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Remembering David Koff




David Koff, 1939-2014

I started working at UNITE HERE Local 11 back in 1997. I’ve stayed a part of the labor movement for nearly two decades in no small part because of David Koff, then a researcher with the union, who died last week at age 74.

David was an intellectual and an activist of a kind that’s all too rare these days. He was funny and incredibly smart, and spent the first 30 years of his adult life supporting and making movies about radical international causes.

He took work seriously and was passionate about it, talked too much and made fun of himself. He called our strategy group the Popular Front Organizing Committee and was only half joking. He vowed not to cut his hair till he won a campaign and didn’t. He did construction with a friend of his, doing great work and somehow always alienating everyone by showing up late or not at all. He looked like a dope-smoking hippie, but had the muscle tone of a steroid-using bodybuilder.

In the years I knew him, he was obsessed with the Kajima Corp., then the owner of the New Otani Hotel, and ran a masterful corporate campaign against Kajima’s Belmont Learning Center project, some of it detailed in a 2001 Los Angeles Times Magazine article titled “The Bolshevik Who Beat Belmont.”

He did beat Belmont, in part because nobody could ever tell David to stop, and he fought long past the point Kajima was ever involved. Everyone who touched that project lost their job and it was all because of what he did—exposing their folly.

David’s work led Local 11 to back Gil Cedillo in an Assembly race against Vickie Castro. The paper of record (and everyone else) made Castro, a school board member, the favorite, and she had the endorsement of Gloria Molina, then a very powerful voice. The County Federation of Labor and Local 11 backed Gil big and he won by 20 points. The reason? Castro was a big supporter of Belmont and Kajima.

That election night the victory party was held at La Golondrina and it was a party. I’d been at Local 11 two months and had worked my tail off. My political experience included losing Prop. 187 and 209, or quixotic neighborhood battles. I didn’t know our side could win and reveled in the moment. The Lieutenant Governor bummed a cigarette from me and I felt his need to impress us.

David Koff had spent 30 years on fairly quixotic battles of his own, but his determination matched perfectly with Local 11’s and helped inspire the leg muscles of lowly precinct walkers like me, as well as the strategic muscles of wiser heads like Miguel Contreras.

David did a lot of great things in his life, but I know he made Local 11 a better and stronger union, and he made our part of the world a more fun place to be. I’ll miss him.

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