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Union Organizers Make Gains in State

HEARD ON THE BEAT: Labor

December 09, 1997|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California's unions, bucking the continuing declines in membership nationally for organized labor, have started to attract more workers.

New figures developed by a Florida State University economist, David A. Macpherson, show that union membership in California rose to 2.08 million during the first 10 months of 1997. That was up 21,000 from the 1996 level.

Experts say California's increase comes mainly from the large pool of low-wage immigrant workers. They also say that while union-organizing campaigns have been stepped up across the country over the last few years, the efforts have been particularly aggressive here.

Nationally, Macpherson found, union membership dropped by 98,000 over the same period to 16.17 million, apparently mainly due to job losses at unionized companies. Federal authorities will release official figures for 1997 early next year.

Even in California, however, organized labor's gains remain too small to keep up with the expansion of the work force. Given the state's job growth, organized labor needs to recruit roughly 40,000 to 50,000 new members a year in the state just to keep the union affiliation rate steady.

Macpherson calculated that the percentage of California workers belonging to unions fell to 16.3% during the first 10 month of 1997, down from 16.5% in 1996. Nationally, the percentage fell to 14.2%, down from 14.5% the year before.

But Judith Barish, a spokeswoman for the California Labor Federation, expressed optimism, saying that the state's biggest organizing victories have yet to come. "I don't think anyone expected to see dramatic changes in the numbers of union members within the first few years," she said, referring to the election of new, organizing-minded AFL-CIO leaders over the last two years in Washington and Sacramento.

Barish noted that organizing drives often take several years, particularly given the increasingly sophisticated and often hard-nosed union-busting campaigns waged by some employers.

Last month, for example, the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint accusing Guess Inc., the biggest clothing manufacturer based in Los Angeles, of illegally trying to disrupt a labor-organizing campaign. It accused Guess, which denies the charges, of firing union supporters, interrogating employees about their union sympathies and threatening to shut down local operations.

Labor organizers argue that unions are the best vehicles for improving wages, benefits and job conditions and for giving employees an effective voice in the workplace.

But critics of organized labor contend that unions, at best, don't do enough good for members to be worth the cost of dues. They also argue that unions can damage companies and drive away jobs.

Along with their recent recruiting gains, California union activists have shown new political muscle.

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A year ago, unions were pivotal in the passage of Proposition 210, an initiative to raise the state's minimum wage to $5.75 an hour. They were also credited with playing a key role in restoring the Democratic majority in the Assembly.

Last month, a campaign by organized labor helped lift union activist Gil Cedillo to an upset victory in the Democratic Party primary for Los Angeles' 46th Assembly District.

Even so, Los Angeles management lawyer Joseph Herman, who often advises companies battling unions, contends that labor's comeback has been modest. "Compared to 10, 15 or 20 years ago, I don't think organized labor is anywhere near as powerful as it was," he said.

The biggest election victory for union representation in the last year in California was won by Local 777 of the Laborers' International Union of North America, which organized 5,000 Riverside County employees.

In September, 2,000 University of California professional and technical employees voted to join a unit of the Communications Workers of America.

A large number of California workers also were involved in a September representation election at US Airways, which brought the labor movement its biggest organizing victory in a decade. A group of nearly 10,000 workers across the country, including ticket counter, reservations and airport gate personnel, voted to be represented by the Communications Workers of America.

Lately, though, union organizers have faced tough going in several California campaigns. Leaders of one of the highest-profile organizing efforts in the nation--a campaign to unionize California's 20,000 strawberry pickers--recently backed away from their goal of calling their first representation elections this year, putting that step off until next year.

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Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein can be reached by phone at (213) 237-7887 or by e-mail at stuart.silverstein@latimes.com

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