City Council Secret Tapes Show the Rot Extends to the Labor Movement
The long-buried tape from October 2021, which surfaced last month, has shaken City Hall to its earthquake-proof foundations. It was a shameful display of ethnic bias to which those people who represent us should be immune.
Three elected city councilmembers have betrayed their constituents, as detailed in two The Left Coast articles, on Oct. 11 and Oct. 26.
Now come the misdeeds of the fourth miscreant, Ron Herrera, resigned President of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (the Fed). Just because he has resigned doesn’t mean everyone at the Fed has returned to only having the interests of their grossly-overestimated membership at heart.
How does this affect Mr. and Mrs. Los Angeles? Even though not everyone is a union member - far from it - nearly everyone is affected in one way or another by the wages, benefits and working conditions set by the many unions that are affiliated with the Fed.
Workers with a union contract generally have the best pay and working conditions of any workers. Some employers who are non-union match the union standards, but only because they want to keep their workers from organizing a union. Even low-wage workers are affected by the strength of the Fed, when their bosses look to see how little they can get away with paying their workers. Without any unions, believe me, workers would be treated like the scum of the earth.
High Crimes and Misdemeanors at the County Fed
It hurt everyone, union and non-union, when the now-resigned president of the Fed, Ron Herrera, started talking trash and colluding with city councilmembers about issues that should be decided in public. Disowned Union Brother Herrera participated in a meeting, which he hosted, where bigotry ran wild that was aimed at ethnic groups the unions supposedly represent, including Blacks, Armenians, Oaxacans, Koreans, Gays, and even a little child.
Now we learn that secret recordings were made, not only of this ill-starred conclave, but of several more meetings, perhaps every meeting of dignitaries at the Fed. Herrera has some explaining to do about additional tapes that have surfaced.
“I’m worried because of fucks like Hugo Soto(-Martinez),” Herrera says. “That’s my opponent.”
In another taped conversation, Herrera talks with Hannah Cho, a former staff member for Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell (who Nury Martinez appointed to take over as President Pro-Tem before she resigned). They talked about paying various community organizations and Democratic Clubs to endorse O’Farrell. Among the Clubs they wanted to “buy” are the Stonewall Club and the LA County Young Democrats. Ron, this is not how democracy works.
Here’s another clue: Cho had previously worked for former City Councilmember Herb Wesson (see below).
Bring on the Tapes
Not since Richard Nixon, has such a paranoid, egomaniac recorded every word uttered in his office. And we know how that turned out. Fortunately, Herrera took a lot less time to resign than did Tricky Dick. What other outrages has Herrera recorded for us? Let’s hear all the tapes.
Herrera seemed like a man in a hurry. He was trying to take over the Teamsters Union, and had already achieved the leadership of the Fed. What was next on his game plan? Perhaps elective office. Did he dream of becoming POTUS some day? In any case, the path to political climbing led through the Los Angeles City Council. The Herrera-Cho tapes can be found here.
Who Put the Tape on the Internet?
Herrera wasn’t the first labor leader to cast his lot with bourgeois politicians. It’s hard to believe that anyone nowadays would be surprised. Yet nearly a year after the tape was made, someone was perusing what must now be an extensive library of surreptitious tape recordings, when he or she happened on the tape in question.
The uninvited listener was shocked by the content. Not just the slurs, but also the cozy atmosphere and collusion of leaders of labor and government.
The still unknown whistle-blower wrote a brief note, or else an intermediary wrote one that accompanied the tape to Reddit.com:
“Wow, you know it happens, but when you actually hear it, it’s unbelievable,” the now-suspended Reddit user said in text accompanying the audio. “The labor movement is in bed with City Hall.”
It seems likely that the note was written by the confederate at Reddit and not by the employee at the Fed who originally set these events in motion. Hopefully, no one at the Fed could be so naive.
And, just who worked at the Fed besides Ron Herrera, who had nothing to gain from making the tape public? Justin Wesson, who is identified as “Federation Spokesperson,” is the son of former Councilmember Herb Wesson and the husband of Nury Martinez’s chief of staff, Alexis Wesson.
Wow! What a small world. Former Councilmember Herb Wesson is still hanging out at the City Council, and would have been appointed to Mark Ridley-Thomas’ vacant seat had he not been termed out.
But why is his son, Justin, in a trusted position at the Fed? Is it because his wife was the chief of staff for Nury Martinez? And why, out of nine million people in LA, was he deemed to be the best hire? This is considered nepotism, which is an advantage, privilege, or entitlement that is granted to relatives and friends in an occupation or field. Nepotism has been under a cloud since it was blasted by Aristotle.
In this case, did nepotism backfire? Was Justin angry because there was a closed clique of only Latinos who were running things at the City Council? What does Herb Wesson think about this state of affairs? Has anyone asked him?
Of course, Justin could be innocent. He may not be the only one at the Fed with a grudge.
A Tale of Two Federations
If one is to understand any current event, it is necessary to look at the history. The Fed is the central body in LA County of the AFL-CIO. These organizations used to be separate. There was a central body for the AFL and a central body for the CIO.
For many years, the CIO was by far the most militant of the two federations. It was made up of mass production workers in auto, steel, rubber, aircraft and many other industries. The LA CIO can show us how a union federation can be militant.
The CIO’s LA Labor Council (not called the Fed) rewarded militants and radicals who had the knowledge to organize workers and win strikes and contracts. Usually led by Philip Connelly, the Labor Council supported the efforts of local unions, held rallies, exercised democracy and was in many ways the exact opposite of the AFL. In the late 1940s, it became the target of the wrath of the McCarthy anti-Communist Congressional and State Committees. It probably didn’t help that Connelly was married to Dorothy Ray Healey, the leader of the LA Communist Party.
The AFL was made up of craft unions in construction and skilled trades, and others. Rarely did they venture out to organize. Their politics were mainstream Democrat.
In 1955, by order of the national labor federations, the AFL and the CIO, merged. Since the more conservative AFL had more members in the LA area, it controlled the activities and policies of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the organization of which Ron Herrera later became President.
Part of the Reason Labor Keeps Losing Members
Here’s the list of leaders of the Fed since then. All of them would have been more comfortable in the AFL than the CIO. Here’s what I know about them.
James M Wood
Maria Elena Durazo
Siggy Arywitz, as far as I know, was the first leader of the Fed after the AFL and CIO merged. His tenure ended after my friend, Philip Melnick, was involved in a car accident with Arywitz. A few days later, Arywitz died. Since then, i’ve noticed that many elderly people die after a sudden shock.
William (Bill) Robertson, was a dignified, competent leader. The only out of character thing he did was have an affair with a friend of mine. He had been a bartender, bouncer and boxer in earlier days. He took over the Fed in 1975 and ran it until 1993, leaving at the same time as his political ally, Tom Bradley, left the Mayor’s office. Unfortunately, his Times obituary touted his major accomplishment as bringing the Raider’s football team to LA.
James M Wood chose his political friends in college when he joined the right-wing Social Democrats, USA, and their youth group, Frontlash. At the Fed, he became involved in the downtown business development group called the Community Redevelopment Agency, which was responsible for changing the downtown skyline and driving many poor people from the area. Although Wood worked for the Fed for more than 20 years, mostly as Political Director, he only enjoyed a little over two years as the top leader, dying in 1996 at age 51 from lung cancer. While he and I were on opposite political sides, he was always cordial. After his death, Ninth Street was renamed James M Wood Blvd.
Miguel Contreras was the first Latino to head the Fed. He had previously worked for the UFW (farmworkers) and HERE International Union (Hotel & Restaurant). I first interacted with him across a bargaining table, where I was representing the HERE Local 11 workers who were seeking a union, and he was representing management. Like Nelson Rockefeller, he had a heart attack in a commercial establishment in South Central LA. He had been the head of the Fed from 1996, until his death in 2005 at age 52.
Martin Ludlow was the first Black leader of the Fed. His term lasted less than a year (until 2006) when he resigned because he had to go to jail. He was convicted of illegally taking union workers and union money to help his 2003 city council campaign. My understanding that several other union leaders were involved in the scheme, but I haven’t found anyone who will talk on the record.
Maria Elena Durazo was the first Latina leader of the Fed. She had previously been President of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), having been elected after defeating the more progressive candidate, Javier Rodriguez. She was elected to the State Senate in 2018, taking the seat previously occupied by Kevin De León.
Durazo had a habit, which seems to have continued, of collecting multiple paychecks. When I first looked into this 20 years ago, she was collecting a paycheck as President of Local 11, another as a Joint Council officer, and a third as an International Board Member. The three checks put her in the top tier of highest paid union officials. Now, she has paychecks for being a California State Senator, an Executive Vice President of the governing Executive Council of the national AFL-CIO and one as the Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee. She was the Fed’s leader from 2006-2014.
Rusty Hicks is the first government intelligence officer to become leader of the Fed. Rusty was in Navy Intelligence and happily went to Afghanistan in 2012-2013 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. I’m at a loss as to what qualified him to then have a tour of duty with the Fed. Perhaps spying on the delegates to the Fed was an important part of his job. Rusty had been an intelligence officer for a long time. He had also been the Fed’s Political Director since 2006. Presumably, he received a leave of absence to go spy in Afghanistan.
Prior to his tenure as President from 2014-2019, he was the Political Director of the labor body. In 2019, Rusty was elected as Chair of the California Democratic Party. Now I know why the Fed didn’t endorse my candidacy against the pro-corporate, Blue Dog Congressmember, Jane Harman, who owned a sweatshop (Harman-Kardon) in Tijuana, and was being investigated by the FBI for failing to file as an agent of a foreign government (Israel). I was a third-party candidate (Peace and Freedom), and Rusty, the decision-maker, was on his way to becoming the top Dem in California.
Ron Herrera had been reelected a few months ago, and well after that horrendous meeting. He called himself an “outspoken Latino Labor Leader” in an interview, Sept. 10, 2021, when he was running for International General Secretary-Treasurer, the number two job in the Teamsters. He lost that election, last November, with 59,896 votes to the winner’s 113,143. Herrera’s home union, Teamsters Local 396 called for all participants in the City Council secret tape recording to resign. Herrera had been the local’s Secretary-Treasurer since 2003, but retired last August. Herrera was the first to resign. He can always drive a truck for UPS.
Don’t We Deserve Better Leaders?
What can we learn from these seven leaders of the Fed? Most were dedicated union members who had made lifelong careers out of organized labor. Some were good administrators and some were good politicians. Two were close to the government’s intelligence bureaus. One went to jail, and one went to the State Senate.
None of the seven were political or union radicals. You don’t get to become the top LA leader of the Fed that way. There has never been much danger of one of them going rogue. Growing up they absorbed the official mythology that “America is the Greatest Country in the World,” and “Anyone can be Successful if you Apply Yourself.”
Not only that, but they also absorbed how to behave on their way up the union ladder. Rule #1: If you don’t negotiate a good contract, blame it on the bosses; Rule #2: Organizing is risky, and hard, and even if you win, those new workers might turn on you and elect one of their own; Rule #3: The people who really matter are the top union officials and the politicians. Do what they say, not what the workers want.
Whoever is the lucky one who is appointed or wins the election without opposition, is not going to rock the boat. The monthly meetings of the Fed, before they turned into Zoom performances, began with The Pledge of Allegiance (amended version with “under God” added). Then came the boring reports with a perfuntory vote of approval. On the rare occasions when a controversial issue comes up, dissidents are usually gaveled to silence while loyalists hoot and holler.
The only person who could beat them at their own game was my friend, the late Carl Kessler, the Machinist, who knew the Fed’s bylaws and labor history much better than the pretenders on the dais. Carl, by the force of his knowledge and personality, would make them back down or at least table the motion. If Carl Kessler had run the Fed, we might have socialism by now.
Alas, Carl is gone, and it’s up to mere mortals to make some changes. We all know that changes in leadership won’t, by itself, change anything. It is, of course, the masses who must change. But if they can experience some fearless leaders saying and doing what they should be saying and doing, it might have an impact.
More of the same in store for the Fed?
Now that Herrera has resigned, what will the Fed do for a leader? Thom Davis, a Hollywood studio grip and former IATSE Local 80 Business Agent, was named interim President by the Executive Board. They may not have known the doings at his local union. According to the film industry newspaper, Deadline, Michael Mendez, the assistant Business Agent, complained to Herrera about Tommy Valentin, the local’s secretary-treasurer, having sex in the union’s kitchen with another staff member. Mendez said he had repeatedly found the naked couple having sex in the kitchen. When he reported the behavior to Davis, Mendez said in his deposition that Herrera responded as follows,
(he) “waved his hands in the air and shouted at (Mendez): ‘Are you going to piss me off? So much for me getting out of here early.”
Mendez filed suit against Davis, Valentin and Local 80, and was promptly fired. Davis resigned as Business Agent last December after 23 years on the job. The court case has since been settled without details being released. However, Mendez still works for the local. Before he resigned, Davis was facing multiple impeachment charges filed by members relating to his performance in office, and had become increasingly unpopular with his members, according to Deadline.
Notwithstanding any of the above, Thom Davis was chosen as the interim leader of the Fed. The Fed’s bylaws require an election, or what passes for an election to chose a new President. Fortunately, he has competition. Yvonne Wheeler, a government union activist with the American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE) and Fed VP may run against Davis. Sources tell me that she might shake up the “good old boys” network at the Fed if elected.
We also need some real reforms:
Term limits for Fed leaders.
Organizing as the Fed’s first priority, including making it a large budget item.
Proportional representation of women and people of color in staff positions at the Fed (and local unions) at least equal to the membership.
Real secret ballot elections.
Every union member in LA County should have the right to vote on Fed leaders.
A monthly accounting of money spent, including on expense accounts.
Officers and staff must list who they met with and what they talked about.
Fed support for all strikes in the County, and elsewhere.
Make all the illegally recorded tapes public.
End nepotism in hiring and appointments.
End of story. Now get out there and make it happen.
Big labor has long been corrupt, if not deep into the pockets of the Democrat party.
A rank and file revolution is needed---against their "leaders" (for the most part)