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Political tensions build in L.A. unions over Obama, Clinton endorsements

January 28, 2008 |  5:44 pm

There are mounting signs that the recent endorsement of Barack Obama by Maria Elena Durazo is causing her some internal troubles at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, an alliance of more than 350 union locals representing more than 800,000 workers.

After the valuable endorsement earlier this month, Durazo, the federation's top staff official, a prominent face of labor and one of the state's best-known Latino officials, was named a national co-chair of the Obama campaign. She said the endorsement decision was a personal one and she's taking vacation time during the campaign to work out of a local Obama office

As The Times Joe Mathews notes, the federation has been neutral in the election, and various unions affiliated with the federation have endorsed other candidates. Durazo has come under criticism throughout her tenure for....

taking positions at odds with those of some federation affiliates. (Most recently, unions within the federation have been on different sides in a dispute over a hospital addition in the San Fernando Valley.)

Durazo's endorsement of Obama seems to have added to the tension. Durazo faced tough criticism during a meeting of the federation's executive board last week, according to two people who were there. Durazo is also an officer of Unite Here, the hotel workers' union that has endorsed Obama.

Some council members questioned whether she should have remained neutral in the race, given that she represents unions that support a variety of candidates. Durazo repeated that her decision to back Obama was a personal one and that she does not represent the federation.

The issue could come up in a couple of hours in Burbank at the federation's Delegates meeting tonight. (The delegates from various unions govern the federation and elect officers, including Durazo.)

The Los Angeles/Orange counties Building and Construction Trades Council has submitted a resolution -- obtained by Mathews -- that would require officers and staff of the federation to "at all times maintain a non-partisan status and neutral position on all issues where it is made known by an Affiliate that Affiliated Unions have differences between them..." Durazo or other officers could endorse only if the executive board and federation delegates vote to authorize her to do so, the proposed resolution says.

A Durazo spokeswoman, Mary Gutierrez, said this afternoon that she did not know of the building trades resolution.

But the back-and-forth is one example of how the close race for the Democratic presidential nomination is dividing California's powerful labor movement internally.

This past weekend the California Teachers Assn. had been preparing to endorse Hillary Clinton during its meeting. But a rank-and-file rebellion, at least assisted by supporters of Obama and John Edwards, successfully blocked the Clinton endorsement until April. The political move will keep that powerful, 335,000-member union neutral in these crucial days leading up to the state's primary on Feb. 5.

-- Andrew Malcolm