By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Do small miracles portend large ones? If 300 low-wage immigrant service workers can defeat USC through a combination of political and community mobilization and their own considerable staying power — for that matter, if 74,000 home-care workers, half of them immigrants, most of them poor, can persuade the legislature and the county supes to let them organize a union — can the million-plus low-wage immigrant workers in L.A. organize themselves through a kindred mobilization? It’s a thesis that L.A. labor generally, and the Fed more particularly, is working assiduously to test.
Can an entire city be a "hot shop"? (That’s organizer parlance for a site where worker discontent is so high that it’s fairly bursting to go union.) Certainly, L.A.’s new-model economy is an open invitation to unionism. During the ’90s, the decimation of aerospace, and the out-migration of middle-income Angelenos, have been matched by the rise of low-wage service and manufacturing jobs, and the continuing immigration of workers from Latin America and Asia. As a result, while the population of L.A. county increased by 8.4 percent from 1990 through 1998, the percentage of county residents living in poverty increased by a staggering 64.5 percent — from 1.31 million to 2.15 million, an increase of 840,000 poor people. "It’s as if we’ve added an entirely poor city, the size of San Francisco or San Jose, to the county," says County Fed research director Goetz Wolff.
Now that new city is beginning to speak. Working with community-based organizations that the more hide-bound, pre–John Sweeney labor movement would not have touched, Contreras and the Fed have funded massive voter registration and turn-out campaigns on a range of labor-related issues. The most significant of these was the campaign against Proposition 226, a June ’98 ballot measure that would have effectively curtailed union political programs. The initiative went down to defeat statewide by a 53-to-47 percent margin, but among Latinos it lost 75-to-25, according to L.A. Times exit polling — a bigger margin than that of any other group, including blacks.
Does this mean that this new city of minimum-wage busboys, nannies, day laborers, furniture makers, security guards and hospital attendants — nestled amid the world capital of conspicuous consumption — is trembling on the brink of upheaval and unionism? Not quite. To begin with, over the past three decades, almost any employer who wishes to block workers from unionizing has been able to exploit the shortcomings in the National Labor Relations Act to do just that — for instance, by firing workers on organizing drives. Secondly, while L.A. is the nation’s largest center of manufacturing, the average size of its factories — and hence, the ability to unionize a large group of workers at once — has shrunk drastically: As Lockheed and Rockwell and GM have shuttered their plants, hundreds of nonunion minifactories have taken their place. Unionization in one small facility is a tenuous venture that can render that facility uncompetitive, which leaves L.A. unions with the unenviable task of organizing whole sectors — food processing, say, or garments, or wheel manufacturing — at one fell swoop.
But L.A. unions are emerging as the leader at what longtime labor consultant Kelly Candaele calls "organizing by other means." Under president John Sweeney, the national AFL-CIO has tried to link all labor’s activities — bargaining, political endorsements, pension-fund investments — to building its organizing capacity. At the local level, though, L.A. is the one terrain where political clout and community organizing have been consistently translated into organizing breakthroughs. Since Contreras took command at the Fed — six months after Sweeney assumed the national presidency — L.A. labor, in his words, "has consistently raised the bar" for legislation across L.A. county — moving from municipal-worker-retention ordinances, to living-wage compacts with a number of cities and with the county, and now to proposed legislation that bars government from doing business with any company that hires a union-busting consultant to thwart organizing drives. (Such a bill passed the state legislature in September, but Governor Davis vetoed it last week.)
In particular, Contreras has transformed the Fed’s political program. No group has funded the registration and mobilization of more newly naturalized citizens than the Fed, which has a fund-raiser scheduled during next week’s convention that should produce another $750,000 for that effort. No other group has helped more winning candidates for office — or demanded more of them once they’ve won. The key upcoming contest for the Fed is the mayor’s race, in the spring of 2001. In an interview last weekend in his office, beneath a Diego Rivera print and a huge photo of his mentor, Cesar Chavez, Contreras said that the Fed has decided to endorse a candidate in both the mayoral primary and the runoff — and that that endorsement will be based on just how helpful the candidates are on all organizing matters over the next 12 months.
Contreras has already gotten more out of the incumbent mayor than just about anyone thought possible. In return for the Fed’s de facto support of his re-election bid in 1997, Richard Riordan appointed Contreras to the Airport Commission, where he’s been able to help service workers win previously unattainable recognition. Riordan also appointed Contreras’ wife, Local 11’s Durazo, to the city Recreation and Parks Commission, where she has been able to start a most unusual bidding war from the concessionaires vying for the city’s Greek Theater contract. Now the Nederlander Corp. and other bidders are falling over themselves to promise a living-wage and a considerable range of benefits for the theater’s janitors and food-stand workers.
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