LOS ANGELES--They are janitors and dishwashers, chambermaids and bellhops, but in their other life, they are part of an army out to remake American politics. Last Saturday morning, more than 100 of them were gathered in a union headquarters not far from city hall, rhythmically clapping their hands and chanting ever faster the initials O-L-A-W.
Their leader, a fiery union president named Maria Elena Durazo, wound up the pep rally with a pair of rhetorical questions, first in Spanish, then in English: "Are you ready? Are you ready to walk?"
And off they went for another day of door-to-door canvassing in the barrio neighborhoods of Los Angeles, confronting their neighbors with a forceful warning that unless they vote, they can forget their dreams of a living wage, health insurance protection and better schools for their children.
The Organization of Los Angeles Workers (OLAW) has stayed largely below the radar since its birth seven years ago; one of the smartest Democratic operatives I know out here was surprised when I told him that the organization last year had received an anonymous $1 million gift to support its work of registering and turning out the Latino working-poor immigrant families of Los Angeles.
But it is part of what may well be the biggest change in American politics in this new millennium--the political awakening of the fastest-growing minority in the country. That emergence could reach a landmark in Los Angeles on June 5, when Antonio Villaraigosa, a one-time high school dropout who went on to become speaker of the California Assembly, faces city attorney James Hahn, a member of a great local political dynasty, in the runoff for mayor.
OLAW is nominally nonpartisan--a tax-exempt education and issue-advocacy group barred from endorsing or campaigning for candidates. But the leaders of the unions that are at the heart of the OLAW coalition are strongly pro-Villaraigosa.
The mayoral runoff is important in itself to Latino leaders, but is just one more step in the gradual and difficult process of using the power of the ballot box to gain services and benefits for people whose lack of connection to the political system has deep cultural roots.
In his just-published volume, "The New Americans," journalist-author Michael Barone argues that the current immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, like the Italian immigrants 100 years ago, arrived with a well-merited distrust of politics, government and institutions of all kinds. At home, they had experienced rampant corruption, favoritism to the wealthy and well-connected, exploitation and abuse of the poor.
That experience, combined with a sense that their sojourn in the United States might be temporary, made them slow to join the electorate or compete for public office.
But that is changing--and rapidly, especially here in California. The labor movement, whose biggest and most politically active unions are led by Latinos such as Eliseo Medina and Durazo, has identified itself strongly with the issue of immigration reform, which touches almost all the new arrivals. Last year, in coalition with community groups and the Catholic Church, it packed 22,000 people into the Los Angeles Sports Arena for an immigration-reform rally.
Medina, the West Coast vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), won a notable victory last year--with the backing of both the Catholic cardinal and the Republican mayor--when a janitors' strike forced the owners of downtown office towers to raise the pay of their largely immigrant janitorial crews.
The anonymous donor gave $1 million to help support the strike, and another $1 million for the current effort to get more Latinos to the polls. With those funds, OLAW has hired 100 people, mainly from the SEIU and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union from which Durazo comes, and pays them the equivalent of their hourly wage to be on the streets full-time, contacting unregistered workers and those who vote only occasionally.
In the four days before the June 5 voting, the number of canvassers will swell to 600, walking targeted precincts and aiming to get signed cards from 80,000 people, pledging to see that everyone in the family eligible to vote actually gets to the polls.
The effect of similar past efforts is measurable in the rising percentage of Latino voters and labor households in each California electorate since 1994. This mobilization of new Americans, almost all of them working poor, was once the work of the political parties--especially the Democrats. It was abandoned in favor of fund raising to buy TV spots. Now, thank goodness, it is being revived by others, and democracy itself is growing.
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