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The New Unionism Finds a Home 

Once the nation’s most anti-union big city, L.A. has now become America’s most dynamic labor town

Wednesday, Oct 6 1999
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

This Saturday morning, Mayor Richard Riordan and other civic pooh-bahs will repair to the Harbor Freeway downtown to unveil a new name for one of the most hallowed of all L.A. institutions — a freeway off-ramp. Henceforth, the Ninth Street exit off the 110 will be the James Wood Boulevard exit — named not for a pop idol or a elected official, but a labor leader. The renaming, timed to coincide with the opening of the national AFL-CIO convention here in L.A., is a tribute to Wood, an energetic and talented leader whose tenure at the helm of the L.A. County Federation of Labor was cut brutally short by his death in 1996. But it is also a tribute to the city’s labor movement, which in the past few years has become clearly the most dynamic and strategically savvy in the nation, and which is transforming Los Angeles in the process.

Los Angeles, you should understand, was never anybody’s idea of a union town. Its very raison d’etre in the early years of the century, according to L.A. Times founding publisher Harrison Gray Otis and his allies in the civic establishment, was as a bastion of the open shop, the non-union alternative to San Francisco, a boomtown devoted to low wages and "true industrial freedom" (a phrase that appeared over every Times editorial until the early ’60s). Today, the rate of unionization in L.A. County is 18.6 percent — more than the national average, but considerably lower than the corresponding rates in New York, Detroit or San Francisco.

And yet, more than any of its municipal counterparts elsewhere in the nation, labor in L.A. is winning an unprecedented and important string of victories. In the first nine months of this year alone, its ranks have been swelled by a stunning 90,000 new members — the bulk of them the 74,000 home-care workers organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), but also including the physicians at County-USC Hospital, casino staffers at local card clubs, and non-studio workers in the burgeoning film industry.

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The Staples Arena, slated to open later this month, will be roughly 85 percent unionized, and even its legendarily low-wage McDonald’s facilities will pay their workers a living wage and offer them health benefits.

Over at the airport, concessionaire chains that are non-union everywhere else in the nation — W.H. Smith and Duty Free Shops — have agreed not to oppose workers’ efforts to unionize.

And in Santa Monica, the City Council is considering a proposed ordinance to extend the living wage to employees not just of city contractors, but in all major facilities in the city’s beachfront area, its $400-per-night hotels in particular. The council is also poised to create a Workers’ Rights Board — kind of a municipal National Labor Relations Board, the first such in the nation.

Perhaps the clearest signal that L.A. has fundamentally changed, though, came last month when the L.A. City Council voted unanimously to extend the city’s worker-retention ordinance, which had protected the jobs of workers on city-contract work when a new contractor takes over, to include workers for the largest recipients of the city’s economic-development grants. The amendment — devised by Madeline Janis-Aparicio, director of the city’s Living Wage Coalition, and Maria Elena Durazo, president of Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees (HERE) — was intended to resolve a four-year impasse between Local 11’s USC food-service workers and the university, which had refused to guarantee the workers’ job security if it changed its food subcontractors.

In the Los Angeles of yore, the notion that 300 low-wage servers, entirely nonwhite, mostly female, could prevail over USC — the most venerable of L.A.’s universities, the onetime bastion of the old Protestant, Republican establishment, who sent their children there for decade after decade — would have been viewed as sheerest nonsense. Though there’s a union-friendly majority on the City Council, it has its share of Republicans, and its president, John Ferraro, is a onetime All-American USC tackle who’s been to every USC home game for half a century. Surely, someone would rid Troy of this meddlesome ordinance.

But no one did. Two weeks ago, the measure passed on a 12-0 vote, with Ferraro and Republican Hal Bernson among its foremost champions. Clearly, the ordinance was a top priority for the County Federation of Labor, which, since Miguel Contreras succeeded Wood in ’96, had become the powerhouse of local politics — winning 13 of 14 local races during that time through an unprecedented mobilization of members and money. Moreover, the council had grown comfortable with Janis-Aparicio’s legislative legerdemain (she had authored the city’s earlier living-wage ordinance); in this instance, she was proposing to resolve an otherwise intractable problem with a simple dependent clause. Finally, the cause of the USC food-service workers had been dramatized by one of Local 11’s signature campaigns — in this instance, involving an ongoing fast that rotated among a large number of civic and religious leaders (including five council members), and multiple visits to all the council members from the food-service employees. "Our best resource," says Fed leader Contreras, "was the workers themselves and the justice of their cause."

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