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Unions Gain Ground in Golden State

August 31, 2003|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

Although unions continue to shrink nationally, California labor has managed to turn things around, adding 500,000 members and increasing its share of the state's workforce since 1997.

The growth, detailed in a report to be released today by the University of California's Institute for Labor and Employment, is driven in part by history and lucky circumstance. But aggressive organizing by several unions, including the state's largest -- the Service Employees International Union -- also has played an important role.

"There is a lot of demoralization among people who support unions," said Ruth Milkman, director of the UC center and the report's main author. "Here we see at least the prospect of an alternate path. We see that it is possible to grow."

In 2002, 18% of California's wage and salary workers belonged to unions, up from 16% in 1997. For the same period, union membership nationwide declined from 16% to 13%.

Both figures are far below labor's glory days in the 1950s, when more than one-third of U.S. and California workers belonged to unions.

The decades-long decline has many causes, including the loss of traditional union jobs in manufacturing and the fast growth of jobs in typically nonunion sectors such as business services. Most labor leaders concede that unions were slow to respond to those changes in the economy and, until recently, failed to put sufficient energy and resources into recruiting new members.

California labor was cushioned a bit because manufacturing was not as highly unionized in the state as it was nationally, so the loss of those jobs had less effect on union density. Conversely, the state had higher-than-average unionization in health care and the public sector, both of which have grown tremendously.

As of 2002, unionization rates were higher in California than the national average for all industry groups except manufacturing. More significant, the state trend has been toward growth in both the public and the private sectors.

"We look at California as an example of what is possible for the rest of the country," said Stewart Acuff, organizing director for the AFL-CIO. "It's a place where a lot of people have worked extremely hard and done a lot of things right."

The UC report traces union density, or the percentage of workers who are union members, from 1997 to 2002. It drew from federal census data as well as the results of a survey sent to 1,600 union locals. More than 80% of the union locals responded, giving a snapshot of California labor that has not existed since the state stopped conducting a similar survey 16 years ago.

The report underscores the significance of the SEIU, which represents about 17% of the state's 2.58 million union members. The SEIU's members include health-care workers, from hospital cooks to nurses, as well as city, county and state clerks and other administrative workers, social workers, parole officers, commercial janitors and security guards. The union added 200,000 members in the last decade.

That growth "was a matter of choice, not chance," said Eliseo Medina, SEIU executive vice president for the Western region. More than a decade ago, under then-national President John Sweeney, the union decided to be more focused and methodical about bringing in new members, Medina said. It hired organizers, increased the budget for campaigns and settled on three target areas -- health care, public sector work and building services. All three areas have seen high job growth.

The union also moved away from "hot shop" organizing, in which it responds to small groups of workers who are angry and want to join a union. Instead, SEIU became more strategic, selecting key employers and using community groups, investors, building tenants and others to pressure them not to fight the union.

"We used to go out and spend a huge amount of energy to organize 500 people," Medina said. "Now we invest the same time and energy, but at the end you wind up with 50,000 members."

The SEIU's biggest success story, and a major factor in the state's union growth, was its campaign to organize home-care workers, who help feed, bathe and do chores for the disabled or homebound.

The workers are paid through the counties with some federal and state funds but are hired directly by the people for whom they work. That arrangement presented a challenge to organizers, because it wasn't clear who was the actual employer. Unions cannot organize without an employer of record with whom to bargain.

The SEIU used its political clout in Sacramento to pass a law that allowed counties to set up home-care boards that would serve as the employer. Then it lobbied counties to create the boards. After nearly a decade of political work, the union was set to organize home-care workers. Its first election, in Los Angeles in 1997, added 74,000 members at once. Today, about 160,000 home-care workers belong to the union in California, Medina said.

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