Los Angeles is best known for the glamor of Hollywood, the beaches of Venice, and, more recently, for hosting Super Bowl LVI in the city’s $5.5 billion SoFi Stadium. But the City of Angels is also home to one of the most militant and well-organized labor movements in the United States, led by the Latino and immigrant communities. Over the last several decades, workers in LA have established themselves as a formidable social force in the city, often drawing on radical traditions from countries in Latin America and elsewhere beyond the nation’s borders.
District Thirteen city council candidate Hugo Soto-Martinez comes from that movement. Soto-Martinez is a lifelong resident of Los Angeles, born and raised in South Central. His story is familiar to many children of working-class immigrants in Los Angeles: his parents immigrated from Mexico and worked in LA as street vendors until his father suffered a debilitating back injury that put him out of work. They faced difficult working conditions and police harassment on the job, struggles that led Soto-Martinez to organize with the Community Power Collective against the criminalization of LA’s immigrant street vendors. In order to make ends meet, Soto-Martinez dropped out of high school and began working at a nonunion hotel.
Around this time, he also experienced his first personal encounter with police brutality. He was accompanying his brother as he placed a call from a phone booth after their home phone service had been cut off. Suddenly, a police officer pinned Soto-Martinez up against the booth.
“He was spewing homophobic and racist slurs as he searched my pockets,” Soto-Martinez says,
and in that moment, I talked back to him. I simply asked what business he had messing with me when I didn’t do anything wrong. So he put his arm around me, squeezed my neck, and reminded me I was in a place where there’s a lot of drug violence, as if to imply I was misbehaving by just being there.
The fifteen-year-old received a ticket for littering that also noted his “resistance” to the officer’s search. Soto-Martinez took his case to court with what he calls a naive understanding that the criminal justice system would affirm his innocence. Instead, the judge upheld the ticket, citing his disapproval of the way Soto-Martinez responded to the officer as a reason in his decision.
Not long after, Soto-Martinez told me, he was caught in an entrapment operation. The police placed trains with cargo on tracks in their neighborhood, and he and a friend stopped by to check it out. They were ambushed, and Soto-Martinez ended up on probation. At a crossroads in his young life — with his older brother incarcerated, his dad still unable to work, and his mom working multiple jobs to make ends meet — Soto-Martinez says he had a moment of clarity. He returned to high school and went on to study at University of California, Irvine, while continuing to work at the hotel.
In May 2006, six weeks before graduation, one of his coworkers approached him about organizing their workplace. Soto-Martinez jumped at the opportunity. Looking back on it, he explains, “I was an angry worker, upset at the injustices my coworkers and I faced day in and day out at the hotel under the thumb of abusive management, disturbed by a palpable power imbalance.”
But the seeds of radical consciousness were planted years earlier. After Soto-Martinez’s dad got hurt, his mom began working as a janitor. She was represented by the Service Employees International Union, and her contract brought his family decent health care coverage for the first time in his life. In college, he read The Communist Manifesto, which made him think differently about the alienation he felt and injustice he perceived at work. He saw the union drive as an opportunity to channel his individual indignation into materially improving the lives of his family and coworkers.
At UC Irvine, Soto-Martinez had decided to become a lawyer. But after meeting with two organizers from UNITE HERE Local 11, he canceled all of his job interviews and sold his LSAT prep books. Three months later, he and his coworkers won a union and a first contract with health care, wage increases, and on-the-job protections.
In that campaign, Soto-Martinez witnessed what he describes as a “huge transformational shift in the consciousness of my coworkers after coming together, building power, and beating a corporation.” Convinced of the labor movement’s potential to win meaningful change in his community, Soto-Martinez says he decided to dedicate the rest of his life to fighting for workers’ rights. Not long after, he was hired by Local 11. He organized hotel workers and housekeepers with the union for the next fifteen years.
Soto-Martinez sees the transition from union organizer to city council candidate as a natural way to continue building worker power. He views them as intertwined: shop-floor militancy can put pressure on elected officials to pass friendlier organizing laws, and friendlier organizing laws can create room for more shop-floor militancy.
“A big part of my campaign’s aim is to marry the labor movement, which has been working overtime in Los Angeles since the late ’80s, with the growing socialist movement that was born from the first Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.” Soto-Martinez is a member of, and is endorsed by, the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Mitch O’Farrell, the incumbent councilman in Soto-Martinez’s district, has been a reliable friend to real estate developers and other corporate interests during his almost twenty years in government. O’Farrell got his start as a staffer for the current mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, back when Garcetti represented the district. In 2013, O’Farrell introduced an ordinance that would ban giving homeless people food outside of institutional settings. In mid-March of last year, he oversaw the violent removal of more than one hundred people living in a homeless encampment in his district.
The sweeps at Echo Park were the culmination of a yearslong “beautification” project attempting to make District Thirteen more appealing to the developers who fund O’Farrell’s campaigns.
Soto-Martinez seeks to distinguish himself from O’Farrell in ways large and small, from his stance on homelessness to the way he runs his campaign. The campaign is led by a committee of staff as opposed to a campaign manager, an idea inspired by when he first joined his union and was active on its bargaining committee.
“While it was extraordinarily difficult, it developed my ability to lead by learning how to reach consensus with a group,” he told Jacobin. “Not only are we campaigning like this, but we’re also going to govern this way. When I joined the union and was a worker, the process of negotiating a union contract was the most democratic system that I had ever worked with.”
Soto-Martinez says his campaign’s aim goes beyond just winning; he’s seeking to make the recent socialist resurgence permanent by connecting it to the labor movement and community organizations. Ultimately, he says, the goal is “to create a new society: a world with good union jobs, universal health care, and affordable housing.”