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Union Blues : Declining Membership and Education Pose Challenges for Local Labor Groups : WESLEY S. GUAJARDO and JUAN RAMIRIOS

September 05, 1993|MONICA GYULAI

Wesley S. Guajardo and Juan Ramirios are members of Local 1981 of the United Steelworkers of America , in Huntington Park. They work with the Rank-And-File Coalition, a group of union workers who belong to many locals in Southern California. The coalition supports union members of all nationalities or ethnicities -- especially those in the lower ranks--in their efforts to gain positions of authority. Guajardo, who lives in Covina, and Ramirios, who is from Los Angeles, were interviewed by Monica Gyulai.

There's a lot of apathy in the union now--not just in the steelworkers union, but in all the unions. The labor movement is dying. Back in the '60s and '70s, we would get 200 people or more to a meeting any month. There was a lot of activity and debate. Now, if you go to any local meeting on a general membership night, you'll find five or six people. Most of those people are the financial officers, who have to be there.

Membership in the United Steelworkers of America is down from about 1.4 million 15 years ago to around 550,000. At this local, we had five full-time workers in the late '70s. Today we have one. We find ourselves taking out second mortgages, renting the place out for weddings, selling property and doing other things just to stay afloat.

Automation is definitely hurting us, but there's still room for organizing. We have to become more diversified. There was a time when you couldn't invade the territories of other unions. But today in the steelworkers union, you find Highway Patrol workers, nurses, school employees. And that's what we have to do.

The Rank-And-File Coalition is focusing on morale, discipline, dignity, pride, knowledge and skills.

Unions aren't only a way for workers to get a fair salary; they enable workers to get respect from their employers and feel a sense of dignity.

The morale is higher and stress is lower where people have a union working behind them. Workers who aren't unionized are afraid of losing their jobs, so they don't report sexual harassment and don't always have safe working conditions or other rights required by state and federal laws.

But if we don't get members more interested in participating in our locals, and give them the education they need, the union will die.

Historically, people have been promoted in the union on the basis of politics rather than knowledge. Although there's a lot of skill out in the plants and mills, people usually get selected for staff positions by helping a candidate get elected. We want to stop that practice and promote people based on what they know and what skills they have. The coalition is discovering that we have people who know about computers, accounting, medical insurance and labor issues in the union.

Educational programs need to be more available, and staff representatives should get into labor studies. The majority of staff representatives who represent the steelworkers in this area today don't have schooling.

Imagine, at the negotiating table, these union representatives facing high-tech, high-priced, anti-labor attorneys. Education opens you to a lot of different options to settle disputes.

And education is an empowerment in itself. The company has more respect for you. The members have more respect for you. You're able to go in there and work things out.

It's not like the days when labor and management were going at each other's throats. It's a different era now. The unions aren't lying down and dying, but more and more, you see management and unions working together. We all look around us and see industry disappearing.

The coalition would like to form councils in all the different industries represented by the steelworker unions in the area. These councils will get more people involved in the union and give us a forum for the educational programs we need to offer. We want to see people coming back to the locals for meetings and for socializing because activity in the halls is a good measure of the strength of unions. Council officers will rotate, so that if they want to become staff representatives one day, they will be familiar with all of the industries and have qualifications.

We want to move the district office back to this area, where members can easily visit and mingle. Now it's in one of those high-rent, high-rise buildings near the airport. It costs 15 bucks just to park if you want to visit.

Because of the steel plant closures, many locals have closed and the union has property that's not being used. The coalition wants the district office to be housed in one of these empty buildings. The money now spent on rent could be invested in educational forums and organizing drives.

The unions have to keep up with the times. We think the unions will be back.

If you read the history of the labor movement, every time there's a depression in this country, the unions are down. When the economy is boosted, the unions are back.

The unions were a part of the structure from Day One and will be here a hundred years from now.

' It's not like the days when labor and management were going at each other's throats. It's a different era now. The unions aren't lying down and dying, but more and more, you see management and unions working together. '

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