Organized Labor Flexes Power in East Bay Assembly Race

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Demonstrators in Oakland during the 2019 teachers strike. Teachers unions have spent heavily in an East Bay special election for state Assembly.  (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Powerful California labor groups are flexing their political muscle in the campaign for an open state Assembly seat in the East Bay, spreading endorsements among the leading candidates ahead of a June 29 special election.

Instead of the familiar split between Democrats allying with either labor or business, leading candidates in the 18th Assembly District have all vowed to be strong allies of unions if elected to the state Legislature. And labor groups have returned the favor: aiding candidates in their door-to-door campaigning and outpacing all other spenders in the race.

"It's definitely one of the most liberal districts in the state ... so I don't really feel like there's a place for a business Democrat in that district," said Andrew Acosta, a Democratic political consultant. "And it looks like the way the field has rolled out, there probably isn't any place where business would say, 'Yeah we have a candidate here.' "

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This dynamic means that whoever wins the special election (or the Aug. 31 runoff if no candidate receives a majority) will likely be a solid vote for pro-worker policies and progressive tax policy in the Legislature, said Acosta.

The division of union support reflects the different backgrounds and policy positions of the race's leading contenders: Malia Vella, the vice mayor of Alameda, Mia Bonta, the Alameda Unified School District board president and Janani Ramachandran, a social justice attorney.

Other Democrats in the field, like San Leandro Vice Mayor Victor Aguilar and San Leandro school board member James Aguilar, have also touted their connections to labor — reflecting the union ties of voters in a district that includes Oakland, Alameda and San Leandro.

"This district is really unique," said Vella. "We have a lot of working families in Assembly District 18. In fact, this is one of the districts we see tens of thousands of households that have union members in them."

A woman standing and smiling at the camera with her arms crossed.
Malia Vella, city of Alameda vice mayor and candidate for state Assembly in the 18th District. (Courtesy of Malia Vella State Assembly)

Vella has perhaps the most direct ties to organized labor of any candidate in the race. In addition to her role on the Alameda City Council, she also works as a lawyer for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 856. Vella's support for reforms to ease housing construction and her past backing of project labor agreements in Alameda have won her support and big checks from unions representing construction and electrical workers.

"She has been a true champion for us at the city of Alameda, promoting worker-friendly legislation, especially for us at the Building Trades," said Andreas Cluver, secretary-treasurer for the Building Trades Council of Alameda County, at a press conference endorsing Vella in April.

Vella, who also counts support from sheet metal workers, plumbers and other industrial workers, says she doubts the commitment of other candidates to labor's cause. She's taken particular aim at Bonta for accepting tens of thousands of dollars in donations from a business interest: southern California card rooms and their executives, who have been among the largest donors to Bonta's campaign.

"You can say, hey, I'm the organized labor candidate, but if you're getting money from card rooms from Los Angeles, I'd really like to know why," said Vella.

But Bonta has an impressive array of labor support in her own right, and like Vella, credits union membership as a defining force in her family's history.

Service Employees International Union California, an umbrella labor group encompassing more than a dozen locals, has endorsed both Vella and Bonta. And Bonta has the sole backing of unions representing firefighters and grocery workers, as well as the powerful California Teachers Association.

Lisa Gardiner, a spokesperson for CTA, said Bonta's leadership on the school board in getting a parcel tax measure passed in 2020 to increase teacher salaries was key in winning over the local educators involved in the endorsement process.

"Campaigns make very, very, kind of fast friends," Bonta said. "Working on that campaign was definitely a demonstration of us all coming together to lift up our teachers."

A woman is standing and smiling at the camera, her hands are in her jean pockets.
Mia Bonta, Alameda Unified school board president and candidate for state Assembly in the 18th District. (Courtesy of Mia Bonta campaign)

And the CTA's financial commitment to Bonta's candidacy has surpassed any other labor group's involvement in the special election.

In addition to sending the maximum $9,700 donation to Bonta's campaign, the teachers union has pitched in $125,000 to an independent expenditure committee (also known as a super PAC) that has spent $312,077 in support of Bonta —  running print, radio and TV ads with money from the teachers and groups representing school employees, doctors and dentists.

"$300,000 in a low-turnout election is not insignificant," said Acosta.

For comparison, the total combined spending of the other candidates in the race is $258,000.

Unlike campaigns, independent expenditure committees have no limits on the size of donations they accept. And crucially, none of the unions backing Vella have opened up their wallets to match Bonta's presence on the airwaves with a super PAC.

"I would assume that they would have gotten together and done an [independent expenditure committee] for her, but it's a little late now," Acosta added.

Other unions have prioritized campaign platforms over specific past achievements in their decision to weigh in on the race.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, representing workers at the region's ports, was an early backer of Ramachandran. The union has been a vocal opponent of the Oakland Athletics stadium project at Howard Terminal, and Ramachandran is the only leading candidate to oppose the project.

A woman is smiling at the camera.
Janani Ramachandran, social justice attorney and candidate for state Assembly in the 18th District. (Courtesy of Janani Ramachandran campaign)

"They were one of the first major organizations to endorse me and support me in this race because they weren't thinking about the politicking behind this," said Ramachandran. "They weren't scared about endorsing the wrong candidate or the candidate not backed by the Democratic Party establishment."

Melvin Mackay, president of the ILWU's Northern California District Council, said Ramachandran visited Howard Terminal for a tour and left her hosts impressed with her grasp of the issues surrounding the project.

"She had all the answers that we wanted to hear," said Mackay.

Even candidates who don't enjoy any formal union backing in the race have taken the opportunity to voice support for labor's cause.

"As a former union member I am dedicated to empowering unions," tweeted Victor Aguilar, San Leandro's vice mayor. "We must fight for better working conditions and higher wages!"

And James Aguilar, the 21-year-old San Leandro school board member, said his entrance into politics has been shaped by the labor activism of his parents, who participated in strikes as Safeway employees with the United Food and Commercial Workers International union.

"I have this respect and very, very close connection to labor," said James Aguilar. "They've chosen to support other candidates in this race, which is OK, but I'm making sure that I'm still working with them."

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