By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Besides electoral politics, mobilizing community support has been another key piece of L.A. labor’s organizing package. The SEIU, for instance, has been involved in a massive multi-year campaign to organize the hospitals of the Catholic Healthcare West chain, and has organized so much support both in the surrounding neighborhoods and inside the Catholic Church that Cardinal Roger Mahony is now involved in mediating a solution that may well allow the union to organize without employer resistance.
One reason that "organizing by other means" has come as far as it has in L.A. is that the two international unions that do the most organizing here — SEIU, and Hotel & Restaurant — are among the relative handful most heavily committed to long-term strategic organizing. SEIU, for instance, began its drive among home-care workers 12 years ago, and was willing to invest heavily in the effort despite limited prospects of a quick return. HERE has been building support in Santa Monica to remedy the plight of low-wage workers for the past three years. Both unions employ scores of young organizers, who work with community organizations as well as in the worksites.
As is the case nationally, only a relative handful of L.A.’s many unions are actively involved in organizing, however. Outside the public sector, where employer opposition to unionization tends to be muted, organizing remains very difficult. Like the national AFL-CIO, the County Fed has developed its own organizing office, which analyzes organizable sectors, and helps unions develop strategies and amass resources for organizing drives. In the past year, the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) has again begun to organize sectors of L.A.’s vast film and TV industry, and a number of Teamster locals are running separate campaigns. For several years, the Painters District Council has been waging an aggressive organizing campaign, although according to Painters Union leader Grant Mitchell, the vast majority of their recruits are illegally fired as soon as management identifies them. "I’d like to think we’ve increased membership," says Mitchell. "We’ve certainly increased the number of lawsuits we file."
Contreras is confident that SEIU and the Hotel Employees will continue large-scale organizing in L.A. The challenge, in the nation’s largest manufacturing city, is to re-interest the industrial unions that used to represent auto and aerospace workers here, and now have all but disappeared from the local map. "What we can offer to those unions," Contreras says, "is a political climate they can’t find anywhere else, a community base, a coherent media strategy and other organizational assistance. There’s a vibrant, proven movement to work with them, and a work force that has great potential."
Finally, it’s that work force that makes unions peculiarly central to L.A.’s destiny as they are not, or not yet, in America’s other great cities. The immense third wave of immigrants that is transforming the nation’s metropolitan areas has landed with the greatest impact here. It is here that unions have their clearest shot at helping this new proletariat to realize the American dream — and to redefine American progressivism in the process. Add to that a local labor leadership that has shown itself both willing and able to lead that charge, and you get the sense that Harrison Gray Otis’ onetime anti-union bastion may stand on the verge of a vast transformation.
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