Yvonne Wheeler becomes the first black woman to head the LA County Federation of Labor

Veteran labor leader Yvonne Wheeler will assume leadership of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, becoming the first black woman to lead the powerful group in its nearly 140-year history.

Wheeler received broad support across various labor sectors in the “Fed,” as the LA County Federation of Labor is known, and was unanimously elected Monday night. The Fed, representing 800,000 workers in 300 unions, has become one of the most influential players in state and local politics.

Wheeler takes the helm at a turbulent time for the labor organization, which was roiled last month by the leak of an audio recording that revealed racist comments from city leaders.

This led to the resignation of the working group’s then-chair, Ron Herrera, who seemingly undisturbedly participated in a backdoor discussion with then-council chair Nury Martinez (she has since resigned) and council members Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, in which Black and Indigenous became The People mocked as officials debated the city’s decennial redistribution process.

Wheeler will be tasked with repairing the institution’s relationship with black workers and building solidarity with Latino workers, and her background in working with a wide range of public and private sector unions and her history of advocating for more diversity in workers’ groups will help her serve well, Labor leaders and pundits said.

Wheeler has held leadership positions with an organization for black unionists called the A. Philip Randolph Institute, as well as with the Communications Workers of America, the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Government Employees, and the International Alliance of Theater Stage Employees.

In an emailed statement, the Fed Wheelers highlighted roots in the civil rights movement and their experience of marching with black student protesters when schools were failing to integrate successfully.

The Fed didn’t specifically address the turmoil surrounding the leadership change, although it did call Wheeler the perfect candidate and “will bring stability to realign the 800,000-strong labor organization with the diverse communities of Los Angeles.”

Fed members and the communities it represents “rely on us, so we’re going to fight to raise their voices and build their power to make sure they’re never put in that position again,” Wheeler said in an explanation.

Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, called Wheeler a “tested, tried union leader” and said the strength of her victory was “pretty impressive” considering the Fed’s elections are often contested with various unions competing line up behind a candidate Another.

“She was really able to build a very strong consensus. … It’s not easy,” he said. “It bodes well for their ability to bring different parts of the labor movement together.”

Wheeler had thrown her hat in the ring to be president at a previous election, but Herrera, with high visibility and national credentials, prevailed. Herrera was the first chosen to the Fed’s leadership in September 2019 and was re-elected in March.

The heavy turnout by political leaders in Monday’s election, which drew hundreds of people to a union facility in Commerce, could be an indicator that the Federation of Labor has not lost political clout in the face of the leaked audio incident. Wheeler was joined onstage by LA Mayor-elect Karen Bass and Long Beach Mayor-elect Rex Richardson, who made history as the first woman and first black person elected to govern their respective cities .

Under Bass’s leadership, unions expect a more pro-worker agenda at City Hall. The optimistic outlook marks a departure from the somber atmosphere at labor organizations after details of the leaked audio aired, said Kathy Finn, longtime secretary and treasurer and now president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770.

“People felt very betrayed. They feel that this was a very poor reflection of the labor movement as we are all about solidarity,” Finn said. “There has to be some healing and some moving on. … I am confident that we can move beyond what has happened.”

Alex Sanchez, a union organizer at SEIU Local 2015, said he and others are optimistic and have renewed energy about what could become of the Fed under Wheeler. “It feels like the light at the end of the tunnel,” Sanchez said.

Wheeler’s experience with a range of unions is different from Herrera, who built his career at Teamsters Local 396, and will help ease tensions that organizing efforts prioritize.

“What happened at the Labor House is unacceptable,” said Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, chair of the California Labor Federation and former chair of the AFL-CIO Labor Council in San Diego and Imperial counties. “That triggered a crisis of confidence.”

Wheeler’s broad experience as a humble worker and union leader, as well as her work with major union organizations, makes her well-equipped to lead the Fed through the crisis and build support among black and Hispanic workers, Gonzalez Fletcher said.

“She touched all aspects. … Everyone in the labor movement has worked with the woman at some point,” Gonzalez Fletcher said.

Gonzalez Fletcher works closely with the leaders of more than 20 central labor councils across California, with Wheeler joining their ranks. The former California congressman said she plans to nominate Wheeler to her board and expects that appointment to be confirmed in an early December election.

“It’s an exciting time in Los Angeles,” she said. “The first black woman mayor, the first black leader of the Labor Federation. You will have a strong team working on issues for working people.”

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