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The Workers Walk 

And belatedly, county officials realize they probably should try to negotiate a settlement

Wednesday, Oct 11 2000
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For Los Angeles, it‘s 1946 all over again.

In the 18 months following the conclusion of World War II, America experienced a massive wave of strikes, much larger than anything it’s experienced since. Auto workers and longshoremen, elevator operators and truckers, everybody walked.

America had known only one comparable outbreak of labor unrest in its history -- 1919, the year following the conclusion of World War I. The concentration of strikes in these two years following the two world wars is not coincidental. Wages were frozen during the wars, and at wars‘ end, workers demanded that their unions make up lost ground.

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So it is in Los Angeles today. During the first half of the ’90s, with the local economy on life support, the wages of county workers were frozen. Three years ago, with the economy bouncing back, the county employee unions demanded and received a raise that brought them part of the way back. Today, with the economy roaring on all cylinders, the main county-worker union, Local 660 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), is demanding that worker pay be raised to the same level, in today‘s dollars, that it was in 1990. That would require the county to give 660’s 47,000 members, on average, an annual increase of just over 5 percent. In a word, it‘s catch-up time.

The county supes and county Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen have thus far refused the union’s demand on three grounds. First, they argue, even though the county is running a surplus, it can ill afford to raise pay by more than 3 percent, since the county health system will run into the red in several years unless the feds bail it out again. Second, the government that‘s sporting a real surplus is the state’s: If the workers want a raise, why not picket Gray Davis, who‘s sitting on a $14 billion surplus? (The union did demand more of Davis, and is upset that the county failed to rally more support for funding from L.A.’s sizable legislative delegation.) Third, say the supes, the other county unions have already accepted their 3 percent offer; who do the 660-ites think they are to be demanding more? (To which the union responds: They are disproportionately the county‘s low-wage workers, 60 percent of whom make under $32,000 a year.)

Last week, the union began a series of rolling strikes -- one day at the Registrar’s Office, the next at the libraries, then at the museums and the hospitals. As I write, early Wednesday morning, the entire membership -- the welfare and case workers, probation officers and clerk typists -- is supposed to be walking off the job. As a result of a last-minute court order, doctors and nurses will report to work, but that leaves 42,000 county employees who are out until a settlement is reached.

It was not until Tuesday morning, however, that the county seemed even to realize that the strike was both serious and imminent. Until then, CAO Janssen maintained that since public employees had no right to strike, and since 660 had already embarked on its rolling-strike program, the county would not and could not negotiate with them. Janssen‘s position was doubly idiotic. First, it guaranteed that no negotiations would take place, since the union was hardly about to surrender all its leverage by returning to work. Second, Janssen was arguing that the county couldn’t bargain with striking public employees at the very moment that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority -- where the five supes constitute the largest bloc on the 13-member board -- was negotiating with a union of 4,300 striking public employees: the MTA‘s bus drivers.

As Wednesday’s general strike deadline drew near, though, it dawned on the supervisors that over 90 percent of 660 members had been marching off the job during each day of the rolling strike. ”The board failed to realize that the union‘s really got it together,“ one county official said on Tuesday. No wonder: The union is about as diverse -- in ethnicity, income and job status -- as a local can possibly be, with members ranging from physicians to file clerks. For decades, 660 was known chiefly for its epic infighting. Today, however -- greatly assisted by its international (and SEIU is the single most adept union in the AFL-CIO), and greatly inspired by its fellow SEIU local, the janitors -- the leaders of 660 have built a cohesive and effective striking force out of all its disparate elements. They have forced the county back to the table, where Janssen and the supes are doubtless pondering how to find the middle ground between the 3 percent they’re offering and the 5 percent the union is seeking. (Hint: It‘s not 2 percent. It’s not 6.)

Meanwhile, like the characters in No Exit, the supes, the mayor and the other MTA honchos are locked in seemingly fruitless dialogue with striking bus drivers. As negotiations drag on, the union often seems to run slower than the buses: No discussions with management, no food distribution or check cutting to members, can proceed unless James Williams, its general chairman, is present. And even if Williams were a less deliberate sort, he can‘t be in two places at once.

Nonetheless, Williams has been vilified by a management whispering campaign. Its substance, which has worked its way into the media, is that Williams is under a stiff challenge in impending union elections from Enrique ”Rick“ Ortega, and accordingly feels threatened if he concedes to so much as the removal of a comma from the current contract.

There are three problems with this allegation. First, Williams was elected to a four-year term just last year; the next election will fall in 2003, unless a mail referendum advances it by one year into 2002. Second, Ortega insists there’s ”absolutely, positively nothing“ to the reports that he‘s gunning for Williams’ job. ”I‘m concentrating on negotiations and on getting food to my members,“ says Ortega, who heads three of the union’s districts. ”I support my general chairman.“ And third, it‘s just possible that Williams remains resolutely opposed to the MTA’s proposal because he can‘t fathom why, in the middle of a record-breaking boom, his members should have to give back wages, benefits, pensions and security that they won in less flush times. For all we know, he may even believe that it’s good for Los Angeles to have workers enjoying middle-class living standards. The gall of the guy!#

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