Labor activist remembered

Elinor Glenn, a prolific union organizer, was not afraid of making bold changes, whether it was in her pursuit of women’s equality in the workplace or Passover dinners. 

“We used to be at a Passover seder, and someone would read, ‘And then God did this, and then He did this and that.’ And Ellie would read, “And then God did this, and then She did this and that,” said Richmond Shepard speaking at a memorial service for his late aunt on Aug. 18 in a large auditorium at Professional Musicians Local 47 in Hollywood.

Glenn died peacefully in her sleep on April 24 at the age of 98, according to her family. She helped found the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) in 1974, and served as its West Coast vice president from 1974 to 1975. In a video interview shown at her memorial, which was attended by about 150 people, Glenn said that her family lived by the values of tzedakah, or righteousness. 

“I was surrounded by a morality which said … that you join organizations and you help other people.” 

Glenn was born in 1915 in Brooklyn. Her parents were progressives who supported the union movement, according to an obituary and tribute from CLUW. She moved to Hollywood in 1944, pursuing acting by night while working a day job in the Office of Price Administration, which controlled money and rent after World War II. She would be fired from the office three times for her organizing activities.

Glenn decided to change the focus of her life when she witnessed a stage actor portraying a scab, or strikebreaker, thrown out of the hall by steel workers in the audience, despite protests from the acting troupe. 

“We don’t care who he is, he’s a goddamn scab and he ain’t sitting in here!” Glenn, speaking in the memorial video, remembered the workers responding. “My real passion … was on the other side, where the steel workers were sitting. And at that moment I wanted to become a union organizer and intended to become a union organizer.”

She initially volunteered with the National Federation of Federal Employees Local. Finding paid positions and promotions within the labor movement was difficult because of her gender; many people did not believe she had the power to stand up to industry bosses or inspire workers to follow her. After probationary periods to prove her capabilities, she attained a number of titles — steward, chief steward and ultimately president, when a merger changed her union to the United Public Workers, Local 246.

Glenn spent much of her career working with Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents health care workers; property services workers, such as janitors; and public employees, such as local and state government workers. Eventually she became the first female general manager of an SEIU local. 

With SEIU Local 434 in Los Angeles, Glenn led the first strike of county workers to protect wages and seniority rights, according to the SEIU. And the video played at her memorial indicated that she succeeded in achieving three wage increases and a collective bargaining law for hospital workers. Glenn increased Local 434’s membership tenfold to 7,000 members. Local 434 now represents 180,000 long-term care workers as SEIU United Long Term Care Workers.

Family, friends and colleagues of Elinor Glenn gather in the lobby of the Professional Musicians Local 47 to celebrate the life of the late union leader. Photo by Lisa Weingarten

Glenn also worked extensively with the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC). In 1998, she received an advocacy award from the organization, and it established an award in her honor in 2011, the Elinor Glenn Leadership Award.

Los Angeles City Councilman Gilbert Cedillo said at the memorial that Glenn and those she worked with deserve plenty of credit.

“[Elinor] … and this generation of people fighting to create the same rights to organize as a private sector … they were the first contracts … no precedent, nothing to look back at, nobody to ask,” he said.  

Glenn profoundly touched a number of people, both personally and professionally, according to those who spoke. 

Mary Kay Henry, the current international president of SEIU — and its first female leader — said in a video tribute to Glenn that the latter called her shortly after she first started working for SEIU to say, “You don’t know me, but you have to promise me that you will never quit this job unless you call me. I have fought too hard to get women in these positions, and so you’re going to stick it out no matter what. And I [will] help you succeed.”

Elizabeth Stanley got to know Glenn while setting up job training programs for SEIU. Shortly after her hiring, Glenn took Stanley aside and told her that she had great ideas, but that she was letting men restate and take credit for them. 

“You end your sentences with a question,” Stanley remembered Glenn telling her. “End them with a period, so it sounds like you are sure about what you’re saying.” 

Glenn encouraged Stanley to think of herself as her own lawyer, or her own union representative.

“You’re so good at representing other people, but you’re not so good at representing yourself,” Stanley said Glenn told her. 

And when Stanley was an expectant mother, Glenn helped Stanley not feel intimidated by union bosses with whom she had to deal. 

“Back in 1982, being unwed and pregnant isn’t great. It wasn’t horrible, but it isn’t great,” Stanley said. “Elinor was just really incredibly helpful in both helping me fulfill my potential and … helping me navigate what was a very challenging and difficult situation.” 

Brianna Shepard, Glenn’s great-niece, considered Glenn a grandmother. She described Glenn as a rare woman who could be very feminine, then walk into a boardroom and “curse like a sailor and get stuff done.” 

According to Brianna Shepard, Glenn lived her values in her personal as well as her public life. She and her husband, Hack Glenn — married five weeks after their first date — maintained a deep love and respect for one another, sharing in the cooking duties and in raising their son, Brianna Shepard said. 

In the memorial video, Glenn’s son, the late Norman Gleichman, said Hack Glenn would nominate his wife for the “Women of the Year” feature in the Los Angeles Times every year. And Brianna Shepard said Elinor Glenn told her that, at 80, her heart still went “pitter patter” when she heard the keys in the lock, signaling her husband’s return home. 

As the showing at her memorial makes clear, Glenn’s legacy will live on through the scores of people she mentored and influenced. As Brianna Shepard said, “She gave you the confidence to do what you felt was right, and to fight for yourself.”

Wendy Greuel: Aiming at ever-higher offices

This is one in a series of profiles of the five leading Los Angeles mayoral candidates running in the March 5 election.

Looking back on her three decades of work in and around Los Angeles’ public sector, it would be easy to conclude that Wendy Greuel has been preparing to run for mayor for a long time. 

In public appearances, L.A.’s City Controller traces her political awakening to when she met Mayor Tom Bradley while she was still in high school. Her jobs since then — working as Bradley’s liaison on public policy issues, serving as field operations officer for Southern California with the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), even her position as a government affairs executive at the film studio DreamWorks — all have focused on crafting and/or impacting public policy. 

But when, for the first time, Greuel officially announced her intent to run for City Council in a 2002 special election, some of her colleagues and friends were surprised. 

“She never wore that kind of ambition on her sleeve,” said Donna Bojarsky, a veteran political leader who worked for Bradley at the same time as Greuel.

Greuel’s ambition to take on ever-higher offices, and her potential electability, are in full view these days. Armed with $3.6 million in campaign contributions and a bevy of endorsements and organizational support — and buttressed by an independent, union-backed political-action committee — Greuel is today one of the two front runners in the L.A. mayoral race, with decent odds of being elected the first woman to hold the job in the city’s history.

“I don’t want to just be the mayor; I want to do the job of mayor,” Greuel said, sitting in the lobby of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, nursing a half-finished cup of black coffee.

Greuel uses this same line at debates and campaign appearances, and it’s meant to remind voters of her work ethic.

As a city councilmember, Greuel was dubbed the “Pothole Queen” for her attention to repairing streets. Working for HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, Greuel oversaw the agency’s operations to help find temporary housing for people left homeless by the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. And, together with Bradley, Greuel helped found the LA’s BEST after-school program. The program started in 1988 with 10 schools; the program now includes 189 schools in the city of Los Angeles. 

“There really isn’t a job that she’s done where she hasn’t performed well,” Bojarsky said. “Her competence is what will inspire confidence.”

Even as she has served in public office, Greuel has also become a wife and mother. She and her husband, filmmaker Dean Schramm, have a 9-year-old son; although Greuel is not Jewish, she and her family are members of Temple Israel of Hollywood.

In the run-up to Election Day on March 5, Greuel and all the candidates have been debating one another at venues throughout the city, virtually on a daily basis. And in recent weeks, she has faced increasingly intense questioning from her opponents. Kevin James, a Republican staking his bid on winning over the San Fernando Valley voters whom Greuel represented in the City Council, has been gunning for the controller from the start. Recently, City Councilwoman Jan Perry’s campaign sent out a mailer tying Greuel to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. And on Jan. 31, City Councilman Eric Garcetti called into question the math behind Greuel’s claim that she has uncovered $160 million in wasteful and fraudulent spending through her audits of city government expenditures. 

“The $160 million is real, and it’s the tip of the iceberg,” Greuel told the Journal. “It’s a conservative estimate.”

Others, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, have reacted with skepticism to Greuel’s proposal to grow the police and firefighting forces by 2,000 by the year 2020. 

Hiring those additional workers could cost more than $200 million a year, the Los Angeles Daily News reported on Feb. 6, suggesting that in the absence of new revenue or cuts, such an expense would double the city’s projected annual deficit.

“This is a goal,” Greuel said. “If you don’t try and reach a goal, you will never get there. And for me, public safety is No. 1.”

Speaking on the campaign trail, Greuel has been cautious — her supporters call it savvy — in what policy positions she’s willing to stake out, often offering up generalities or declaring that more research is needed.

During a televised debate in late January, Greuel refused to give a yes or no answer to moderator Conan Nolan of KNBC when he asked whether Los Angeles International Airport should be allowed to move one of its runways, a plan opposed by some of the airport’s neighbors. At a debate at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills a few weeks earlier, Greuel gave a similarly noncommittal answer when asked which route the Purple Line subway — planned to run through Century City and Beverly Hills — should take.

Greuel is not the only candidate hedging answers in this race, of course. According to the Los Angeles Times, Greuel and Garcetti have made strong commitments in closed-door meetings to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents a large chunk of the civilian employees at City Hall. At the same time, both these candidates have publicly promised to reform the pensions of city workers as a centerpiece of their stump speeches, a move that likely would mean a reduction in benefits for the city’s unionized workers.

Greuel denied altering her message to fit the audience. 

“There are no closed-door endorsements [or] meetings when you’re running for mayor of Los Angeles,” she said.

“I said the same thing to the Chamber [of Commerce] that I said to the SEIU,” she said. 

Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association (VICA), said that in the speeches reportedly given at SEIU, both candidates appeared to be “pandering,” but Waldman said he is supporting Greuel anyway, at least in part because he feels that she’ll ensure the Valley gets fair representation in the mayor’s office. 

VICA’s political action committee also endorsed Greuel, as has the editorial board of the Valley-centric Los Angeles Daily News.

“This is a feeling among Valley voters, that when it comes down to it, she [Greuel] will take care of the Valley,” Waldman said. 

The Valley could take care of Greuel, too: Voters there make up 38 percent of the city’s population and have cast as much as 43 percent of the ballots in previous citywide elections. Although no candidate is likely to win an outright majority of the vote on March 5, a strong showing in the Valley could be enough to advance Greuel into a runoff in May — and one step closer to being the first mayor from the Valley since Sam Yorty.

But it’s highly unlikely that Greuel would ever pledge to look out only for narrow Valley interests. One promise Greuel has repeatedly made over the course of her campaign is that she’ll be “a mayor for all of L.A.”