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Youthful Drive : AFL-CIO Hopes Union Summer Will Inspire New Generation

May 02, 1996|STUART SILVERSTEIN and ROBERT A. ROSENBLATT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

An idealistic, politically minded son of Mexican immigrants, 20-year-old Rafael Garcia Jr. calls the late, legendary United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez one of his idols.

This summer, Garcia hopes to start walking in Chavez's footsteps.

Garcia, a sociology major at Santa Monica College, is one of the 800 to 1,000 students, young rank-and-file union members and activists from across the country who are being chosen for the AFL-CIO's Union Summer program.

The program--a pet project of the militant union leaders who won control of the AFL-CIO in the fall--was spelled out in further detail at a Washington news conference Wednesday. It calls for AFL-CIO unions to deploy recruits, most in their 20s, at strawberry fields, in front of factories and in city neighborhoods to spread the word about labor organizing campaigns.

The program, while providing an extra dose of youthful vitality to union picket lines and demonstrations, also is intended to inspire volunteers to pursue careers in the labor movement. Union Summer draws its inspiration from 1964's Freedom Summer civil rights and voter registration campaign.

"Union Summer is a historic effort to engage a new generation in improving the standard of living for American workers," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

Not surprisingly, the program faces skepticism from employers.

"Having college students come in on a summer lark and telling workers they'd be better off belonging to unions, and then going back to the sheltered environment of a college--it's not likely to have any great impact," said Jeffrey McGuiness, president of the Labor Policy Assn., a Washington-based lobbying group representing big employers.

"If workers want to form unions, they get together to form unions. No one likes to be told by an outsider what to do."

But Union Summer participants are undeterred. Most of the volunteers--drawn from a still-growing pool of 1,600 applicants--are women, and half have parents who belong to a union.

The volunteers will receive free housing and a stipend of $210 a week during their three-week stints, which will be spread from June through August.

Among the first 18 sites announced Wednesday for Union Summer are six California cities, reflecting the AFL-CIO leadership's conviction that the state is ripe for more intensive organizing campaigns. In Los Angeles, Union Summer volunteers will work on the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees' boycott of the New Otani hotel downtown and the Service Employees International Union's efforts to organize home-health-care workers.

San Diego will be the site of a summer-long "Labor to Neighbor" program, with volunteers going door-to-door to encourage union members to register to vote and to take active roles in local politics and neighborhood affairs.

Spanish-speaking volunteers will head to Salinas and nearby rural areas to help the United Farm Workers recruit strawberry pickers as union members.

"Young people are ready to enlist in the fight for workplace justice," said Andy Levin, Union Summer's director.

At a time when many unions are fighting to make a comeback after years of decline, young Union Summer recruits such as Garcia regard them as essential forces in society.

"Whenever you hear of social injustice in the work force, everyone turns to unions to see what they think. They're a voice for working-class people and for all workers," Garcia said.

Garcia says he didn't have to look far to see the benefits of union membership. He says his father, a landscape worker, has long been grateful for the benefits and pay he receives by virtue of belonging to a union, service employees union Local 399 in Los Angeles, the last 18 years.

And in Garcia--who hopes to attend law school and then go into politics or work as a union or immigration attorney--the labor movement is getting a potential firebrand.

"People aren't active," he said. "They don't want to get involved in things; they'd rather sit in front of the TV and not get involved. . . . That upsets me," he said.

"A lot of workers don't want to unionize because they're afraid of being fired . . . . I'm hoping to get workers to join unions and not to be afraid to stand up for themselves," Garcia added.

Like the other volunteers, Garcia does not yet know where he will be assigned. He hopes, though, to go to the United Farm Workers strawberry campaign.

But if he doesn't, he said, any union that represents immigrant workers from anywhere around the world would be enticing for him.

"They're all exploited just as bad," Garcia said. "Corporations don't discriminate when it comes to exploiting."

Silverstein reported from Los Angeles and Rosenblatt from Washington.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Organizing Drives

Several of the highest-profile union organizing campaigns in California will be getting an infusion of college students, young rank-and-file members and other activists as part of the AFL-CIO's "Union Summer" program. Below are some of the planned campaigns:

* Los Angeles: boycott of New Otani Hotel; organization of home health-care workers

* San Diego: "Labor to Neighbor" voter registration drive and organizing effort to develop community leaders

* Watsonville-Salinas: organization of strawberry fieldworkers

* San Jose: organization of home health-care workers and voter registration promotion

* Throughout California: campaigns against the California Civil Rights Initiative curtailing affirmative action and campaigns for the "Livable Wage" initiative to boost the state's minimum wage from $4.25 currently to $5.75 by March 1998.

Note: Plans in Oakland and Sacramento are still being developed. Source: AFL-CIO

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