In a weird way, Jennifer Muir, assistant general manager of the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA), the county's largest labor union, owes her career to an organization that views organized labor as anathema. After graduating in 2002 from Pepperdine University, where she majored in journalism and Spanish, Muir won a paid internship courtesy of the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), which was funded by the libertarian Cato Institute.
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IHS sent her to the Brownsville Herald in Brownsville, Texas, thus launching her career. "It's funny," she says. "I'm not libertarian at all. It was interesting to study the principles they taught, but I don't know what they would think about their investment now that I am a labor leader."
In any case, that internship put Muir on stories ranging from a prison inmate who escaped using a plastic spoon to local safe houses where illegal immigrants from Mexico stayed before several of them perished in the back of an overheated truck. "The border was an incredible place," Muir recalls. "I wrote feature stories about folk healers that people would come to from all over the country," she continues. "From time to time, there would be witchcraft connotations to the typical crime stories, [like] a couple who killed their children and themselves because they thought they were possessed."
The Herald was owned by Freedom Communications, the parent company of the Orange County Register (it was sold off in 2012 after Freedom declared bankruptcy). That connection led Muir, who grew up in Garden Grove and wanted to be closer to her family, to apply for and win a job at the Register, where she made a name covering anything and everything: Huntington Beach, Rancho Santa Margarita, South County, education and health care before specializing in computer-assisted reporting and data analysis. That won her a spot on the Reg's elite investigations team, covering county government and legal issues. "I got to really learn about all aspects of the county, how it works, how the social safety nets work," says Muir.
In another era, Muir would still be at the Reg, rooting out government corruption or exploring the county's economic underbelly. "I got into journalism because I wanted to do something noble," she says, "to give a voice to people who weren't powerful or rich and otherwise didn't have a voice."
But when the decline of print journalism caught up with the Register, Muir realized she wasn't going to be able to write the kinds of stories that attracted her to the position in the first place. So when OCEA general manager Nick Berardino offered her a communications job, Muir quickly accepted–and walked straight into the biggest showdown between government and labor in recent Orange County history.
In March 2011, Costa Mesa mayor Jim Righeimer sent pink slips to more than 200 city employees, seeking to privatize their jobs and bust the union. OCEA went to court and won an injunction blocking the move, a feat the Weekly named the Best Political Coup of that year. OCEA also managed to successfully fight a pay cut for janitors who clean the county's courthouses by having its members' children speak before courthouse executives; for more than an hour, kids regaled the all-Republican group about how their penny-pinching would affect their parents' ability to pay for clothes and food, much less a college savings fund.
"It became really clear to me that the labor movement is such a powerful tool for change and provides a voice for people who don't have one," Muir says. "Every challenge that we face is worth it."