Some of the most powerful labor organizations in Los Angeles placed huge bets on mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel that went bust. All their spending and prodigious organization failed to ignite Greuel’s campaign and allowed her opponent, Eric Garcetti, to turn the deep pockets against them, persuading many voters that they were trying to buy the election.
Losses by Greuel and two other union-backed candidates in Tuesday’s municipal election cost big labor its aura of near-invincibility in Los Angeles politics. It raised the question of whether the union representing Department of Water and Power workers will be a welcome ally in future citywide contests. Some political and business leaders even suggested that the results could force labor to take a more nuanced political role and to expect less clout inside city government.
But Tuesday’s electoral setbacks do not immediately alter the basic political architecture at Los Angeles City Hall, where the majority of officeholders, including Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti, maintain strong ties to organized labor.
The county’s most powerful union figure — Maria Elena Durazo, chief of the 800,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor — said she was disappointed by Tuesday’s defeats but unbowed in her determination to push for “living” wages for the working poor and guaranteed-benefit pensions for public employees.
“I didn’t get in this movement to have my success measured by one election or two elections,” Durazo said. “Our values remain the same and I think they are consistent with the overwhelming majority of voters. We want to help teachers, nurses, hotel workers and others to lead a better life.”
In the near term, civilian city employees will stand firm to hold on to a previously granted 5.5% pay raise due in January, which some officials say Los Angeles can no longer afford. (The council approved a budget Thursday including the raise, but council members held out some hope of getting other financial give-backs later.) Workers will continue to register their disdain for the ongoing tenure of Miguel Santana, the city administrator who pushed for budget-balancing layoffs, furloughs and benefit reductions. And, from outside City Hall, workers are preparing to ask the council and Garcetti to enact a $15-an-hour minimum wage for workers at more than 80 big hotels.
“The elections represented a loss for labor, but not a fatal one,” said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A. “Labor will do generally well in the Garcetti mayoral years, but the city’s public-sector unions will be in a more difficult and defensive position than they would have been under Wendy.”
Workers’ organizations loomed large from the start of the mayor’s race. Greuel, the city controller, benefited from television ads largely funded by various units of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which contributed a total of $2 million to an independent expenditure campaign. In her runoff with Garcetti, a city councilman, she also had the advantage of county labor federation workers, who made phone calls and walked door to door for almost two months.
Greuel got another major push from Service Employees International Union, Local 721, the representative of 10,000 city workers, as well as the backing of about 30 other unions or locals. Garcetti listed 15 labor groups as supporters.
Of the $26.2 million spent by the candidates or on their behalf, almost $7 million came from the unions, their members or employees. The lion’s share of that, more than $5.8 million, benefited Greuel.
But her labor support created tensions. In a closed-door meeting with SEIU members late last year, Greuel criticized Garcetti for voting to lay off workers and said she would be with union members “every step of the way.” That seemed to fly in the face of the image she cultivated as a tough fiscal watchdog.
Later in the campaign, the big money from the DWP workers union helped pay for engaging TV ads featuring former President Bill Clinton’s endorsement and for mailers that accused Garcetti of “driving L.A. to the brink of bankruptcy.”
But Garcetti’s own television ads pounded home the fact that Greuel was benefiting from her connection to the utility workers’ union. The Garcetti camp described the IBEW as the “DWP union,” a city department that some voters love to loathe, especially when they write their monthly utility checks.
“You get a bill from them every month,” said an operative for one of Greuel’s independent expenditure groups. “It’s almost like [being] the IRS union.” In the future, the operative said, Democratic candidates will have to consider whether large donations carry too much baggage to be worth their while. They would be better served by labor spending in smaller elections that get less scrutiny, or by unified labor coalitions that don’t allow the opposition to demonize one organization, such as the DWP.
Former state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said reaction against special interests in the Los Angeles mayoral election paralleled the backlash against big independent expenditures in other campaigns. Proposition 32, the state ballot measure that would have limited unions’ ability to collect political cash, went down in last November’s election largely because voters saw it financed by outsiders, including groups linked to billionaires Charles and David Koch. In this year’s school board race, Antonio Sanchez got $2 million from the county Federation of Labor and the support of most of Los Angeles’ power elite but lost to heavily out-funded elementary school teacher Monica Ratliff.
“I think people just got disgusted with the attempted buying of elections, whether DWP, or the so-called reform coalitions putting in millions to buy this one seat,” said Romero. “I think the bigger [sentiment] was ‘We don’t care where it’s coming from, you can’t buy our election.’ I think that’s powerful.”
Another longtime labor activist said the election should caution the county Federation of Labor, an umbrella organization representing more than 300 unions, against backing candidates with flimsy political resumes. Sanchez in the school board race and John Choi in the 13th Council District contest had less experience than their victorious opponents, Ratliff and longtime City Hall aide Mitch O’Farrell.
“This should set them back on their heels and show them they are not invincible. They have to pick better candidates,” said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve relationships with other union leaders. “But I don’t think there is a lot of self-reflection going on.”
Art Sweatman, a tree surgeon for the city and shop steward at SEIU Local 721, questioned the need to have the county Federation of Labor involved in elections. “I think we need to look at whether they are really representing our locals in the right manner,” Sweatman said. “The bottom line is, do we really need a union for the unions?”
Carol Schatz, president and CEO of the Central City Assn., said some labor organizations have been “arrogant” about their ability to elect any candidate. “That is now in question,” said Schatz, whose organization represents downtown businesses. “There has been a lack of balance at City Hall before this. I have said that no special interest, whether business or labor, should have as much power as they have had.”
Greuel’s loss represented the third consecutive mayoral runoff election in which the Federation of Labor backed the loser. But Durazo said unions have nevertheless continued to grow and thrive.
The organization took some heat when it sent a mailer days before the election that promised Latino voters that “la Wendy will raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour.” Greuel said she backed the higher wage for workers at big hotels, but did not support it for everyone.
After the vote had been counted, Durazo made no apologies for the mailer.
“She did not commit to that, but we felt she is the kind of person who would support $15 an hour for any worker,” said Durazo, speaking by phone from Florida, where she joined a convention of black trade union members. She said the campaign had helped bring the living wage into the public debate and that was good, considering that 28% of working people make so little that they live in poverty.
“This city has to have that debate,” she said. “We are not going to stop there. We are going to keep talking about it.”