayor, a former labor organizer, will unveil his first budget, and early indications are that city employees’ unions -- which are part of the federation, though often with divergent interests from the other members -- will be unhappy, denied pay increases that many have sought.

Villaraigosa’s ability to sell the budget to a labor-dominated City Council depends in part on support for it from non-city unions, whose allegiance the mayor was hoping to win in part through Ludlow’s leadership.

Even before the budget is presented, Villaraigosa is contending with some angry elements of the city’s organized labor force. The Engineers and Architects Assn., with almost 9,000 members, announced this week that it intends to spend $1.5 million on a campaign to draw public attention to its complaints about the administration.

And overarching Villaraigosa’s first term is his quest to wrest control of Los Angeles’ schools from a Board of Education that enjoys strong labor support. To succeed, he could check the teachers union by marshaling other labor forces against it, but he may have to proceed without Ludlow’s help. If Ludlow departs -- or even if he hangs on wounded to fight charges in court -- the road ahead for the mayor looks much longer and tougher.

“He’s a great asset, no question about it,” Villaraigosa said Friday of the labor chief.

That said, the mayor’s ties to labor extend far beyond Ludlow. Villaraigosa rose through the labor movement, is close to many of its leaders and is in tune with them philosophically. So, while losing Ludlow could be personally painful and politically inconvenient, it would by no means sever the mayor’s relationship to the unions.

Still, people close to Villaraigosa and the union leader agreed that it would be difficult for any Ludlow successor to replicate the trust and cooperation between the federation and City Hall that the two men embody.

“Whoever replaces him, it’s hard to imagine that it would be someone with the stature of Martin Ludlow or someone with the same relationship with Antonio,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke University law professor who has known both men more than 15 years. “This is a blow to labor, a blow to Antonio and a blow to the city.”

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a veteran of city and county labor politics, argued that the long-term impact for Villaraigosa might not be so serious but agreed that it could complicate the mayor’s immediate future.

“It makes it much easier for him to have someone who shares his agenda, who will carry his water,” Yaroslavsky said. Without Ludlow at the federation, Villaraigosa may be forced to “spend more time and use more persuasion” to win labor support for his initiatives, the supervisor said.

Ludlow is a popular figure in city government and labor circles, and many people declined to speak on the record Friday about his predicament or its implications for the mayor.

Some worried that their comments would be interpreted as anticipating Ludlow’s resignation when they hoped he would stay on. Others feared that criticizing him at such a delicate moment would expose them to either Villaraigosa’s wrath or the FBI’s investigation.

Most agreed, however, that Ludlow’s position had become increasingly untenable in recent days and predicted that he could not last much longer. If he does not accept the plea and is indicted, several said, it will leave him under a cloud and will vastly diminish his political influence.

Politically, although the budget and the mayor’s designs on schools are the two areas in which Ludlow’s absence might be most acutely felt, it would resonate on another level as well.

As the first Latino mayor in modern Los Angeles history, Villaraigosa is a nationally recognized figure identified with the emergence of a new Latino leadership. At the same time, he takes pains to present himself as a coalition figure, not merely a Latino leader. Ludlow, who is African American, is part of Villaraigosa’s multiracial approach, and the labor leader’s troubles thus chip at the mayor’s symbolic presence as well.

That image was much on display during last year’s campaign, particularly in its final days, as Ludlow joined Villaraigosa in barnstorming across Los Angeles.

His presence, and the obvious affection between the men, helped underscore Villaraigosa’s argument that he was a coalition candidate, acceptable across racial lines.

Friday, while the mayor had a typically busy day of public appearances, Ludlow remained out of view.