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Labor Head Seeks Ties to Students

September 30, 2004|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

At a time when much of organized labor has hunkered down to save what it's got, Los Angeles County union chief Miguel Contreras is diving into new territory with a populist campaign for free higher education that he hopes will expand labor's base and improve its image.

His idea -- to ask local voters to approve a new corporate tax that would fund community college tuition and textbooks for all -- is expected to be backed by a majority of the county's 340 union locals today at a first-ever gathering of delegates at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, said that he expected to have the plan on the Los Angeles city ballot in 2006 and that the federation and member unions would spend millions of dollars to promote it.

Several local business leaders declined to comment Wednesday, not having seen the proposal. But it's a safe bet that any plan to raise taxes on business would be met with strong opposition.

The campaign could create a labor-student alliance similar to that forged with Latino workers through labor's recent support for immigration reform, Contreras said. It also would address employers' needs for more skilled workers.

"This is taking us to a whole new level," said Contreras, the son of migrant farmworkers who cut his labor teeth as an organizer working with Cesar Chavez.

Since taking the top federation job eight years ago, he has been credited with building one of the nation's strongest and most aggressive local labor movements.

The education plan is one of three initiatives set to come out of the full-day labor congress, which draws together bodies with vastly differing histories and cultures, ranging in size from the giant Service Employees International Union, with a third of the federation's 800,000 members, to a tiny association representing 17 port pilots. About 250 unions will be represented, Contreras said.

Delegates also are expected to approve an increase in contributions to the federation -- from 37 cents to 50 cents a month per member -- to build a $1-million fund that could aid unions during high-profile disputes, such as last year's supermarket strike and lockout.

In all, it is seen as an ambitious agenda for a regional labor council and comes as some prominent labor leaders are questioning the need for such bodies altogether.

"For many central labor councils, it's unclear what purpose they do serve," said Harley Shaiken, a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley who closely follows labor. "What Miguel Contreras is showing here is that there is potentially a regional dimension to unionism. He is taking labor back to its roots by making it a voice for working people."

Los Angeles has the highest rate of so-called undereducated adults of any major U.S. metropolitan area, according to a recent study, and employers here often complain of an inadequately trained workforce. That makes any plan to improve access to higher education in the city worth looking at, said Ross DeVol, director of regional economics at the Milken Institute.

DeVol said the proposal was likely to run into opposition unless businesses had some control over the classes and training provided. He also thought there should be matching funds from a government or other source.

"It's a novel approach to try and find a solution that should benefit business," he said, "but I'm not sure that it's completely thought through."

Many details are still missing from Contreras' plan, however, including the funding mechanism and anticipated cost.

As envisioned, Los Angeles residents would be guaranteed tuition at one of the 21 community colleges in the county, Contreras said, along with about $1,000 a year for books, and, if necessary, tools to learn trades. Contreras said he hoped a successful campaign would inspire others in California and across the country.

Even if the initiative fails, Shaiken said, labor's image probably will benefit from its association with a broader cause. "There's no guarantee of winning any of this," he said, "but at the end of the day, labor will be far better off because of the effort."

Labor could use the help. Despite a decade of attempts to rebuild a vibrant national movement, membership continues to shrink, partly because of changing economics. And union leaders have been hit with a series of recent defensive fights over rules governing overtime pay and ergonomics and reporting regulations for union bodies, all of which they have lost.

Los Angeles has been one of labor's bright spots in that otherwise gloomy picture, in part because of moves by Contreras to build a strong union movement.

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