August 24, 2004 - From the August, 2004 issue

AFL-CIO's Miguel Contreras Assesses The Politics Of LAX Modernization Plans

There is no denying that much is at stake for Los Angeles and the region with regard to the modernization of LAX. Among the stakeholders that would benefit are the local labor unions, which stand to gain thousands of jobs over the course of a decade or more of construction. Metro Investment Report is pleased to present this interview with Miguel Contreras, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and a member of the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners, in which he assesses the recent efforts to broker a compromise on the LAX master plan and elaborates on the Federation's strategy for dealing with the upcoming mayoral campaign.

Miguel Contreras

Miguel, not only are you an Airport Commissioner, but labor has been a stakeholder in the conceptualization and thinking about what to do with LAX and its modernization. Can you give us your views and a status report on where the consensus plan devised by Cindy Miscikowski for the airport currently sits?

It currently sits in the beginning of the process at the City Council level. My understanding is that Councilman Cardenas will be holding an informational hearing on the plan in a few short weeks. That will be the first hearing of its kind. And from that, it moves on to the committees. And there are at least two committees before which the plan will be heard, the Planning and Land Use Management Committee and the Commerce and Utility Committee. From there, it goes to the full Council.

So right now, we're embarking on a campaign to help convince the councilmembers that we think it's time to modernize the airport in Los Angeles. We think it's a good compromise plan. And, we also like the fact that there are a lot of people at the table, including community groups, labor, airport and other people. We think it's a good compromise plan.

In an recent interview with MIR Councilmember Miscikowski said, "In the past, the script was essentially being promulgated internally without being shared with other players in the cast." And, she wanted her consensus plan to reach out and involve the other stakeholders. Has that been accomplished and are you comfortable with the consensus plan?

Well, we are comfortable with the consensus plan. We have not been coordinating the outreach with Miscikowski's office, so I'm not quite sure whom she has involved. But, in terms of reaching out to groups in districts around the airport, we are comfortable with how that is playing out. We are comfortable with bringing in different clergy groups and school districts surrounding the airport, and we have helped to bring them to the table. We have also been active in talking to other stakeholders in the 8th, 9th and 10th districts.

And for you, what is the bottom line? What needs to be accomplished?

Everybody who flies would tell you that we need a first class airport and the one we have right now is very antiquated. I have heard many complaints about people flying into Los Angeles and how difficult it is to maneuver around LAX. We need to create a first class airport if we are going to attract businesses from across the seas and from other parts to bolster manufacturing but also tourism in Los Angeles.

One of the yellow lights of the plan was Manchester Square. You've been on the Airport Commission, you've been invested in this process. What's your take on Manchester Square's need and viability?

The whole question with Manchester Square has to deal with what safeguards are installed for the security systems at and around LAX. Of course, the plan that was originally introduced had parking for people at Manchester Square and a new transit system to take them into the airport terminals.

There were practical reasons to putting a yellow light on it. Given the fact that the airport was not going to acquire that property in total for at least seven more years, it doesn't make sense to hold up the whole master plan based on the Manchester Square area. The yellow light approach also provides the opportunity for people to talk about other alternatives. I don't think we're wedded to Manchester Square. We can look at other alternatives and adopt a fallback position.

Supervisor Knabe has been a proponent for a regional governing structure to manage the airport network in Southern California. As a LA World Airports Commissioner, what is your thought on the need or value of such a regional authority?

Well, being bigger doesn't necessarily make you any better. Just look at the LA County Board of Supervisors, for example. So, I wouldn't put much credence into any suggestion by the board to do that, because they have shown a broader system like that doesn't work.

We do have a system that works in the city of Los Angeles and we're prepared to go forward with it. Should we talk about coordinating our efforts to make sure that transportation is spread out throughout the region? Absolutely. I'm not necessarily sure that one entity would be enough.

Miguel, a lot of the folks who were opposed to Alternative D but who are thinking about supporting the consensus plan worry that with Councilwoman Miscikowski being termed out, there are no guarantees that their interests will be represented. How do you speak to those people and keep them in the fold?


By educating them and getting them involved in the process, we can keep them in the fold. We also need to help educate the other councilmembers. Miscikowski has proven successful in scaling down this plan, making sure it works, and putting in the safeguards. Even all of the yellow light projects have to get approval and go through the whole approval process. So nothing with a yellow light is going to be automatically given a green light to begin project construction.

What are the political obstacles, in your opinion, to getting a vote out of the Council to endorse the plan?

I'm confident that we are going to get the vote that we need out of the Council. I don't see too many obstacles in place. There might be some political obstacles, those who want to use this for political grandstanding or future political ambitions. But, I think those are relatively small.

And, when can we expect to see a new President of the Airport Commission elected? Will it happen before or after the election of our next mayor?

The next meeting has been cancelled. But, I believe that the selection of a new President will be on the agenda for the first meeting in September.

Are you a candidate for the position?

No, I'm not a candidate. I believe I have enough work to do. However, if I was drafted, I'd give it consideration. But, nobody is talking about drafting me.

Because there is such poor coverage of labor issues in our regional media, can you give our readers a thumbnail sketch of the composition of the Federation of Labor?

We are the union of unions of Los Angeles. We're the AFL-CIO jurisdiction in Los Angeles, which is 340 unions whose offices are here in LA county. Our union membership of AFL-CIO unions is 810,000. The breadth of industries in which our members work ranges from construction to manufacturing to tourism to government and entertainment. We have a whole spectrum of workers here in LA. We at the Federation coordinate the political and policy efforts and assist each other in collective bargaining agreements and in organizing.

COPE, is our Committee on Political Education. It is composed of 100 members who sit on the COPE Board, who interview for various elected offices, including Assembly, State Senate, Municipal candidates, Judges, County candidates and initiatives and propositions on local ballots.

We couldn't end this conversation about you and the Federation without asking you to comment on the electoral politics of the Mayor's campaign, because that will affect who is on the Airport Commission in the future. How is the conversation evolving in the Labor community?

We have quite a number of friends running. All of the candidates who have announced they are running for mayor have had the Union's endorsement in past elections, whether it be Assembly Speaker Hertzberg, Councilman Villaraigosa, Senator Alarcan or Councilman Parks. They have all received our endorsements in the past. So, we have a lot of friends that we'll have to pick and choose from. We also have an incumbent mayor with a three-year record of working with organized labor.

We are going to go through a process to select a candidate to endorse. We have a hundred members that make up our political board and we are going to conduct interviews and go through a real process. We have some choices to make. But at the end, our choices are going to be between "good" and "better" in terms of the candidates who are currently running.


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