Compared to the marbled splendor of Los Angeles City Hall, the building that houses the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor isn’t much to look at — drab, utilitarian and hunched on a gritty sun-blasted corner a few blocks south of MacArthur Park.
But inside that building, the federation’s then-president, Ron Herrera, recently talked about the emotion he wanted elected officials and candidates for office to feel when they glimpsed the street the unassuming structure stands on.
“That should [bring] fear in people,” Herrera said in a private conversation that was recorded and leaked to the public. “If you f— us, we’ll campaign against you.”
“Political power,” he added. “That’s what this is all about.”
Over the last three decades, “the Fed,” as the L.A. County Federation of Labor is known, has marshaled the dues and precinct-walking and phone-banking strength of more than 300 unions and labor organizations now representing an estimated 800,000 workers to become among the most important players in local and state politics.
The organization’s mandate is to champion economic justice for workers — many of them low-paid — and it has won numerous victories in Los Angeles in recent years, including one of the highest living wages in the nation and a countywide relief effort for laid-off workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Fed’s power has long been well-known in political circles but is less understood by the public. That changed on Oct. 9, after The Times broke a story about the leaked audio recording of a 2021 meeting between Herrera and three Los Angeles City Council members: Nury Martinez, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo.
The anonymous leak of the conversation, which included a torrent of racist and insulting remarks as well as bare-knuckled machinations over political influence, provoked outrage from the White House to seemingly every corner of Los Angeles. It has plunged the city’s government into crisis. Martinez has resigned, and some of De León’s constituents are trying to recall him.
The real target
But the real target of the leak — which the LAPD is investigating because it is illegal to record people in California without their consent — may have been Herrera and his Federation of Labor. Mostly lost in the fury over the racist conversation involving the elected officials is the fact that three more recordings were released around the same time.
They involved Herrera talking to unnamed associates about his political aspirations for the federation, which has just a few dozen employees but enjoys enormous power because it can marshal the political resources and funds of hundreds of individual unions.
Herrera, who did not respond to a request to comment, resigned the day after The Times reported on the audio, leaving one of the state’s most important political institutions distracted and without its top leader in the frantic weeks before the mayoral election. And yet despite the turmoil the recordings have unleashed inside the federation and its unions, few political observers expect the situation to substantially affect the Fed’s power in local and state politics.
“There is no other organization in Los Angeles that in a week could organize 20,000 people to show up somewhere,” said Fernando Guerra, a professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University. “You cannot make any major social or political decision in Los Angeles without [it].”
In the days after the audio leaked, the federation condemned Herrera’s participation in the racist conversation with the council members but said little about the other recordings.
The federation’s executive board quickly appointed an interim leader, Thom Davis, who issued a statement saying that “racism in any form has no place in the House of Labor.”
Since then, the federation’s core leadership has remained quiet. A spokeswoman hired to handle media queries did not respond to calls and emailed questions. A person answering Davis’ cellphone spoke of the interim president in the third person as being unavailable and then hung up without taking a message.
A powerful institution left reeling
Other labor officials said the organization is reeling.
“The Fed is a major, powerful player not just in politics, but in the labor movement,” said David Green, the president of Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents 95,000 public employees, including those who work for the city and the county. The sentiments expressed in the recorded conversations were “a breach of trust of the public and the people that we represent.”
“It crossed so many lines,” he added.
State Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, a Los Angeles Democrat who headed the federation from 2006 to 2014, said she was “pretty ashamed and outraged” by what she heard on the tapes.
“The primary role of the L.A. federation is to promote and advocate for the needs of working-class families, period. That’s the principal role,” she said. Durazo is also the widow of Miguel Contreras, who led the federation from 1994 until his death in 2005 and is credited with building it into a mammoth political force by harnessing the power of immigrant workers.
As Los Angeles hurtles toward a pivotal mayoral election next week, the federation has backed Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles). Supporters have counted on its money and army of volunteers to play a key role in countering the tens of millions of dollars her opponent, developer Rick Caruso, has spent from his personal fortune.
Cliff Smith, business manager for Roofers and Waterproofers Local 36, which is affiliated with the federation, said the monthly delegates meeting he went to after the scandal broke last month revealed an organization that had been shaken.
The meeting, he said, “should have been entirely focused on the election, on getting commitments from different local unions to focus on this campaign or that campaign,” he said. “And there was a different focus.”
The federation’s executive board met shortly after the audio became public; minutes of that meeting reviewed by the Times indicate that leaders were concerned about the impact of the leak on elections, noting that there were “challenges faced” including a “loss of volunteers” due to the “current situation.” A federation spokeswoman did not respond to questions about the memo.
And yet the scandal has not appeared to dim the organization’s work on behalf of candidates. The federation has continued to send volunteers to do phone-banking and door-to-door canvassing across the city.
The mystery hanging over the L.A. union movement
More than three weeks after the leaked audio plunged Los Angeles city government into crisis, it is still a mystery who might have recorded and leaked the conversations, and why.
Last week, Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore announced that his department’s Major Crimes Division would launch an investigation. The reason, he said: De León, Cedillo, Martinez and Herrera had asked for one. (Shortly after the announcement, a spokesperson for De León said the council member did not request an investigation.)
Speculation about who could have been behind the act has consumed many in the Los Angeles labor and political classes.
One theory holds that disgruntled union staffers sympathetic to the left-leaning Democratic Socialists of America carried out the recording because they were angry that Herrera and the federation had not backed their candidates in the upcoming council elections.
“I think it was some staffer that was sympathetic to DSA and just pretty much grossed out by how these people were behaving,” said Frank Halstead, a shop steward of Teamsters Local 572 in Compton. Halstead also is co-chair of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, an insurgent group that helped defeat Herrera’s election bid last year to become general secretary-treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Late last month, the federation took to Twitter to dismiss that idea. “We reject any accusation that a member of our staff would be responsible for these recordings as absolutely false and completely outrageous,” the federation said, adding that “the staff has shown great courage and superb character at what has been the most difficult time in the history of the federation.”
Herrera also had enemies inside the Teamsters, where his harshest critics were not surprised by the Machiavellian figure they heard on the recordings.
“He’s a wheeler and dealer and would stab anybody in the back to get up the ladder,” said Daniel Kane, a retired Teamster who worked for Herrera as a business agent and organizer during Herrera’s rise to power in the early 2000s.
A leader with deep union roots
Herrera had grown up in a union family and worked as a UPS driver. In 2003, when he became Teamsters Local 396’s secretary-treasurer, the local represented 9,571 workers — many of them UPS drivers and sanitation workers — and collected just over $4 million in dues, according to federal disclosure forms. By 2021, the local had more than doubled in size.
In September of 2019, he was chosen to head the Federation of Labor. He also remained the head of Local 396 — until he resigned quietly in August.
Union officials praised Herrera for his ability to build coalitions, crediting him with his role in persuading Los Angeles leaders to overhaul the city’s waste-hauling system. The plan was touted as a way to ramp up recycling, and it was also viewed as boon to labor by making it easier to organize unions among trash haulers. Many also noted that Herrera was deeply committed to improving the lot of working people.
“There’s a fire in the hearts of L.A.’s workers that can transform our city if we listen to them and we let them lead,” Herrera said at the time of his appointment to the federation. “I’m honored and humbled to serve the people who give this city everything it has. Together, let’s build an inclusive, innovative labor movement for all workers.”
Herrera also stressed the importance of reminding elected leaders how crucial organized labor was to their careers. In a 2021 debate during a Teamsters election, he touted that he has breakfast with U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) every six months and that Vice President “Kamala Harris happens to be a personal friend of mine.”
“You have to let them know, you know, that the union is the one that got them there,” he said of politicians.
Herrera had to parry attacks that he was stretched too thin between his various jobs, which he said was necessary to push for favorable political appointments such as U.S. Deputy Labor Secretary Julie Su and take on fiercely anti-union corporate goliaths such as Amazon.
“I’m being criticized for running the L.A. Federation of Labor, but it builds political power for the Teamsters, political power that we need to attack this giant,” Herrera said, referring to Amazon.
Herrera’s debate opponent, Fred Zuckerman, shot back: “I’m not criticizing my opponent for the job that he does at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. I’m criticizing my opponent for not doing his job for the Teamsters.” Zuckerman defeated Herrera to become the Teamsters’ general secretary-treasurer.
Similar complaints had been circulating for years inside Herrera’s home, Local 396, where dissident rank-and-file activists felt that Herrera was neglecting his core responsibilities of fighting for strong collective bargaining agreements with UPS and with trash-collection companies such as Republic Services.
Many sanitation members were “happy to hear what Herrera is going through,” Isidro Valdivia, a Waste Management truck driver in Chino, said of Herrera’s downfall, describing members sharing social media memes showing Herrera trapped in the back of a trash truck “waving goodbye.”
In the leaked recordings of his conversations inside the federation, Herrera comes across as soft-spoken —and hard-boiled.
“Just be ready for war when it’s time,” he counseled an ally on one section of released audio; it wasn’t clear from the recording what the war would be about.
At another point, Herrera mused that one of his predecessors, the legendary former Fed leader Contreras, was a good strategist but that he didn’t have to “deal with the Koch brothers. … He was dealing with immigrants that were getting citizenship and then becoming voters. They were new voters. So they were herded into voting in a certain way.”
On the recording with the council members, he speaks contemptuously of the current city leadership, calling it “a rudderless ship.” He joins in dishing on the previous mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, and he returns, repeatedly, to a view that Latinos should have more political power throughout the region.
“My goal in life is to get the three of you elected, and, you know, I’m just focused on that,” he told them at one point. “I mean, we’re like the little Latino caucus of, you know, our own.”
The big fear: More tapes out there?
As they wait to find out whether detectives can discover who recorded Herrera and the elected officials, many in labor and government have another concern: the fear that there could be more recordings out there.
Shortly after the release, the federation warned its member unions of a “serious security and privacy breach” involving “many private and confidential conversations in private offices and conference rooms at the L.A. Fed” being illegally recorded in violation of California privacy and recording laws.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who with labor support previously served as a member of the Los Angeles City Council and in Congress, calls that prospect “unsettling.” She said she had spent time in the federation’s offices engaged in what she called “some honest conversations about my political future.”
But even elected officials whose names were spoken of critically on the tapes said they remain committed to maintaining the power of the federation to advocate on behalf of working people in Los Angeles.
Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles), who was discussed in two of the leaked conversations as someone operating outside the traditional power structure of the organization, said “the leadership of the Fed recently has been disconnected from the workers they represent.” But, he added, “the power is still very much there. It is still important. It is the organized voice of over 800,000 workers in the region.”
Times staff writers David Zahniser, Julia Wick and Hannah Wiley contributed to this report.