By CPC president Will Swaim
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 — and African Americans, Armenians, Jews and white guys. City Council President Nury Martinez, who described some Mexican immigrants as tan feos (so ugly) and described the black son of a council colleague as a changuito (little monkey), resigned Wednesday. 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. We think they protest too much. To us, it’s no surprise that Martinez voted with the council majority in 2017 to rename Columbus Day — but behind closed doors critiques the physical appearance of indigenous people. Or that she called for defunding police after the murder of George Floyd — in order, she said, “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 the most racist language she can find.
But marginalized in the otherwise solid reporting on the shameful and racist back-and-forth is the presence of Ron Herrera, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Herrera played host for the closed-door meeting at the Federation’s headquarters, a meeting that he convened in order to assure that new city voting maps enhanced labor’s power.
Herrera was the first to resign, shortly after news of the leaked recording hit the Los Angeles Times. He quit with a classic non-apology: He didn’t say the radioactive 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 sanctimony was Herrera 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, “was recorded in violation of California’s privacy and recording laws on LA County Federation of Labor property.” The Times was unpersuaded.
The failure 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 a kind of union of unions, an association of every government and private-sector union in LA County. Herrera’s attempt to kill the LA Times story before publication and his purpose in hosting the 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 racist politics to grab political power.
Also missing from most reporting is the symbolically powerful location of the secret meeting — Herrera’s office on James Wood Boulevard.
James Wood was Herrera’s long-ago predecessor at the County Federation of Labor, a man tapped by Mayor Tom Bradley to boost flagging union membership in the late 1970s. One result of their work was a statewide legal requirement that all government workers join unions — unions that returned the favor by bankrolling Democrat political candidates. Requiring government employees to pay union dues was declared illegal only four years ago; but there is still much damage to clean up.
But Bradley and Wood also boosted private-sector unions into real positions of power at City Hall. In demanding that all new construction projects use union labor, they created a marketplace of insider trading. Real estate developers, bankers and union leaders organized at City Hall by Wood and Bradley spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to redevelop Los Angeles.
“Today, 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,” the Times wrote on the occasion of Wood’s death in 1996.
But today, as you read this, that same shining city is beset with crime, homelessness, skyrocketing housing prices, lousy roads, and a government education system that — surprise — is among the nation’s worst and most expensive.
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 what real union “justice” sounds like.