From L.A., a reinvention of Big Labor

A 'blue-green alliance' of workers, environmentalists, and others offers one model for union revival, analysts say.

It's no secret that labor unions are struggling with declining membership and loss of negotiating clout, but don't tell that to the hundreds of activists who gathered Friday for a rally outside the Hilton Hotel at Los Angeles International Airport.

These protesters see a different reality, one in which the labor movement's center of gravity is shifting from the older Rust Belt cities of the east to a newer, energetic, immigrant-rich Los Angeles. They see nothing short of a rebirth of union organizing, based on a West Coast model of coalition-building, decentralized leadership, and a speak-to-the-people approach to delivering their message.

The Friday rally for hotel workers is a case in point. It included religious leaders who, taking note of the Passover season, helped reenact the Israelites' escape from slavery and their crossing of the Red Sea, as an allegory for the workers' situation. It included community groups. It included the stories of workers like Alicia Melgarejo, a single mother who took home $1,200 a month from a $9.70-per-hour wage (until she was fired from her job last month).

"If I could make just about one dollar more per hour, it would really help raise my two kids," she says.

Move over Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. Unionism characterized by heavy manufacturing is giving way to a new labor movement built by service-sector employees: janitors, grocery workers, security guards, hotel workers, and truckers who hauls goods to and from area seaports. Such workers have proven difficult to organize in the past, say national labor analysts, but activists in Los Angeles seem to be having more success than anyone anywhere else.

"What is now happening in Los Angeles represents the future of the labor movement in America," says Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "I would contrast this new look of unionism to that of autoworkers and steel workers, which had long been the face of the movement to most Americans."

Why L.A.?

Analysts note that the city is a major entry point for immigrants, legal and otherwise, who tend to work at low-wage jobs in numbers large enough to have some collective impact. It has active environmental and religious communities, which are increasingly taking up the causes of the poor. Moreover, they say, an exodus by much of the middle class leaves a city in which the contrast between Hollywood's megarich and South Central's slipping poor is acute and, to many, disturbing.

The Los Angeles area has seen a number of labor victories over the past several years, observers note.

• Between 50 and 70 percent of those who work in building services (janitors and security personnel) are unionized, compared with zero union presence and minimum wages of a few years ago.

• Hotel workers now have more than 30,000 union members, compared with almost none two years ago. Home-care and healthcare workers now count 80,000 union members.

• Three years ago, supermarket workers held out for months against three national food chains in one of the costliest strikes ever in the US.

Union and antipoverty activists, too, were behind the city's adoption of a "living wage" law in 1997 – one of the first in the nation. Labor activists also worked with city officials to push through a new idea called community benefit agreements, in which hotels, factories, retail complexes, and housing developers that get city contracts agree to a host of conditions that benefit local workers.

Not everyone is cheering the nascent rise of union organizing in L.A. – or even acknowledging that it will amount to much in the end. Some warn that aggressive labor organizing is creating an unsettling climate for businesses, and may even discourage new businesses from locating here.

Others suggest the new movement may have inherent limitations on expansion, because there are only so many industries that rely on an abundance of low-wage workers. The local economy, they note, is already becoming more fragmented, with smaller companies whose workers are harder to unionize.

"The big targets for unionization in L.A. are getting smaller," says economist Joel Kotkin, Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation who writes on economic, political, and social trends. "Outside the big public projects, you don't see a lot of union labor, and you are not going to organize day laborers [standing] outside Costco. Since many of the workers don't vote, aren't citizens, and make low wages, the unions are going to have somewhat less money and clout than the industrial unions of before."

Still, the labor organizing in L.A. may mark the development of a new model of activism – one that organizers in other parts of the US are studying.

What most characterizes the new look, says Clark University's Mr. Chaison, is the increased use of coalitions. Groups that formerly faced off as opponents, he says, are now seeing ways to come together to support causes of mutual interest.

That means civil rights and immigrant groups are joining with workers to fight discrimination. It means environmental groups are supporting low-wage earners such as truckers, who can't afford to fix pollution-spewing trucks. It means teachers unions are asking for support from advocates for the aging in standing up for public health, because it affects the progress of students and seniors.

"It has taken awhile for all these various groups to find common ground, but they are realizing that without strong mutual support in big numbers, they can't stand up ... against the powerhouse of city government," says Peter Dreier, director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

One major component of the new unionism is cooperation between "blue-collar" unions and "green" environmentalists. There's even a buzzword to describe it: the "blue-green alliance."

"There is a new sense of unified agenda from labor, community, and environment that is historic," says Madeline Janis of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a group that has backed several union campaigns and become a model for similar campaigns in other states. "For 50 years it has been jobs versus the environment, and now we have jobs and the environment."

The new unionism of Los Angeles reflects a changing political mood in America, says Mr. Dreier.

"We are seeing all kinds of signs of moves back to equality, justice, fairness, poverty, social rights, workers' rights," he says. "Some of this is reaction to the perception of clumsiness of the Bush administration, but a lot of it has to do with a mood of hope and optimism born out of lots of new organizing at the grass roots."

Because of such grass-roots organizing, many of the gains that have been won so far have come by letting workers tell their own stories in a bid to win the public's sympathy, rather than letting union bosses fight it out with business representatives, observers say.

"All these fights have benefited hugely from the workers themselves being their own best spokesman," says Maria Elena Durazo, head of the L.A. Federation of Labor. "The public sees the person who cleans the office, makes up their beds, helps them at the checkout counter."

Some business associations and chambers of commerce, though, say the current union activity and the threat of more to come are unnerving to businesses that already have reasons not to settle in California. Businesses regularly complain of taxes and regulation, and neighboring Nevada and Arizona have reaped the benefit of business flight.

"A very robust number of companies and industries in southern California are wondering if they are going to get targeted by one of these campaigns, and they are very unsettled," says Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. The issue is not so much wages, he says. Rather, the concern is over long-term rules and benefits that employers find constraining.

"They have seen what has happened in the American auto industry, where companies became obligated to benefits for a very long time for retired employees," says Mr. Toebben.

But others say the resilience of the southern California economy is, in fact, one reason union activity is thriving. Indeed, distance from the former industrial and political centers of America has given organizers and followers creative space for innovation.

"Not being under the thumbs of the national union bosses in Washington and New York, and being in a place where the economy and population are growing, has helped tremendously," says Ruth Milkman, director of the Institute of Industrial Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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