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Unions Trying Out Fresh Tactics : Labor: With strikes seen as too risky, disruption and guerrilla warfare are more popular--and often more effective--steps.

September 06, 1993|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even though they were embroiled in a bitter labor dispute last year, union leaders representing hotel employees in Los Angeles never seriously considered going on strike. Instead, they opted for guerrilla warfare.

Union officials distributed a devastating video about violence in Los Angeles that tourism officials feared would scare off tourists. They also warned the hotels' bankers about business losses that could result from labor strife. And they blocked downtown traffic in a civil disobedience maneuver staged to snare publicity.

The result: Hotel owners granted the union a six-year contract overwhelmingly approved by the members.

On labor-management battlefields these days, many unions are forsaking strikes for fresh tactics. Notwithstanding last week's walkout by roughly 10,000 Los Angeles Department of Water and Power employees and other threatened job actions by county workers, unions across the country are increasingly pursuing alternative strategies.

Workers, particularly in the private sector, generally avoid strikes "because they'll be replaced and lose their jobs," said David R. Koff, a senior research analyst for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union.

"Unions have recognized that to deal effectively with the kinds of employers out there now, they've got to use creative tools," he added.

In certain sectors of the economy--particularly in government agencies--unions still wield enormous power and can stage crippling strikes. Experts attribute the heightened militancy by public employees in Los Angeles mainly to pent-up frustrations and severe local economic problems that have put the squeeze on governmental budgets--and, in turn, on workers' wages and benefits.

All the same, unionists often balk at striking because, on top of the fear of losing jobs, their memberships often are too thin to stage effective walkouts. The current high unemployment rate also presents an obstacle.

And in situations such as last year's hotel workers' dispute, labor leaders have found weapons that are better suited than walkouts for advancing their causes.

"If you're worried about jobs being contracted out or your plant being closed, you don't necessarily use a strike," said James M. Wood, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

What was regarded until recently as one of the greatest hopes for restoring union clout--a federal bill to prevent employers from permanently replacing striking workers--has been blocked in the U.S. Senate. Experts say even though this is the first Labor Day in 12 years to be greeted by a union-friendly Administration in Washington, the labor movement has realized mainly symbolic gains under President Clinton.

One result is that strikes continue to take a back seat. According to federal figures, the number of strikes involving 1,000 or more workers fell from 187 in 1980 to 35 last year. Through the first seven months of this year, the total ran about even with 1992's pace.

Instead, unions are making headway against their management adversaries with increasingly sophisticated "corporate campaigns." Trying to attract members at North Carolina-based Food Lion supermarkets, the United Food and Commercial Workers drew news media attention last year to allegations of child labor and overtime pay abuses. Eventually, the U.S. Labor Department investigated, leading to a precedent-setting $16.2-million fine.

Likewise, the United Farm Workers of America--its membership shriveled to a fraction of the peak reached in the 1970s--recognizes that unless it catches a grower by surprise in the middle of harvest time, it is too small to score any major victories with a strike.

So the fabled union is trying a new approach to regain economic clout and serve more workers: It has launched a sort of consumer service organization. For a $20 annual fee, farm workers who work for non-union growers can become "associate members" of the UFW entitled to discounts on prescription drugs, cheap life insurance and other benefits.

One of the most successful guerrilla efforts lately in the union movement is the Justice for Janitors campaign organized by the Service Employees International Union. Janitors seeking union contracts frequently storm office buildings during business hours, and then raise a commotion and embarrass landlords into capitulating by banging on drums, screaming and complaining to tenants.

Still, publicity campaigns can backfire. The United Food and Commercial Workers launched a campaign nearly four years ago against Nordstrom, accusing the retail chain of forcing employees to stock shelves, deliver merchandise and write thank-you notes to customers on their own time.

Even though the UFCW eventually extracted a multimillion-dollar settlement from Nordstrom, the two locals that led the attack were voted out by employees who were put off by the union's tactics.

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