99 Cent Only Stores CEO David Gold addressed several hundred people at the exclusive Los Angeles Athletic Club, but union representatives weren’t impressed with Gold’s rags-to-riches sermon.

“He looked very uncomfortable,” Xavier Sandoval, Teamster Local 630’s director of organizing, said of the April 12 encounter with Gold. “He knew from the start we were there — I sat in front and he saw my [Teamsters] pin.”

Even if Gold had missed the cluster of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice pickets standing on Seventh Street, the CEO probably knew he was in for some discomfort during the Q&A.

“I asked him,” said Rick Eiden, executive vice president of Local 324 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), “if he knew a majority of his workers were eligible for and many were receiving government handouts — things like food stamps, WIC [a federal nutrition program for women, infants and children], county health care, Section 8 housing, food banks.”

The Teamsters and UFCW are locked in a bitter organizing campaign with 99 Cents Only — the Teamsters seek to unionize the company’s warehouse workers, while the UFCW, whose Southern California members lost a bruising, four-and-a-half-month supermarket lockout last year, hopes to organize the chain’s store staff. The UFCW claims that the average wage at 99 Cent Only stores is $6.80 an hour without health benefits and that workers are forced to work overtime without pay. (A company spokesman denied the allegations.)

“Only Wal-Mart is more anti-union than this company,” Sandoval said. “[Management is] targeting our supporters. In one day 25 employees were terminated in the Commerce warehouse.”

The Teamsters face a dilemma, however, because, while the union has successfully organized the company’s truck drivers, these rookie members signed a five-year contract with 99 Cents Only that the Teamsters leadership believes is too soft and which it has so far not formally recognized.

At least the truckers have a contract. Moises Perez, a trim, middle-aged man attired in a Western-cut coat, slacks and cowboy boots, was not one of those who made it inside the Athletic Club. A native of Mexico, he’s worked five years for 99 Cents Only and makes $8 an hour, he said through an interpreter. His appearance outside the Athletic Club was the first time he’d gone public with his pro-union sympathies, and he was both proud and nervous.

Perez’s transformation came when, after spending three years helping to open stores in Arizona, California and Oregon, he requested a semipermanent assignment so he could take a citizenship class. He was transferred to an Arcadia store, requiring an hourlong commute from his Inglewood home that has, over a recent 12-day period, cost him $120.

“I really believe in forming the union,” Perez said as he waved his gasoline receipts in the air, “but my co-workers are afraid of retribution.” For a time he paid $64 a week for a health-care plan that covered two people, but was forced to give it up. When asked what he does when he needs a doctor, Perez simply shrugged and said he hopes not to get sick.

“Accent elimination. Free consultation,” read the hand-lettered sign on the approach to UCLA, where last Thursday’s strike by the university’s service employees had caused disruptions to the campus’s far-flung dining halls, shuttle-bus routes and trash pickups. The learning of English and elimination of immigrant accents may be one form of assimilation into the American Dream, but entry into the middle class is an economically more tangible approach. That afternoon a Bruin Walk rally was attended by nearly 500 green-T-shirted members of Local 3299 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and their supporters, and the theme was very much finding a portal to middle-class security. The one-day walkout affected the University of California’s nine campuses, five medical centers and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, and protested what AFSCME says is foot-dragging by UC in nearly yearlong contract talks.

Pepe Lara, a dining-hall worker and union negotiator, was typical of the workers I spoke to. He said he makes $8.62 an hour and that there is currently no system in place for workers to advance, claiming that promotions are currently made on the whim of supervisors.

“As far as I can see, they are hardhearted people,” Lara said of the university. Then, gesturing with both hands to the changing UCLA skyline, he added, “They say they have no money but are building buildings everywhere.”

The rally’s speaker list featured several pro-union politicians.

“I chair the subcommittee on education finances and the UCLA budget,” Assemblyman Mervyn M. Dymally told me before addressing the crowd. “We held hearings that held up the budget for three days, but because of the university’s autonomy we can only apply indirect pressure.”

Assembly Speaker and UC regent Fabian Nuñez also admitted that the budgeting process was the Assembly’s only pressure point.

“This is a question of simple economic justice,” he said. “This gives the university a black eye — the last thing we need is to be involved in a dispute with service workers.”

AFSCME’s stalled contract talks fit into a larger pattern of labor impasses that began with the lockout of longshore workers in 2002, segued with the 2003–2004 supermarket lockout, and continues with the meltdown of yearlong negotiations between hotel workers and employers in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Also continuing is the inability of elected officials to speed things along.

The day before the UCLA walkout, nearly 300 supporters of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (HERE), staged a “banquet in the streets” outside Century City’s Century Plaza Hotel. L.A. City Councilman Eric Garcetti was asked if there was a breakpoint when the city would have to knock heads together and pressure the two sides to return to the bargaining table.

“It’s got to end by summer,” he answered, “because that’s when the tourists come to L.A. If nothing happens by then, we’ll have to do something.”

But what? Meanwhile, the L.A. Weekly has learned that HERE’s Local 11, partly to add pressure on the eight L.A. hotels involved in the dispute and partly to show its members it’s not a paper tiger, will strike one of the hotels in May. Until now, HERE has promoted an ongoing boycott of the hotels since last fall.

“They’re only cutting their own throats,” Los Angeles Hotel Employers Council spokesman Fred Muir said of the boycott as he stood outside the Plaza a good distance from the street banquet, where plates of lettuce and pita bread were being dished out. “Their members are the first people to pay the price when rooms go unrented. They could have had three pay raises by now.”

By Friday, UC would claim that the effect of the systemwide strike was limited. UCLA spokesman Phil Hampton said the Los Angeles campus estimated that about 275 of its 2,200 union workers did not show up for work, although there was no way to know how many more simply joined picket lines after working their shifts. One chemistry student named Jim who worked at the student union, said he definitely noticed the lack of service in his dorm and at the student union.

“I kind of support them because they don’t make much,” he said of the workers, “but I have to cross the picket lines to leave my dorm.”

During the AFSCME rally the green shirts had ridden a wave of energy, but there had been no anger or booing when catering trucks, driven by supervisors or contractors, rolled right past the crowd. I thought of a time, more than 20 years ago, when I had played a small part in a failed attempt to get AFSCME on campus and how acrimoniously it had divided my young co-workers. Then there was no question that we would, at our leisure, leave our low-paying jobs for careers. Today, those who clean up after students or feed them are fighting to make their menial jobs simply pay enough to make next month’s rent.

LA Weekly