Uncivil unions

What the fight over Larry Mazzola says about the progressive and labor movements and their uneasy relationship
Larry Mazzola


Who really cares about an appointment to the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District Board of Directors? There isn't a delicate balance of power on the board or any major initiative at stake in this fairly obscure district. San Francisco certainly has more pressing issues and concerns.

Yet the Board of Supervisors' April 14 vote to reject Larry Mazzola Jr. and select Dave Snyder for that board says more about San Francisco's political dynamics, the state of the American labor movement, the psychological impact of the recession, how the city will grow, and the possibilities and pitfalls facing the board's new progressive majority than any in recent memory.

It was a vote that meant nothing and everything at the same time, a complex and telling story of brinksmanship in which both sides of the progressive movement arguably lost. And it was a vote that came at a time when they need each other more than ever.

"It was a win for the Newsom-oriented elements of labor," Sup. Chris Daly, who helped spark the conflict, told the Guardian.

The bloc of six progressive supervisors who shot down Mazzola — who helps run the powerful plumbers union and was the San Francisco Labor Council's unwavering choice for an appointment that has traditionally been labor's seat on the bridge board — is the same bloc the unions helped elected last year. It is also the same bloc that has been fighting the hardest to minimize budget-related layoffs.

The vote says a tremendous amount about the crucial alliance between progressives and labor, how that delicate partnership formed, and what the future holds.


The Mazzola name carries a lot of weight in San Francisco labor circles. The Web site for the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry Local 38 (UA 38) features a photo of U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis standing between Larry Mazzola Sr. and Larry Mazzola Jr., the father and son team that runs the union.

But the Mazzolas and their union are also controversial. As the Guardian has reported ("Plumbers gone wild," 2/1/06), the union owns a large share of the Konocti Harbor Resort (which a lawsuit by the Department of Labor said was a misuse of the union's pension funds) and owns the Civic Center Hotel, which tenants and city officials say has been willfully neglected by a union suspected of wanting to bulldoze and develop the site. The plumbers and other members of the building trades have also fought with progressives over development issues and generally back moderate-to-conservative candidates.

Sup. Chris Daly and several progressive groups locked horns with the union over the hotel a few years ago, and Mazzola Sr. responded by opposing Daly's 2006 reelection campaign, targeting him with nasty mailers and donating office space to Daly's opponent, Rob Black. Yet more progressive unions like Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents city employees, convinced the Labor Council to back Daly and union support helped Daly win.

So when Mazzola Jr. came before Daly's Rules Committee last month, the supervisor unloaded on him, and Mazzola gave as good as he got, telling Daly he didn't want his support and defiantly telling the committee he didn't know much about the bridge district, or its issues, but he expected the job anyway. Those on all sides of the issue agree it was a disaster.

"He was just patently unqualified for the position," Daly told the Guardian. Mazzola tells us his experience with labor contracts would be an asset for the position, but he admits the committee meeting didn't go well. "I was caught off-guard and put in a defensive mode that altered my planned presentation," Mazzola told us.

Whatever the case, Sup.