Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Harold Meyerson and L.A. Labor Massage the Truth

Miguel Contreras, arguably in his time the most powerful labor official in California, died unexpectedly at the age of 52 in 2005. According to a report in LA Weekly, Contreras collapsed in an “alternative medicine” shop in Los Angeles that was raided six months later (in direct response to Contreras’s death) for prostitution. The current tenant, after the “shop” had been cleaned out and converted into an apartment, told the Weekly that “strange men knocked on her door, uninvited, nearly every day.”

Under unusual circumstances such as these, California state law requires a coroner’s inquiry to determine the cause of death. No autopsy was ever performed, however — and it appears that now-disgraced L.A. City Councilman Martin Ludlow (who also succeeded Contreras as executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor) hunted for a doctor who would sign Contreras’s death certificate (two refused) to avoid an autopsy.

When the Weekly broke the story, however, influential leftist pundit (and former Weekly editor) Harold Meyerson grew outraged — not over the fact that a politician would interfere with the coroner’s duties, but over the fact that his old paper covered the story at all. His angry e-mail to the Weekly, as San Diego Union-Tribune blogger Chris Reed put it, “blasted the story as a betrayal by a liberal newspaper ‘that some of us hoped would help remake Los Angeles into a more humane and equitable city.’”

And Meyerson’s planned cover-up of the cover-up worked. As U-T blogger Reed wrote:

All the media heeded [Meyerson] — not just the LA Weekly.

A Nexis search of the few weeks after the story broke shows no substantive follow-up of any kind beyond an L.A. Daily News editorial saying Contreras appeared to only be the latest prominent local to benefit from “celebrity justice.”

Meyerson’s fatwa on honest coverage continues to be successful: In January, University of California regents voted unanimously to name the UC Institute for Labor and Employment — which is the subject of annual budget battles because it amounts to a taxpayer-funded union think tank — after Contreras. And in recent weeks, as new attempts to defund the institute began, Democratic lawmakers vowed to fight even harder to keep funding because the institute now bore Contreras’ name. L.A. Sen. Gloria Romero declared the perennial dispute had become “personal as well as political.”

And in the reporting on these two events, the cover-up of Contreras’ death was not mentioned once.