Labor Struggles to Select a Replacement for Ludlow

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles labor leaders scrambled Friday to find a replacement for Martin Ludlow, who is pondering whether to step down as head of a powerful federation of unions while facing an investigation involving the use of member funds.

Potential candidates mentioned by several leaders include Sergio Rascon, chief of Laborers Local 300; state Sen. Gilbert Cedillo (D-Los Angeles); and Maria Elena Durazo, a union leader and wife of the late Miguel Contreras, Ludlow’s union mentor.

However, the candidate who seems to be getting the most support is Kent Wong, 49, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education. Wong is the son of Judge Delbert Wong, who in 1959 became the first Chinese American to be appointed as a jurist in the continental United States.


For weeks, federal and state authorities have been investigating whether Ludlow’s 2003 campaign for Los Angeles City Council received secret financial support from a union in the federation he now leads.

Ludlow has been offered a plea bargain by prosecutors in which he might escape jail time but could face up to $181,000 in fines, $81,000 in restitution and a ban on serving in public office or a union leadership position for more than a decade, according to sources who are familiar with the deal but spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to comment publicly.

Ludlow has been given until Tuesday to accept the deal, the sources said.

Federation spokeswoman Mary Gutierrez said Friday that Ludlow had left town with his family.

“Under the circumstances, Mr. Ludlow and his family have some important decisions to make,” Gutierrez said. “They will be taking the long weekend to address those decisions.”

Jim Hilfenhaus, a delegate to the federation from Laborers Local 300, confirmed that support appears to be coalescing around Wong and said that it was a difficult time to recruit anyone to step into the top union post in Los Angeles County.

Wong is “not directly affiliated with any particular union, and everybody gets along with him,” Hilfenhaus said.

The news that Ludlow might be leaving put many labor leaders in a difficult position after a trying year for the labor movement.

In 2005, the AFL-CIO saw two of its largest members -- the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union -- leave the organization. Then unions in California at great expense fought off Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s special election ballot measures that threatened to rob them of political might.

With Schwarzenegger saying he is going to raise $120 million for his campaign for reelection in the fall, turmoil at the federation could make it difficult for the group to play its traditional role helping Democratic candidates, according to Larry Berg, retired director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

“This kind of thing will be disruptive within the labor movement,” Berg said.

Even as the news about Ludlow spread this week, few union officials would publicly discuss anointing a successor until Ludlow decides whether to step down.

“Without all the details, it would be irresponsible and unfair for me to offer comment on an investigation that is ongoing,” John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a statement.

“Martin Ludlow is a tremendously talented leader. Martin, like Miguel Contreras before him, has shown a wonderful ability to unite people to move forward on behalf of Los Angeles working families,” Sweeney said. “You can be assured that’s exactly what the labor movement in L.A. will continue to do.”

In City Hall and within the unions that belong to the county federation, the expectation was that any successor would need support from the same triumvirate that backed Ludlow: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and Durazo, the head of Unite Here Local 11.

Wong, regarded as an expert in organizing workers in immigrant communities, did not return calls and e-mail from The Times seeking comment Thursday or Friday.

The UCLA labor center that Wong has headed since 1991 has close ties to Villaraigosa and Ludlow.

Last year, Villaraigosa hired Larry Frank from the center and named him one of his deputy mayors. Villaraigosa and Wong attended the People’s College of Law in Los Angeles and often traveled in the same labor circles in the 1980s and ‘90s.

The UCLA Labor Center also employs Lola Smallwood Cuevas, who is at the center of another ongoing probe of Ludlow dating back to when he served on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.

In that case, Ludlow is being investigated for allegedly pushing the MTA to give Cuevas a $282,000 public relations contract to promote a new bus facility even though conflict-of-interest rules had prohibited him from voting on the matter.

Wong also has expertise in labor organizing, has an appointed position with the AFL-CIO and serves on the executive council of the International Federation of Workers Education.

Cedillo, Rascon and Durazo did not return calls seeking comment.

Some doubted that Rascon would pursue the job. One such person is Fred Lowe, business manager of Laborers International Union of North America Local 777.

“I would be surprised because he’s got a lot of responsibility as the business manager for his local,” Lowe said. “I think given all the politics you have to deal with at the Federation, I’m not sure I’d wish that job on my own worst enemy.”

Ivan Corpeno Chavez of the Librarians Guild ran a longshot campaign against Ludlow for the job last year and complained at the time that a group of insiders tried to skirt union rules to force Ludlow into the post. Chavez said he might seek the job if that appears to be happening again.

Some new details began to emerge about the investigation of Ludlow and the help he allegedly received from SEIU Local 99 during his 2003 City Council campaign.

Investigators for the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, the Los Angeles County district attorney and the U.S. attorney’s office suspect that at least $53,000 was illegally spent by union leaders on hiring phantom union employees who actually worked to elect Ludlow and who used cellphones, computers and phone banks benefiting Ludlow.

The alleged illegal activity came to the attention of authorities after some of those computers were stolen in a break-in at Ludlow’s campaign headquarters, two sources said.

Sources said that a plea bargain has also been offered to Janett Humphries, who was president of SEIU Local 99 at the time that Ludlow was elected to the council.

In a recent interview, Humphries denied doing anything wrong. Humphries said she was removed from her job in 2004 by the national headquarters and that other union officials dealt with the council elections.

“The national office wanted to take over the local,” she said. “I learned that the way to take over the local is to try to attack the president.”

The union under Humphries has been a major player in elections, spending more than $410,000 between 2000 and 2004 to support the election of candidates including Ludlow, Villaraigosa, Councilman Tom LaBonge and school board members Julie Korenstein, Jon Lauritzen and David Tokofsky.

In 2003, Local 99 also spent $43,476 on an independent campaign supporting Ludlow.