When Miguel, Madeline Janis, and I co-founded LAANE, Los Angeles was recovering from the 1992 unrest, and the Mayor and City Council were still by-and-large barricaded against the concerns of LA communities, especially immigrants and working communities. Miguel and I were trying to figure out how to develop the ability to move beyond the day-to-day organizing and internal organizing that is the core of union work, and we challenged Madeline to do something different — to change the public perception of unions, to grow unions, help workers, and also to help unions be more inclusive, more community-oriented. We didn’t know exactly what she should be doing at first. But she agreed to take it on.
A couple years later, when over a thousand LAX workers were threatened by privatization, LAANE led the effort to pass one of the first worker retention laws in the country. Because of the role that LAANE played, we were able to save hundreds of other workers from losing good union jobs. That law helped pave the way for the introduction of LA’s historic living wage ordinance, which, once passed, would help 15,000 workers in the Los Angeles area escape poverty. But first, we had to win over the City Council.
LAANE — which at that time was going by the Living Wage Coalition — battled Mayor Riordan for the public’s and the Council’s support. They conducted research and demonstrated that a living wage wouldn’t damage contractors or the city. And LAANE embarked on an organizing campaign in every councilmember’s district. The ordinance had the support of councilmembers from Black and brown communities and the liberal Westside. But on the 15-member council, it would take 10 votes to override an inevitable mayoral veto from Riordan. That meant winning over councilmembers from more conservative districts in the Valley. Laura Chick, who represented an affluent Western part of the Valley, was one of the undecided ones. Then clergy from every denomination began faxing in their support to their councilmembers every day. I remember Laura told us, “Oh my God, you’ve got the Valley rabbis!” When the ordinance came before the council, she supported it, along with 11 of her colleagues. The mayor’s veto was overridden, and history was made.
LAANE has continued to grow from strength to strength from those early days, always keeping organizer Marshall Ganz’s three key components of a progressive victory — story, structure, and strategy — in view while still holding on to the agile, experimental spirit that began the whole journey.
We will always need a LAANE, because the fundamental struggle of working communities and people of color in a business economy is never going to be solved once and for all. Ford was Amazon before Amazon, and when Amazon goes, something will take its place. Players change, sectors change, and our tactics will need to change with them, but those powerful economic forces will always be there and LAANE’s essential strategies of researching and learning what it takes to win, then building broad coalitions of people — including the Valley rabbis! — will always be necessary. The challenge for LAANE’s next thirty years, the thing that they and we and working families and people of color will have to tackle together with full-throated abandon, is to sustain the momentum and the victories we’ve had, and not lose ground. If we stop, we fizzle away. And we’ve come way too far, together, to let that happen.