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After racist leak, L.A. County Fed finds a new leader to repair damaged relationships

Yvonne Wheeler, Rex Richardson and Heather Hutt
Yvonne Wheeler, left, and Los Angeles City Councilmember Heather Hutt hit the campaign trail in September for then-candidate Rex Richardson before his election as Long Beach mayor.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Veteran labor leader Yvonne Wheeler will take over as head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, becoming the first Black woman to lead the powerful group in its nearly 140-year history.

Wheeler garnered broad support across various labor sectors in “the Fed,” as the L.A. County Federation of Labor is known, and was elected unanimously Monday night. The Fed, which represents 800,000 workers in 300 unions, has become one of the most influential players in state and local politics.

Wheeler takes the helm at a tumultuous time for the labor organization, which was roiled by the leak last month of an audio recording revealing racist comments by city leaders.

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It resulted in the resignation of the labor group’s then-president, Ron Herrera, who participated seemingly unbothered in a backdoor conversation with then-council President Nury Martinez (she has since resigned) and Councilmembers Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo in which Black and Indigenous people were derided as the officials discussed the city’s once-every-decade redistricting process.

Wheeler will be tasked with repairing the institution’s relationship with Black workers and building solidarity with Latino workers, and her background working with a wide range of public and private sector unions and her history of advocacy for more diversity in labor groups will serve her well, labor leaders and experts said.

Wheeler has held leadership roles at an organization for Black unionists called the A. Philip Randolph Institute, as well as the Communications Workers of America, the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Government Employees and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

Despite the turmoil, few political observers expect the situation to substantially affect the ‘Fed’s power in local and state politics.

In an emailed statement, the Fed highlighted Wheeler’s roots in the civil rights movement, citing her experience having marched with Black student protesters as schools failed to integrate successfully.

The Fed did not explicitly address the turmoil surrounding the leadership change, though it described Wheeler as the perfect candidate and one who will “bring stability to refocus the 800,000 strong worker organization on Los Angeles’ diverse communities.”

The Fed’s members and the communities it represents “rely on us, so we will fight to uplift their voices and build their power to make sure they are never put in this position again,” Wheeler said in a statement.

Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, called Wheeler a “ proven, tested labor leader” and said that the strength of her win was “quite impressive” given that often the Fed’s elections are contested with various unions lining up behind one candidate or another.

“She really was able to build a very strong consensus. ... It’s not easy to do,” he said. “It bodes well for her ability to bring diverse parts of the labor movement together.”

In Black neighborhoods, residents feel the sting of betrayal over three council members’ racist conversation.

Wheeler had, in a previous election, thrown her hat into the ring for a chance to be president, but Herrera, with high visibility and national credentials, prevailed. Herrera was first chosen to head the Fed in September 2019 and was reelected in March.

The strong turnout of political leaders at the election Monday, which drew hundreds of people to a union facility in Commerce, could be an indicator that the Federation of Labor has not lost political sway in light of the leaked audio incident. L.A. Mayor-elect Karen Bass and Long Beach Mayor-elect Rex Richardson, who made history as the first woman and first Black person chosen to lead their respective cities, joined Wheeler on stage.

Under Bass’ leadership, unions expect a more pro-worker agenda at City Hall. The upbeat outlook marks a shift from the bleak atmosphere in labor organizations after details of the leaked audio were aired, said Kathy Finn, longtime secretary-treasurer and now president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770.

“People felt very betrayed. They feel like it was a very bad reflection on the labor movement, since we are all about solidarity,” Finn said. “There needs to be some healing and some moving on. ... I’m hopeful we can move beyond what happened.”

Alex Sanchez, a union organizer at SEIU Local 2015, said he and others feel optimism and renewed energy over what the Fed might become under Wheeler. “It feels like the light at the end of the tunnel,” Sanchez said.

Wheeler’s experience with a swath of unions differs from that of Herrera, who built his career at Teamsters Local 396, and will help to dispel tension over which organizing efforts are prioritized.

“What happened in the house of labor is unacceptable,” said Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, head of the California Labor Federation and former head of the AFL-CIO’s San Diego and Imperial counties Labor Council. “It caused a crisis of trust.”

Wheeler’s broad experience as a rank-and-file worker and union leader, as well as her work with major labor organizations, makes her well-equipped to steer the Fed through the crisis and build support among Black and Latino workers, Gonzalez Fletcher said.

“She has touched all aspects. … Everybody in the labor movement has worked with the woman at some point,” Gonzalez Fletcher said.

Gonzalez Fletcher works closely with the heads of more than 20 central labor councils across California, with Wheeler joining their ranks. The former California assemblywoman said she plans to nominate Wheeler to her board and expects that appointment will be confirmed in an election in early December.

“It’s an exciting time in Los Angeles,” she said. “The first Black female mayor, the first Black female head of the Labor Federation. You’re going to have a strong team working on issues for working people.”


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