Eight Lessons We Can Learn From LA, Part One

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New York is Number One.

We tell ourselves that, and in many ways the facts back us up. New York City is big and it’s important and it’s been that way for a long time.

But New Yorkers are so entranced with Gotham that they can forget that being Number One isn’t the same as being the only one. Across the country, cities have found different ways to produce affordable housing, well-paying jobs, responsive city agencies, decent education and all the other things that determine how well a city serves its residents.

For New York, there’s no better place to look for new ideas than Los Angeles–both because it’s so similar and because it’s so different.

Everyone knows about the two big cities’ overly complex local governments, pastiche of immigrant groups and major (but overburdened) transportation hubs. These common factors have fostered another layer of surprising similarities, from rent stabilization to a thriving local fashion industry. It means that NYC and LA are a lonesome twosome for a slew of urban problems, but the pair are unique in having the sheer wealth of power, money and people to create two-of-a-kind solutions.

The cities also differ in unexpected ways, beyond the inescapable foundations of classic preindustrial built-up metropolis versus sprawling, built-out capital of the Pacific Rim.

LA’s geography, attitudes, power structure and tradition leave room for improvisations that seem impossible in New York. The clubhouse and party-based political landscape we take for granted has no LA counterpart, but Californians have effective multi-racial coalitions that New Yorkers can scarcely imagine. New York has powerful unions, but Los Angeles’ weaker labor movement leaves room for fresher, more aggressive organizing campaigns in immigrant communities.

If you’re skeptical that any place–let alone the anti-city of Los Angeles–has something on New York, remember, these eight lessons don’t mean LA works better than New York. It just means that there are some interesting developments out there across the Hudson.

1. Politics thrives beyond black and white

By Marc B. Haefele

In the beginning, there was only one Los Angeles coalition. Call it the White Caucus.

You know the one. It stole water from the farmers in Chinatown and denied power to the people before the Watts Riots. Even though it created a non-partisan city government with a civil service that scholars term exemplary, it was still a system that promoted white avatars of downtown to run it.

White power was centered in the Committee of 25–a low-profile, high-influence cadre from the city’s banking, legal and media powerhouses. They conferred in downtown clubs about what they considered the best interests of the city, even after many had moved out to San Marino or Pasadena.

When there’s so little room on the inside, outsiders have to work together. Raphael Sonenshein, a professor at California State University at Fullerton, says LA’s first effective multi-ethnic coalition was born during the 1940s in Boyle Heights, then a combined Jewish ghetto and Mexican barrio. These factions–who not only lived close together but shared a post-New Deal, liberal-progressive political agenda in what was still a Republican and notoriously anti-labor city–united behind a local Latino, Ed Roybal (later a long-serving congressman) in the 1949 race for a City Council seat.

It’s noteworthy that the Jews then considered themselves to be as underrepresented as the Mexicans. “Remember,” Sonenshein says, “the ruling white consortium was very conservative. No Jew had been elected to the council since 1900.” It wasn’t until 1953 that a Jewish candidate, Ros Wyman, won a council seat.

As the Jewish population moved west in the 1950s and ’60s, many settled into the south-of-Beverly Hills 10th Council District–then 30 percent African American. It was this district which, in the mid-1960s, elected Tom Bradley to the City Council with a mix of black and Jewish votes. As with Roybal before, Bradley’s race to become the first black councilman was the only game in town for progressives chafing under the town’s right-wing political regime.

Bradley’s 10th District-centered coalition included Jewish political shakers, like now-congressmen Howard Berman and Henry Waxman, and black leaders like A.M.E. Bishop H.H. Brookins, and it served as his powerbase as he ran for mayor in 1969. He lost that election to incumbent and former red-baiter Sam Yorty, who painted his moderate black opponent as beholden to Jewish radicals and Black Panthers. But four years later, Yorty’s divisive rhetoric worked against him, and Bradley’s coalition delivered him to the mayor’s office. Key wins included the largely Jewish 5th District, which gave Bradley 58 percent of the vote. Many of Bradley’s early high-profile supporters–Fran Savage and Stephen Reinhard, both Jewish, and the African-American Wanda Moore–moved effortlessly from the council into his mayoral administrations.

Bradley’s five terms as mayor–a record that won’t be broken now that the city has a two-term limit–saw more Latinos and Asians drawn into the coalition. “But the heart of the Bradley administration’s success was the black-Jewish partnership,” Sonenshein says. Bradley’s first deputy mayor was health executive Morrie Wiener, for example, and until the mayor stepped down in 1993, Bradley had the constant community support of influential rabbis Garry Greenebaum and Harvey Fields.

Comparing Bradley to New York’s former mayor David Dinkins reveals how much the LA coalition meant to his success. Bradley enjoyed 30 years of elected office in a city with a minority of black voters, as compared to Dinkins’ single term as mayor. And Bradley’s biggest political issues over the years–an end to housing segregation, police department reform and general political reform–appealed to both liberal Jews and blacks. He also mixed in middle-of-the-road topics, such as downtown reconstruction, to spread his appeal.

The LA coalition did fall afoul of divisive events, particularly Louis Farrakhan’s 1985 local appearances, which created African-American/Jewish divisions that not even the placid, diplomatic Bradley could bridge. The 1992 Rodney King riots further strained black-white relations.

By 1993, voters were unwilling to support Asian-American Michael Woo’s mayoral bid to keep the left in power, and millionaire Republican Richard Riordan won the election with 54 percent of the vote. This time, it was the conservative candidate who took the still Jewish 5th District by a 13 point margin.

But Riordan’s two terms will run out in 2001. It’s a political given that whoever succeeds him must not just rebuild the Bradley coalition but expand and redefine it: The 2000 Census is expected to show Los Angeles as a near-majority Latino city. The percentage of blacks is shrinking to less than 10 percent, while the Asian population is expanding to almost 15 percent.

More than one citywide candidate is looking to pick up the Bradley mantle–or something like it. City Attorney Jim Hahn owes his 18 years in citywide office to coalition politics, reaching out on inner-city issues like slumlord prosecutions and gun control while also voicing the concerns of more affluent voters such as domestic-partner benefits. His father, Ken Hahn, represented black Southwest LA for decades on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, winning widespread respect from his constituents. Now Jim Hahn has thrown his hat into the mayoral ring.

Another citywide candidate, Mike Feuer, is a relative political novice who ran the local Bet Tzedek legal services nonprofit before becoming the councilman from the 5th District. With no political base outside the Jewish community, he has begun compiling his own coalition in his run for City Attorney.

“In a crude tactical sense, it’s still possible [to win without a multi-ethnic coalition] though not for long,” Feuer asserts. “It’s totally undesirable because once one wins, the next day one has to govern.” Endorsements already include Jewish clergy, environmentalists, black educators and city officials, Latino business people, and Asian activists and attorneys.

Feuer’s candidacy might point the way to the future: court young professionals–a segment that includes many members of Los Angeles’ rising minorities–and other political players, and don’t pay much attention to what race they are.

2. Satisfaction guaranteed! Or your mayor back!

By Marc B. Haefele

New Yorkers fed up with the latest political embarrassment might look longingly at Los Angeles’ popular recall system, where a sudden re-election campaign is only a petition drive away for elected officials who anger enough of their constituents.

With the signatures of 15 percent of the affected voters–that’s about 200,000 disgruntled citizens for the mayor or from 6,800 to 21,500 for a councilmember, depending on the size of the district–anyone can force an elected official into a special election at any time during his or her term. And if the politician scrapes by to win, wait another six months and the whole process can begin anew.

It’s been more than 60 years since LA voters ejected a mayor in mid-term, when Frank Shaw was brought down after widespread stories about administration corruption. Several councilmembers have been brought to the brink of ejection since then, with three facing special elections in the last two decades. All kept their seats, but the experience tends to be a behavior-transforming experience, especially for the pols in trouble for drinking or drug-related issues. Even without enough names on the dotted line, the ever-present threat of recall serves as a curb on official excesses, particularly for incumbents seeking higher office.

Popular recall isn’t the only LA political reality that’s almost impossible to envision in New York. Los Angeles’ non-partisan political system means no party affiliation next to the candidate’s name on the ballot. The record shows that local political clubs, party bosses and patronage machines dried up after the reform was instituted in 1913.

3. LA labor is reborn on the streets

By David Bacon

Los Angeles’ newest union is far from being a labor organization in the traditional sense. It doesn’t bargain, it has no signed contracts, its membership is fluid, and it seems more concerned with culture and sports than Robert’s Rules of Order. But it has been successful in doing what no union has been able to do for decades–organize the workers of the street corners. In the process, Los Angeles’ Day Laborers Union is helping labor rediscover its most important tradition: its power as a social movement.

Every morning in Los Angeles, small contractors buying lumber and supplies at the local Home Depot also stop off to choose laborers from groups of men waiting on sidewalks and street corners across the city. The contractors are usually looking for unskilled workers for simple tasks like digging a trench for a foundation, but they often need skilled painters or bricklayers as well. Even some factory foremen pass by the corners, looking for emergency help.

Roughly 10,000 men around the city find work on the corners, but it’s a chancy, competitive way to make a living. “I felt it when I first came here,” remembers Pablo Alvarado, a former day laborer who is now an organizer with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles (CHIRLA). “Looking for work was dehumanizing–having to run after the contractor’s truck to get a job. The employers would get out of their pickups, and come over and touch me to see if I was strong. Each time I got hired, I felt I was taking a job from someone else.”

Wages are low, hovering just above the legal minimum, and some employers routinely stiff workers. The men have little recourse, as they are outsiders many times over: insecure, poor, often speaking little English. Their vulnerability makes them an easy target. Neighbors don’t like them hanging around, local businesses say they drive away customers, police see them as a source of crime and the Immigration and Naturalization Service tries to catch the undocumented immigrants and send them back across the border. LA’s unions haven’t been much help. Day laborers have often been viewed with suspicion by established unions, who tend to see them as competitors rather than brothers.

Since 1989, nine Southland cities and LA County itself have passed ordinances against street shape-ups, and on some corners of suburban LA the clashes can get nasty. Last spring, workers on the outskirts of the San Fernando Valley in Agoura Hills were repeatedly chased off by sheriff’s deputies yelling racist insults. The cops also brought in helicopters to buzz the workers, literally knocking them off the street. Despite the harassment and risk of arrest, workers haven’t left the corners. Instead, they’ve been fighting back.

The first organizing at corner shape-ups was in Harbor City and North Hollywood in the early 1990s. It’s now evolved into something close to a system: Laborers interested in organizing get advice from groups who have already done it and from CHIRLA. Committees negotiate arrangements with local cops, who agree not to hassle them if they stay on a limited stretch of sidewalk. The laborers ban drinking and drugs and set up ground rules like a minimum wage that prevents mutual undercutting. Some Los Angeles corners have become well-enough organized that the city has provided funding to rent a vacant lot, where workers can set up tables, hold classes, even start a small garden.

Last spring, Antoli Garcia helped write the rules for the shape-up on Pomona and Atlantic avenues. Garcia, 57, had been getting work on this corner for more than five years. “First, we need to put ourselves in order,” he explains. “We used to have a lot of trouble from the sheriffs, mostly because people were drinking while they were waiting for jobs. Second, we need fairer pay, and to distribute the work in a better way. Sometimes contractors won’t hire me because of my age.”

Part of the process is simply finding a common culture. Often workers belong to associations or family networks based on a mutual home town or state. Some local churches also support organizing efforts, and CHIRLA helps forge links too. “One of the first steps we take is usually to set up a soccer team,” says Alvarado. “It’s a natural thing that people do anyway, while they’re waiting for work. We come in and organize it, so that workers learn the value of cooperation, even though they’re in a very competitive environment.”

Building on the common cultures of Mexican and Central American immigrants, the Day Laborers Union started a band, Los Jornaleros del Norte. It also has a theater group, made up of worker-actors who perform on the street, which dramatizes the corner shape-up struggle.

These efforts have spread to more than two dozen LA street corners and at least 2,000 workers. But the efforts are having a larger impact. Los Angeles’ labor movement has never been strong; for years, local employers boasted that LA was the heart of the open shop. And in the mid-1980s, as big union defense and assembly plants closed, unionized jobs dried up. At the same time, employers used a wave of immigration to break unions in the service sector.

It turned out to be a bad miscalculation. The immigrant workforce has proved to be much more militant than employers had anticipated, and it has revitalized the city’s union movement. LA has had more union organizing drives in the last decade than any other area of the country. Most are based among immigrant workers.

In 1992, in the largest of those efforts, drywall workers mounted a strike that shut down most housing construction in southern California for a year. The drywallers’ strike was an autonomous movement that began among the workers and eventually allied with the Carpenters Union, winning the first contracts achieved through bottom-up organizing in the building trades since the 1930s. In 1995, the carpenters and another group of immigrant workers mounted a similar strike that led to contracts for framers.

Those efforts were followed by organizing drives among truck drivers in the Los Angeles harbor and gardeners throughout the LA basin. In these cases, workers initially organized their own associations to press for better conditions. But as their struggles mounted, they eventually sought union support. Los Angeles janitors, machinists and laborers have also rebuilt their ranks through bottom-up efforts.

Immigrants have revived old-fashioned tactics–including mass picketing, civil disobedience, community boycotts and marches–that the mainstream U.S. labor movement has largely abandoned. In the drywall and framers strikes, for instance, strikers went directly onto the construction site to convince workers to lay down their tools and leave, despite the threat of arrest. When the Highway Patrol and INS started raiding caravans of strikers on the freeways, they stopped rush-hour traffic.

Immigrant workers also join unions with high expectations. In New York, the Laborers Union was placed in trusteeship, reorganized, and eventually wound up under the leadership of militant immigrant asbestos workers. In Los Angeles, workers have struggled to democratize the janitors and carpenters unions, and run new candidates for office against an entrenched leadership.

The Day Laborers Union is part of this democratic tradition, consciously politicizing its members in a way reminiscent of labor’s early left-wing period. “Through organizing, workers learn to become good political analysts,” Alvarado explains. “We want to develop organic leaders–people who come from the community and decide to stay there, people who are capable of acting for themselves.”

4. Housing information is power

By Kathleen McGowan

Getting information on LA real estate couldn’t be much easier. Type in a web address and get the building’s code violations, construction permits, water liens, property tax arrears and nuisance violations. Build maps that show clusters of troubled buildings. Look up which buildings are about to lose federal subsidies like Section 8 contracts, and map out where neighborhoods will soon face affordable housing gaps.

Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles (http://nkla.sppsr.ucla.edu) started as a project by a UCLA planning student and was expanded to collect data for the whole City of Los Angeles three years ago. Although designed with community groups in mind, it’s also been a hit with city government, says Neal Richman, the project’s director at the school’s Advanced Policy Institute.

For example, a special planning commission used the site’s data to develop anti-slum recommendations. “They complemented each other,” says Garry Pinney, general manager of LA’s housing department. The result: a new code enforcement plan, started last year, that aims to have every single one of the city’s 750,000 units of housing inspected by 2001. “The real thrust for code enforcement came from the blue-ribbon anti-slum commission,” Pinney notes.

The database succeeded because the process was cooperative rather than confrontational, Richman says, knitting together the isolated and idiosyncratic databases of different departments and agencies. “We did it low-tech, low-ego, non-political,” he explains. “We said, let’s go to the little guys with the databases, and find out what fields they have, and see if they want to see the database of the guys across the street: ‘We’ll show you ours if you show us yours.’ We hung out and established rapport with these guys.”

Similar projects in New York and Chicago have stalled–not for technical reasons but for lack of money and political will. In 1995, New York City’s housing agency announced that it would develop a similar public system as part of a housing policy shift that emphasized preventive measures. But the project is still on hold. Chicago’s site is updated regularly, but the 7-year-old system is in need of a comprehensive upgrade, which won’t happen without additional staff and funds.

Meanwhile, LA is moving forward. The city has hired the UCLA planners to design its own internal housing data system, which means the public web site will be regularly updated with fresh numbers. A new three-year, $500,000 grant from the Commerce Department will revamp the site, integrating it with a range of other databases such as Census information. The site’s architects also intend to set up real-time tracking of inspectors’ activities, so a tenant can enter a building’s registration number onto the web site and see exactly what is (or isn’t) happening with a complaint.

5. A living wage can work

By John Seeley

Madalyn Janis-Aparicio’s admirers say she has the combination of passion, discipline and attention to detail that would make a great stage producer or symphony conductor. But Janis-Aparicio’s art is organizing, and her masterpiece is Los Angeles’ “living wage” ordinance.

Talking to Janis-Aparicio, you’d never believe that she was a Valley Girl, although her placid exterior does hide a rush of energy and upbeat spirit. Spending her early teen years in the Mexican artist colony of San Miguel de Allende must have inoculated her against materialist Valley values. And if she ever did talk like Moon Unit Zappa, she lost the patois at Amherst College or UCLA law school, from which she graduated in 1986.

Law degree in hand, Janis-Aparicio honed her legal skills at Skid Row’s Inner City Law Center, where her time was divided between representing clients on welfare and organizing rent strikes over conditions at fleabag single-room occupancy hotels. After a “boring” seven-month interlude in land-use litigation at a prestigious corporate law firm, Janis-Aparicio became director of CARECEN, a Central American refugee aid center.

These experiences, her organizing talents and her connections with progressive clerics concerned with Central American social justice, served her well as she began creating a coalition to fight for better wages when she became executive director of the LA Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) in 1993. “Her work is proactive,” says attorney Margo Feinberg, who was so impressed with Janis-Aparicio’s vision that she took on the initial legal work of drafting the ordinance pro bono. “It’s all about changing the dialogue.”

LAANE has been at the forefront of several labor campaigns, such as an ordinance that extends hiring preference to current workers if their employer loses a city contract. Their piece de resistance, however, is the April 1997 passage of Los Angeles’ living-wage law, which requires a minimum of $7.25 an hour plus health insurance for employees of all companies with city contracts of $25,000 or more (as well as those receiving subsidies of $100,000 annually or a total of $1 million). Passed over the veto of Mayor Richard Riordan, the law also provides for a cost-of-living adjustment and 12 paid vacation or sick leave days annually.

Although the living-wage ordinance should eventually cover more than 10,000 workers, the law becomes applicable only when contracts are renewed. So some employers won’t be affected for another five years or more–a few airlines and their subcontractors have leases that run into the 2020s. With that in mind, some airline employees have held walkouts and civil disobedience to press their bosses to comply before the law mandates it.

Sharing time with her organizing work is Janis-Aparicio’s husband, an El Salvador-born painter, and three children, including 12-year-old twins, making for a lifestyle that sometimes finds her conferring on legal strategy by cell phone from her son’s baseball games. But she did find time to sit down with City Limits to discuss the history and context of the living-wage campaign.

CL: Can you tell us about how this campaign started?

MJ-A: Several things converged: There’d been a UCLA study around the tourist industry and ideas were percolating about how the lower-income communities could reap some of the benefits of tourism. Expensive developments at LA Harbor prompted the idea of connecting development and a living wage; then 300 workers at the airport got layoff notices and another 700 jobs were at risk.

Rather than responding in the typical defensive way, several community groups and big unions came together in 1993 to form LAANE so we could develop some policy initiatives–the worker retention ordinance among them. In late 1994, the first living-wage ordinance passed [in Baltimore], and we took note of that.

CL: What were the first steps to get rolling?

MJ-A: As a staff of one, I needed a year to assemble and train an organizing staff and find community support. We built up [clergy and layman activism group] CLUE, spent lots of time with community-based organizations, and developed a research program through academic allies. And, most importantly, making contacts with workers who would be affected.

CL: What sort of resistance did the campaign face and how did you manage to overcome it?

MJ-A: There was strong opposition from some parts of the business community, especially small business, and Mayor Riordan. But we had strong arguments that taxpayers were being hit twice: first paying subsidies to companies and then for the health and welfare costs of those companies’ poorly paid employees. Our case was better researched than the other side’s. We had a broad grassroots base among workers. They kept coming back for testimony and visits and they told effective human stories about the meaning of living on a minimum wage. And we had shrewd and committed leadership on City Council, especially [Councilwoman] Jackie Goldberg. In the end, the mayor stood almost alone in opposition; the two unconverted councilmen left the chamber rather than vote against us.

CL: What’s your overview now about how the campaign has measured up to its objectives?

MJ-A: If the goal is really building a movement–involving workers and the community in an effort to raise living standards–all pieces of legislation are tools to support that. At the airport, for example, we have involved interest groups with a lot more resources–the AFL-CIO, SEIU–to organize along with us.

And there’ve been a number of spin-offs from our core effort. Big redevelopment deals like the Universal Studios expansion will push the envelope: They weren’t covered by the law, but now they may be providing living wages from the tenants, as well as the developer. There’s the worker retention ordinance. There’s a subsidy accountability project at UCLA [to measure how well local economic development actually helps workers]. There’s a health project, negotiating with Kaiser to get coverage for groups of living-wage workers.

CL: So you see LA breaking new ground?

MJ-A: Yes. In Santa Monica there’s an effort to apply the living-wage principle to prime tourist/commercial districts, looking at proximity to the beach as access to a public resource that requires some public accountability. And LA County–the largest local government body in the country–has just approved the living wage…. We’re not totally excited about their figures [and who is covered], but it’s a really major step.

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