How does a single individual oversee a coalition of 300 labor organizations representing more than 800,000 workers in one of the most labor-friendly cities in the country?
If you’re Ron Herrera, newly-elected president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, you take it “one day at a time, one issue at a time.”
“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” said Herrera, a longtime member of Teamsters Local 36. “When I first started, I was worried about everything. I remember one time in particular, I woke up one morning with blotches all over from nerves or whatever. I said, ‘No way am I going to survive this.’ From that day forward, it’s been ‘one day at a time, one issue at a time.’ Everybody wants to do so well, and with some of these young folks it’s like every issue is life and death. Tomorrow is going to come. Just think through it and you’ll be fine.”
A native of Wilmington, Herrera grew up in union family, the son of an International Longshore and Warehouse Union father. During his decades spent in organized labor, he participated in the 1997 Teamsters strike against UPS and became IBT’s first Latino national vice president. He has also been involved in the Don’t Waste L.A. campaign, a joint venture between environmental, community and labor leaders to create an innovative franchise system that increased recycling efforts across Los Angeles.
Shortly after his election, Labor 411 spoke to Herrera at his office at the LA Fed.
Labor 411: What is a typical day like for you now?
Ron Herrera: it just depends on the day. Monday I’ve designated for the staff and directors and the operation. I want the staff to have access to me and, being new, they’re not used to my style of management. My style is very inclusive, a lot of delegation and then I oversee it. A lot of tasking, and then let’s see what got accomplished. On Tuesdays and Thursdays it’s meetings, meetings, meetings. Wednesdays and Fridays are open to events like protests. I‘m very structured. I make a lot of phone calls in the morning. People hate commuting, but it’s a little quiet time that I can use to get a lot of things done. It actually works out pretty good. Commuting from Long Beach to here, time wise, it’s a long way (laughs) but you know I’m a time-management person.
411: What made you want to take on this job?
RH: Experience, number one. I have a lot of relationships with a lot of big unions here and it wasn’t me per se. A whole group of people said “OK who’s going to do this?” I’m probably one of the three top senior people in this city with union management skills and running a union. Rusty [Hicks]’s departure was a big void. So we needed somebody with experience to come in here. Our group of folks got together and spoke and they just felt that someone like me could hold things together and then grow it also. I have a lot of practical experience, so they wanted that put back in here. More community, more social justice, more unionization, more organizing, more outreach, more mobilization. And I don’t get introduced to any politician. I know them all from my career. I know all the tough union leaders, because I’ve been a pain in the ass with them together. So I was a perfect fit. I’m not going to do anything earth-shattering right away except build a foundation here in the building and then go from there.
411: Can I get yout thoughts on the role of Labor 411 in the Fed’s work? .
RH: I think Labor 411 could be one of the big connectors for outreach, and I want to figure out what we can do to get unions to look at the directory. The directory could be a conduit to other organizations. If you or I went into the Labor 411 directory and said, ‘Hey, I need a union contractor. I need a general contractor, I need this building worked on.’ I want people to know it’s in the book. Affiliates need to see it, whether it’s on our Facebook page or whatever it is. It has to be an arm of us. “How do I get a union vendor? Labor 411.” “Los Angeles is a union town” is our mission. Then why not have Labor 411 as part of that mission? When I was at United Way, I said , “We have to run campaigns. One dollar a member. One dollar. I don’t want anything more. Give me one dollar, but a whole lot of dollars, a whole lot of independent one dollar bills. Now you’ve got skin in the game. Now you’re making a difference.
411: What are some of the challenges that labor will face in 2020 and beyond?
RH: The federal government, a change in labor laws, a change at the appellate courts. Everybody is so worried about the Supreme Court, but in the judicial world, if they can stymie you at the appellate court, than it never gets up to the Supreme Court. So we’ve got to keep our eye out on all these judicial races at the lower end and all the appointments at the appellate level. Our challenges are going to be that and the dismantling of our labor board. Labor laws are definitely going to affect us if, god forbid, the current administration gets back in again. There will be irreparable damage to the next generation.
But the big thing will be to keep our eye on the National Labor Relations Board. That will connect to everything. It will retard organizing and workers. It will give companies an advantage over us for new organizing drives. It will increase the role of union members, and our trust funds will suffer as a result. We should have learned from Janus that the next step is the private side and nation-wide right to work. If we lived in our own little world of L.A. county, we’d be fine, but we have SCUD missiles coming into the county and honestly, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago are the strongholds. I don’t know if I could count a dozen cities that I could say are strong union towns. So we’ve got to keep this county, this federation viable.
411: Do other federations of labor and labor councils look to Los Angeles as a model?
RH: Most definitely. I guess Chicago and New York would be competitive to us. It’s interesting because, at one time, Los Angeles housed the lowest paid workers. I don’t know if that’s true anymore. I haven’t seen any studies, but I know we’ve done some good things to move up the benefit levels of workers here. Not to be too dramatic, but this might be the last stand here pretty soon and it’s important that we understand that. I think that one of the things I’ve done in my own union, in the Teamsters, was starting a campaign on “Know the real enemy.” Who is the enemy? Obviously it’s the gig. Obviously it’s Uber and Lyft. Amazon is monstrous now. I’m not exaggerating. They’ll probably take over the world and once they destroy your trust funds, you’re done.
411: Will you do a Know Your Enemy campaign with the LA Fed?
RH: We’ve already started an Amazon campaign here, a multi-union campaign with an emphasis on organizing, but the ultimate goal should be laws and protections politically and legislatively and then organizing. Because there isn’t one union that is big enough to take them on. And it has to be multi-faceted. So if we can get a working group here, then hopefully the International can do it as well and we can have some victories here. Through our communications department, we’re going to put out a lot of the Know Your Enemy stuff and this doesn’t stop the damage. We got AB5. OK now what do we do? AB5 is actually a test. Are we going to be able to work together or not?
411: Will we pass?
RH: I’m optimistic. I think we’re going to fight a little bit about it and then hopefully early next year, we’re going to get a direction together and then share it. I think there are 300,000 Uber and Lyft drivers in this state so there’s enough to go around and that’s not counting trucking. That’s not counting supermarkets. That’s not counting food delivery restaurants. I want to play a role in that. I’m optimistic we can.
411: Are you generally an optimistic person?
RH: Yes. You have to be. I’m very optimistic, but I’m a realist. I’m not going to be optimistic to a point where it’s reckless and we take on a fight that isn’t calculated. We have to be very calculated because all a loss will do is propel the opposition. I think that optimism is a form of confidence. Nobody is going to follow anybody that’s negative, but of course, your optimism has to be calculated also and used positively.
411: What are some of your earliest memories of unionism? When did you first become aware of the role organized labor could play in people’s lives?
RH: My parents. I come from a staunch union home. I came out of the copper mines of Arizona. So there were conversations, teaching from my parents, not in a negative, not used to hate, but schooled on how communities like that were discriminated against. I learned a lot about 1932 through my parents’ teaching, their actually physically being there in the repatriotization of their friends. Obviously some of their family was deported as a result of jobs or the lack of work during the depression. My dad was always for the underdog and the little guy. He was a longshoreman for close to 50 years here in the ports of Long Beach. That was during the Harry Bridges era so Harry Bridges obviously was my father’s hero. My eldest brother used to say that the first three words that we learned when we first started talking were Mom, dad and Harry Bridges. He just doesn’t know which one came first. (laughs).
411: Do you have heroes?
RH: Jimmy Hoffa Senior. I don’t know why. I can remember as an elementary school student already knowing who Jimmy Hoffa was, and obviously Harry Bridges, but I followed that path.
411: What else would you like us to know?
RH: We have to have courage. We’re in trying times, and it’s time for folks like all of us to band together. 2020 is probably the most important year. We said that in 2016 but this time, it is the most important election for the future. And I think that once we get a people’s candidate that all of us, no matter our politics or our preference, no matter who we thought should have been there, we have to band behind that person just for the salvation of what our beliefs are. That’s very important. I’ve been actually professing that in most of my speeches here lately. Put your differences aside. Now is the time. It’s not time for us to have any internal fights. It’s time for us to understand that we can maybe disagree later, but right now we have to be focused on one engine. And that’s labor moving forward.
411: What do you do when you’re not working?
RH: Help people. I’ve been blessed. But one of the biggest rewards that I have is seeing the next generation propel into leadership including my granddaughters and my members’ kids. Providing economics for them to have their children go to Notre Dame and Yale and Harvard, and Stanford. Then seeing my own grandkids doing the same thing, but it’s propelling the younger generations to excel education-wise. To create, that’s my legacy, because if the union folks that I have mentored aren’t successful, then I must not have been that good of a union leader. I’ll be a failure if I don’t leave a legacy. So if I don’t believe in transition and preparation for the next generation, then what good did I really do?
411: You mentioned grandchildren. What are they up to?
RH: One of them was just here dancing with Madonna’s crew at the Wiltern Theatre. The other one just got home from a successful season playing soccer as a freshman for Oregon State University. The other two are 13 and 10, so they have along way to go. I’m mentoring them.
411: Do they know who Harry Bridges is?
RH: No, but they know who Ron Herrera is (laughs). They know who the Teamsters are. All four of them. Staunch Teamsters without a doubt.