As the final push begins to fill a key seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, union leaders, elected officials and political analysts are anticipating a realignment of power that could strengthen the hand of organized labor in decisions affecting a wide array of public services and the region's largest employer.
Expectations of change already are rippling through pronouncements and policy shifts at the downtown Hall of Administration.
In one recent message to its members, a union representing 9,000 county workers triumphantly declared that this year's elections "could pave the way to a historic, pro-labor" majority on the county board.
At the same time, the current elected supervisors — most of whom are being forced from office by term limits in the next two years — are moving to make it more difficult for their successors to approve increased wages and benefits for the county's 100,000 workers.
Last month, the board, saying it needs to preserve its record of fiscal responsibility, tentatively approved a rule requiring a four-fifths supermajority vote for any increase in compensation. The supervisors said they were merely formalizing past practices, but the move could make it politically more complicated for a pro-labor majority to take action.
County employee unions denounced the proposal and accused supervisors of trying to tie the hands of new board members who will take office in December.
Already assured a seat is former U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who has been called a "warrior for working people" by labor groups. She will represent Supervisor Gloria Molina's eastern county district.
Still up for grabs is a seat being vacated by west county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. The two runoff contenders in that race are former state lawmaker Sheila Kuehl, who built a strongly pro-labor record during her 14 years in the Legislature, and former Santa Monica Councilman Bobby Shriver, a member of the Kennedy political dynasty with its own historic ties to labor.
The county's major labor groups backed Solis and are endorsing Kuehl, who bested Shriver and several other opponents in the primary.
Whatever the outcome of the Kuehl-Shriver contest, the election is likely to mark a pro-labor shift on the powerful board, which oversees agencies dealing with everything from county beaches to foster children and restaurant inspections, said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A.
Republicans controlled a majority of the board's five seats until Molina was elected in 1991, he said. And even with a Democratic majority, only Mark Ridley-Thomas, elected in 2008 with millions of dollars in union support, has been a consistently pro-labor voice on the board, Regalado said. "Historically, it's not been labor-friendly at all," he said.
Gary Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said the business community hopes a new board will continue to prioritize the fiscal health of the county.
"We have to be thinking of the best interests of the community as a whole and not just the best interests of our labor unions or our business organizations,'' Toebben said.
Officials inside county government predict labor leaders will push to advance a number of causes, including raising the minimum wage and changing the way the county handles labor grievances, when the new board is in place.
Labor allies say fears of union influence are overblown. "There's a certain kind of code here that 'labor-friendly' means fiscally irresponsible," Ridley-Thomas said in an interview. "It's almost as if there's a fear that a newly constituted board with more progressive sensibilities will bankrupt the county. I find that to be offensive."
The other sitting supervisors often praise labor as "good partners" in weathering the recession. But they remain wary of a reprise of the financial crisis they faced in the mid-1990s. Molina and Yaroslavsky joined the county board as it faced a $1-billion-a-year structural deficit and the possibility of shutting down public hospital emergency rooms and libraries. Yaroslavsky recalled being sworn in the week the Orange County Board of Supervisors declared bankruptcy.
That difficult baptism helped cement a hawkish view on spending for the two Democrats. Molina said the union representing sheriff's deputies threatened to unseat her in 2006 for her opposition to a proposal to increase pensions.
"They want people who are going to acquiesce to what they want," she said of labor groups. "The problem with that is, 'OK, so now you bankrupted us.'"
Yaroslavsky and Molina both said they don't think the new board members will cave in to unreasonable demands from labor, but they predicted that unions will revive proposals that failed to gain traction with current board members.
"I'm sure labor will push the supes and test their level of commitment and discipline and trustworthiness,'' Yaroslavsky said.
Union officials declined to discuss their priorities for the new board. But likely at the top of labor's wish list, several county officials and experts said, is revisiting the county's living wage requirement, now set at $11.84 an hour for county contractors.
Labor activists countywide have been pushing local governments to adopt a $15-an-hour minimum. They are likely to turn their efforts to the Board of Supervisors next year. Last year, Ridley-Thomas asked county staff to look at adjusting the living wage, but the board has not followed up.
Some county supervisors and managers said unions could also push for more influence over the hiring and firing of department heads, pressure the supervisors to limit private contracting of county services, and urge them to reverse a 3-2 vote last year that set new rules for appointing commissioners who rule on labor grievances that could give management a stronger hand on the panel. The move drew an outcry from unions and an ongoing attempt to scrap the selection process via state legislation.
Molina said some unions may push for benefits and work rules rejected in the past. She cited a years-long campaign by the union representing sheriff's deputies for members to be paid for the time they spend putting on and taking off uniforms before and after their shifts, a benefit known as "donning and doffing." The Assn. of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs did not respond to a request for comment.
Before the June primary, Kuehl and Shriver said they would be open to increasing the county's minimum wage. And that issue could gain momentum if L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti is successful in his push to raise base hourly pay to $13.25 an hour citywide by 2017.
Kuehl also said she's willing to discuss increases in salaries and benefits as part of the collective bargaining process. Shriver is more circumspect, saying the county should focus first on improving services.
Kuehl proudly cites her labor record, including her 1999 vote for state legislation that fattened retirement packages for California Highway Patrol officers and led to larger public employee pensions across the state. "It was appropriate at the time,'' she said.
Shriver, an activist on global poverty, was backed by city unions during his years on the Santa Monica City Council, but he earned the enmity of the city's police union when he backed a measure requiring officers to pay a portion of their pension costs. He would take the same cautious approach if elected, Shriver said. "Budgets have to balance,'' he said.
So far, overall labor campaign contributions in support of Kuehl and Shriver have been about equal. Kuehl's committee received nearly $118,000 from union organizations through June, according to the most recent funding reports available. Labor groups put about $103,000 behind efforts to elect Shriver.
But there are some notable differences. Almost all Shriver's union backing came in a single $100,000 contribution to an independent committee, not controlled by the candidate, from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. None of the major labor unions representing county employees have contributed funds to help get Shriver elected.
Kuehl's campaign received $75,000 from the political arm of the California Nurses Assn., but it also took in smaller amounts from dozens of other union groups, including several that represent county employees. In addition, the political arm of the California Assn. of Professional Employees, which represents about 2,700 county employees, spent $24,000 on fliers supporting Kuehl and Solis in the primary.
In the June campaign, union-affiliated groups were Solis' leading donor category, giving a total of almost $87,000 to her committee.
County employee unions said they were backing Kuehl over Shriver in the November election because of her experience and track record. But Bob Schoonover, president of SEIU 721, representing 55,000 county health and welfare workers, said it remained to be seen how the new supervisors will vote once they were on the job.
"You might have a perception about somebody that's incorrect,'' he said. "You've got an idea, but you really can't tell for sure. I've been disappointed and surprised both."