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Labor Leaders Aim Efforts at Immigrants : Organizers Want to Recruit Industrial Workers From a Wide Area Into Union Fold


Labor leaders hope to target hundreds of thousands of immigrant industrial workers along the Alameda Corridor in a massive campaign they say would trans form union organizing in Los Angeles.

Never before in Los Angeles--and rarely elsewhere--have organizers attempted to create a regionwide, multi-union drive targeting entire industries, said Peter Olney, coordinator of the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project (LAMAP) and a longtime labor organizer.

LAMAP, a new nonprofit group of labor and community activists and scholars, plans to begin organizing ethnic workers next year along the Alameda Corridor, an industrial swath that cuts through Los Angeles from Downtown to the port.

Along the corridor are some of the county's grittiest neighborhoods, where industry sometimes abuts schoolyards and where tens of thousands of jobs have been lost in the last two decades.

But as aerospace, auto and other large industries have left the area, industries that produce textiles, apparel and other non-durable goods have remained relatively stable.

About 66% of the workers in those jobs are Latino and 8.6% are Asian Pacific immigrants, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most work in non-union shops for low wages and no benefits, and many live in nearby communities on the Eastside, in the Southeast area and in South-Central Los Angeles, said Olney, a former organizer for the Service Employees International and furniture workers unions.

This immigrant population, working jobs with no real safety nets or future, is ripe for organizing, said David Sickler, regional director of the AFL-CIO Region 6 and LAMAP co-founder.

"If there was an economic ladder those people in the Alameda Corridor could climb, it would be different," Sickler said. "But you have a permanent underclass there, and that's where seeds of discontent are sown."

Perhaps, but Gordon Richards, chief economist for the National Assn. of Manufacturers, said the higher wages that would accompany unionization could raise unemployment as employers are forced to cut their work forces.


"When you force wages up, you slow the rate of job creation," Richards said. "If you raise wages within particular industries, these firms would likely employ less. If you squeeze a producer's profit margin, they need to make it up somewhere and they aren't going to raise prices."

LAMAP, funded with a start-up grant from the San Francisco-based Rosenberg Foundation, has enlisted UCLA's Community Scholars program, a joint initiative of the school's Department of Urban Planning and Center for Labor Research and Education, to analyze which industries in the Alameda Corridor should be organized.

When the UCLA group completes its study in June, Olney said, LAMAP hopes to unite up to 15 unions in a regionwide organizing campaign that would target entire industries within the next few years.

If successful, the campaign could boost economic development and uplift entire communities, said UCLA professor Gilda Haas, who will oversee the study. Since the 1992 riots, Haas said, city leaders have proposed a variety of remedies, including small business loans, training and educational assistance, to address economic and social ills in Los Angeles. Now, she said, leaders should work to change industrial employment policies.

"If you have 700,000 manufacturing workers and they have poor working conditions and wages, that's going to affect the communities they live in," Haas said. "So if you're going to talk about rebuilding L.A., you have to start there."

Civic leaders such as Huntington Park Mayor Ric Loya and Bell Councilman George Cole, once an officer for United Steelworkers Local 1845 and a former worker at Bethlehem Steel, a plant that employed 2,000 when it closed in 1983, have endorsed the LAMAP plan.

"I think for the first time we're going to have people look at economic development throughout our community," Cole said. "And I'm excited about the organizing part because we have so many sweatshops and so much exploitation of people who don't have a voice in the manufacturing industry."

Some economists warn that LAMAP's plan could backfire, forcing industry out of Los Angeles.


"My personal guess is that organizing would contribute to the departure of at least some companies," said Ed Lawler, a USC professor of management and organization. ". . . The win-win argument is that if you uplift your work force with good wages and good jobs, you create a positive economic cycle. But there are some kinds of (low-skilled) work that don't lend themselves to that sort of scenario and can be done cheaper in Mainland China or somewhere else."

The Southeast area alone has lost more than 2,000 jobs in the past year, despite labor movement efforts to preserve them. But Olney rebuts any argument that the labor movement is dead, that companies may flee the city to avoid the higher costs of union labor or that immigrant workers are too hard to organize.

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