ORGANIZED LABOR SUFFERED a painful setback Tuesday when Martin Ludlow resigned as leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, under pressure from a joint probe by federal and county criminal investigators and local ethics officials into possible illegal use of campaign funds. Service Employees International Union Local 99 reportedly diverted at least $53,000 to employees who actively campaigned for Ludlow's 2003 City Council campaign.
That election was supposed to have marked a turning point for the local labor movement. Under the leadership of Miguel Contreras, and with a carefully designed plan to organize on the ground and exercise clout at the ballot box, the county federation helped elect Ludlow and Antonio Villaraigosa to the City Council in 2003. The two, in turn, were supposed to push through a labor-friendly agenda.
Then Contreras died suddenly, several of labor's most vibrant unions defected from the AFL-CIO, and the movement in Los Angeles split over whether to stick with incumbent Mayor James K. Hahn or back Villaraigosa in his second run at the job. Could anyone hold all the factions together?
Only, perhaps, two people: Villaraigosa as mayor and, to succeed Contreras, Ludlow. He was a natural, with close ties to Villaraigosa, a talent for organizing and cross-cultural outreach, and experience as Contreras' chief political strategist.
He represented a new generation of African American activists, working closely with his Latino counterparts to theoretically make local government work for the have-nots.
So where did Ludlow go wrong? The probe is ongoing, but it may be that the blueprint Contreras drew up for the unions' dynamic step forward into the local political arena was also the starting point for their troubles. That's because the lines between legal campaigning and illegal schemes to gain an advantage are so easy â€" and tempting â€" to cross. And labor, while accumulating impressive amounts of power, has not proved to be any less likely than its political opponents to abuse it.
That's a shame in more than one sense of the word. Los Angeles has a huge population of working poor, struggling to squeeze a living from meager paychecks while hoping for better lives for their children. Some have invested their hope in a union movement that seems as interested in winning elections as winning concessions in the workplace.
Unions that engage in local politics face at least one disadvantage: They're regulated by federal labor laws that don't affect private contributors. But Ludlow, who admits to errors in judgment, allegedly sought to even the playing field by cheating, and he has helped call into question labor's integrity by sacrificing his own.
In the end, workers lose. The campaign money belonged to dues-paying members seeking the best possible pay, benefits and working conditions. They have good cause to be angry at Ludlow, who once embodied a resurgent movement's hope and promise but now may end up setting back the cause.
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