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Photo by Jeanne RiceFor the first time in California history, a Latina will head a county labor council. And the odd thing is it's happening here. On March 25, Linda Sanchez, a 31-year-old labor attorney and the younger sister of U.S. Representative Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), becomes the Orange County Central Labor Council's secretary/treasurer—the top union position in the county.
"There is a change going on in labor unions, including here in Orange County," Sanchez said. She was referring to labor's growing interest in organizing new members—especially minority workers, who now make up just more than half of OC's labor movement. "Concerted organizing efforts are long overdue here. There's a tremendous amount of positive change that can happen."
Sanchez replaces Bill Fogarty, who stepped aside to head the United Labor Agency, an OC-based nonprofit that funds child care and affordable-housing programs for union members. He saw the writing on the union-hall wall.
"Folks wanted a change in the council," he said. "In June of last year, I decided that I'd had enough."
Fogarty garnered support for labor among local politicians, almost all of whom—from members of Congress to city council members and school board trustees—are Republicans. He skillfully steered the Central Labor Council (CLC) through political terrain that is still openly hostile to labor, gaining influence in some instances by purposely keeping his distance from otherwise natural allies in the county Democratic Party.
Using this strategy, Fogarty racked up a string of modest victories for Orange County's labor movement. The crowning achievement came in January when county supervisors approved an agreement with the Orange County Building Trades Council that promises 80 percent of all construction work on county projects to union workers. The Santa Ana Unified School District reached a similar agreement with labor on March 12.
Sanchez's rise to prominence as a labor leader—not to mention her close relationship to her congresswoman sister—seems to signify a new era for the OC labor movement. It's a natural move. In 1996, the CLC threw the support of tens of thousands of union members behind a little-known Loretta Sanchez in the hotly contested congressional race against entrenched incumbent Robert Dornan (R-Garden Grove).
Labor's decision to support Sanchez paid off when she narrowly defeated Dornan. The congresswoman now bills herself as an ally to Orange County labor, and there's no reason to assume that relationship won't grow tighter with her sister at the helm of CLC. But some labor leaders worry what the new shift in leadership—one with a distinctly Democratic name to it—will actually deliver.
"Orange County has never been in lock step with the Democratic Party," said Brent Beasley, a business manager with Local 220 of the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers in Orange and one of 22 vice presidents on the CLC executive board. "We've kept a certain separation from them, and we've tried to reach out to moderate Republicans who will make sure workers' voices are heard in Sacramento and Washington."
"A lot of people are counting on Linda's last name to help them," Fogarty said. "But her sister doesn't have a 100 percent voting record on labor issues."
He pointed out that the congresswoman is a close ally of Vice President Al Gore, who has made it a major goal this year to renew Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status for China—a policy bitterly opposed by the AFL-CIO. This raises the question of whether labor will call on Linda Sanchez to pressure Loretta Sanchez for a "no" vote on MFN. "I'd love to be a fly on the wall when that conversation takes place," said Fogarty.
The inevitability of such a conversation hasn't escaped Sanchez. "It doesn't frighten me," she said. "Loretta and I have similar feelings on some things, but we don't agree on everything. My job for the CLC is to promote the labor council's position on some of the larger issues, and I will not compromise that."
Neither is she worried about the possibility that some union members may view her simply as a spinoff of her older sister. "It's a mixed bag," she explained. "On one hand, it can be a very positive thing because some people really respond to Loretta and see her as a positive leader." By the same token, "some people will think I am where I am because of her influence and her work, and that is absolutely not true. I think the results I achieve will speak for themselves and will put that belief to rest."
Despite Sanchez's enthusiasm, she has relatively little experience in the labor movement. After getting her law degree from UCLA in 1995, she joined the Newport Beach offices of Federico Sayre, where her duties included filing claims and lawsuits on behalf of migrant farm workers. She spent the past 16 months as an attorney for the Local 441 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Orange.
"Bill's done a good job over the years in a Republican-dominated county," Beasley said of Fogarty. "It's not an easy job, and it's not going to be any easier for Linda. I hope Linda does a good job, but she has some big shoes to fill."