Los Angeles kicked off its 2022 Indigenous Peoples Day celebration in inimitable style, with the release of a secret recording in which top Latino city officials are caught disparaging indigenous people – as well as African Americans, Armenians, Jews and (generally lost in the reporting) “white guys.” City Council President Nury Martinez, who described some immigrants from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca as tan feos (so ugly) and described the black son of a council colleague as a changuito (little monkey), resigned days after the Los Angeles Times reported on the conversation. Two other councilmembers are under pressure to hit the road.
For many of us, the news was, sadly, not news. We understand that many of those who declare themselves social justice warriors are not. To us, it’s no surprise that Martinez voted with the council majority in 2017 to rename Columbus Day but that behind closed doors she critiques the physical appearance of indigenous people. Or that she called for defunding police after the murder of George Floyd — “to finally end the sin of racism and all of its illogical, dehumanizing and sometimes deadly consequences” — but in private refers to African Americans in language that seems to be like a long-lost radio broadcast from the Jim Crow South.
But marginalized in the otherwise solid reporting on the racist back-and-forth is the presence of Ron Herrera, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, and the location of the infamous meeting at federation headquarters.
The Times notes that, “Democratic politicians routinely visit the offices of ‘the Fed’ on James M. Wood Boulevard to seek favors from labor unions and arrange campaign help.” But “favors” and “help” suggest a kind of anodyne urban politics, a classic arms-length arrangement of mutual and occasional backscratching. In Los Angeles, the Fed has been an integral part of the city’s leadership for decades. Never mind what labor leaders say about their contempt of corporate America or their dedication to the plight of LA’s working poor.
The product of labor’s role in Los Angeles has been disastrous for almost everybody but union leaders and corporate interests eager for handouts. It was Herrera who invited Martinez and two other Los Angeles city councilmembers to a closed-door meeting at his office in the federation’s headquarters, three miles from City Hall. The purpose of the October 2021 meeting: to assure that new city voting maps enhanced labor’s power by pitting ethnic groups against one another.
Herrera was the first to resign, shortly after news of the leaked recording hit the Los Angeles Times on October 9. He quit with a classic non-apology: He didn’t say the racist things Martinez said, he explained, but “I didn’t step up to stop them and I will have to bear the burden of that cross moving forward.”
But that was Herrera’s take after publication. In response to the Times’ pre-publication request for his comment, Herrera let the federation’s attorney do the talking. She seemed to threaten the newspaper. The conversation they planned to publish, she told the Times in an email, “was recorded in violation of California’s privacy and recording laws on Los Angeles County Federation of Labor property.” The Times was unpersuaded.
The failure directly to confront the federation’s role in this story is among the most obvious gaps in news coverage of the leaked recording. But even this isn’t news, really. We’ve come to expect this from reporters who see the complexity of the vast cosmos through the drinking straw of structural racism.
Here’s what those reporters have mostly missed.
The federation is an association of the leaders of the largest government and private-sector unions in Los Angeles County. Those leaders represent 800,000 members of such organizations as the Service Employees International Union and the United Teachers of Los Angeles. Herrera’s eagerness to kill the Times story before publication and his purpose in hosting what became a racist free-for-all – to bolster the power of government unions in Los Angeles voting – weren’t merely coincidental. They are central to the union playbook: In public, use the language of racial justice and class warfare to defame all efforts at government reform; in private, leverage those same social phenomena to grab political power.
“My goal in life is to get the three of you elected, and you know, I’m just focused on that,” Herrera told Martinez, Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León at the meeting.
The Genesis of Union Power
Also missing from most reporting is the symbolically powerful location of the secret meeting: Herrera’s office is on James Wood Boulevard.
James Wood, the man for whom the street is named, was Herrera’s predecessor at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor in the long-ago 1970s. As a labor leader in ’70s Los Angeles, Wood faced what must have looked like the union movement’s End Times. The apocalypse was coming because of the rise of environmentalists.
Hoping to leverage the growing number of Angelenos frustrated with LA’s legendarily bad smog, the Democratic coalition of unions and civil rights activists had welcomed environmentalists. But the new coalition brought new challenges. Environmentalists proved very effective in persuading innumerate politicians to kill manufacturing throughout the region. The swift exit of factories eliminated thousands of union jobs in a matter of years. And that throttled a major source of political funding for Democrats: the union dues that bankrolled Democratic political campaigns.
Tom Bradley was first elected mayor in 1973, a year after he voted with the majority to celebrate Earth Day on April 22. When a right-wing council colleague suggested that leftists might hijack the holiday because April 22 was also Vladimir Lenin’s birthday, it was Bradley who put him in his place: the council would seem like “a bunch of irresponsible public officials who were being intimidated by someone who was having a birthday.”
That was Bradley the councilman. But as mayor, Bradley struggled to hold the new Democrats together. He quickly settled on a unique strategy: give environmentalists and civil rights lots of talk, but make common cause with the city’s powerful business community in order to rebuild unions.
Unions – government or private sector – had been outside of LA politics forever. Looking back from the twilight of Bradley’s 20-year tenure as mayor, the political scientist James A. Regalado observed, “Previous to Bradley, the mayoral administrations of Norris Poulson in the 1950s and of Sam Yorty (1961-1973) were characterized by their strained relations with the City Council and with their indifference and/or hostility to the labor movement.” That tension ended with Bradley. His “constituency included organized labor, which supported him in his unsuccessful campaign against Yorty in 1969 and in every election campaign in which he has been involved since then.”
Bradley’s first step was to tap James Wood, then an executive at the Fed, as the new head of the Community Redevelopment Agency.
At the state level, the pair supported the statewide legal requirement (passed by governors Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown) that all government workers join unions in exchange for their jobs. Nearly 40 years later, in 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court would rightly declare that arrangement unconstitutional. But, in the meantime, it immediately transformed hundreds of thousands of civil servants into dues-paying union members. Once in office, the grateful politicians whose campaigns they supported gave the government union leaders virtually everything they wanted. That would have terrible consequences for public finances and the quality of government services and facilities.
Closer to home, Bradley and Wood offered government subsidies in exchange for developer agreements to hire union labor. Politicians, real estate developers, bankers and union leaders met at iconic City Hall with plans for a sparkling, world-class downtown; Wood and Bradley brought billions of taxpayer dollars generated by what was then the largest redevelopment project in American history, 255 city blocks in the heart of downtown.
Jilted environmentalists and civil rights activists took notice, but not immediately, if press accounts are accurate. In March 1989, 800 people met at UCLA to blame Bradley and Wood for nearly everything wrong in Los Angeles, but mostly for “turning Los Angeles into an increasingly polarized city of haves and have-nots,” the Times reported at the time.
“Besides facing the eminent domain powers of the school district, which wants to tear down an entire neighborhood for a school, we are under siege by the (Community Redevelopment Agency) and by the University of Southern California, both of whom want to expand at our expense,” said Robin Cannon, president of Concerned Citizens of South Central. “Banks have accepted our savings deposits but refuse to make us home improvement loans, and (they) invest the money elsewhere. The city has done nothing to stop it.”
“What we really need is a new mayor,” said Bob Erlenbusch of the Campaign for Critical Needs. “He and other elected officials are hopelessly out of touch with what is happening in this city, and that is part of the reason 1,000 people showed up here this weekend.” A Times reporter quoted Erlenbusch speaking in terms that might have been uttered today, declaring Los Angeles a city with “one of the worst housing affordability problems in the country, a sewage-polluted bay, intractable smog and growing traffic ills.”
The mayor’s office said it took such criticism seriously, the newspaper reported, and would “sponsor a three-day conference to continue the discussions begun by the activists over the weekend.” Significantly, the Times reporter noted, Bradley’s staff “proposed that it be held after the mayoral election April 11.”
Long before April 11, the New York Times had already called the race for Bradley. The mayor “enjoys broad-based support, but people can cite few accomplishments,” pollster Arnold Steinberg told the nation’s paper of record. But “there is a lot of irony here. Look at the declining number of markets in black areas, but the mayor’s stress has been on downtown Yuppie development. He retains staggering loyalty among black voters while cementing a business-labor alliance downtown. He also largely gets a free ride from the media. It is an accomplishment. The mayor has managed to have his cake and eat it, too.”
On Election Day, Bradley wiped out a range of competitors, from his near left to far left. Labor was solidly behind the incumbent. Business leaders didn’t bother to apply. They already had a friend in the mayor’s office.
Anatomy of a Failed City
On the occasion of Wood’s death in 1996, the Los Angeles Times wrote that Bradley and Wood had called into being “the Bunker Hill skyscrapers, Little Tokyo, the Central Library, the Museum of Contemporary Art, a revitalized Eastside industrial sector and thousands of units of low-income housing make up the legacy of that era.”
But there was another legacy, one that still resonates in Los Angeles: the legacy of corruption and insider dealing among labor leaders, to be sure, but also the resurgence of virulent racial politics. In 1992, one year before the end of Bradley’s two decades in office, the city’s poorest black neighborhoods erupted in what became known as the Rodney King Riots. The Rampart scandal a few years later revealed that LA cops, untamed for decades, had engaged in the sorts of practices that crossed the line between tough law enforcement and straight-up crime.
Just as important, the government unions that dominate city politics have nearly bankrupted their own local agencies. The city’s union-run schools are among the worst in the nation – and the nation’s most expensive to run. The roads are lousy and the traffic congestion is worse. The crime, poverty and homelessness that produced that crowd in 1989 are worse.
Just as important but beneath the notice of most observers, the city’s finances are a wreck, hollowed out by promises generations of politicians have made to fund retirement programs for government workers. Now with empty pockets, the city faces “recessionary economic conditions and inflationary pressure on labor, capital, and energy costs,” according to Mark Moses, a former California municipal finance director and author of The Municipal Financial Crisis. The racist conversation leaked from the Fed won’t make solutions any easier, Moses says: “You can be assured that little productive fiscal work can be done in such an environment.”
LA’s present dire circumstances were predictable decades ago. Even as he completed his record fifth term in office, Bradley was a man at the center of a political and legal hurricane. “(S)candals swirling around Mayor Tom Bradley’s administration have exposed fundamental weaknesses in a local political system once touted as a model of clean government, according to ethics experts, political scientists and elected officials,” the Times reported in 1995.
The Bradley-Wood development boom “was mythology … sold to generations of Angelenos,” Eric Shockman of USC’s Unruh Institute of Politics said at the time. “We are not ‘the city on the hill.’” The lesson, Shockman told the Times, is “the way business gets done in Los Angeles is behind the scenes.”
That’s what “organized labor” has earned Los Angeles.
This morning, the federation’s website features just four little hashmarks where Herrera’s photo used to be. But it still shows pictures of shouting “workers” raising clenched fists. And it still declares the federation “is a movement for justice and opportunity committed to the empowerment of all working people and their families through collective action.”
But most of us can’t unhear – or unsee – what real union “justice” sounds and looks like.
Will Swaim is president of the California Policy Center and cohost of National Review’s Radio Free California podcast.