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The New Unionism Finds a Home

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.

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."

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.

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.