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Coalition's Strategy Builds on Union Efforts in State

June 20, 2005|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

A group of dissident union leaders last week vowed to reinvigorate the slumping U.S. labor movement by launching a series of big, strategic organizing campaigns. Elements of what they have in mind have already been road-tested in California, a hot spot for union activism for more than a decade.

And they seem to be working.

The individual unions' innovative campaigns, aimed at some of the state's lowest-paid workers, have brought tens of thousands of new members under the union umbrella in the last decade and raised pay and benefits for most, even as wages have stagnated nationally and organized labor's overall share of the workforce has declined.

"Here in L.A., because we've been growing and winning, it's hard to see how bad it is in the rest of the country," said Mike Garcia, president of a statewide janitors' local with the Service Employees International Union.

Since taking to the streets of Los Angeles with massive protests in the mid-1990s, Garcia's Local 1877 has grown to represent 28,000 janitors throughout the state. Most have won substantial raises and fully paid family health insurance under new contracts.

Similar campaigns have been waged for workers in hospitals, nursing homes, building security, commercial laundries and tourism -- all areas that are likely to expand in the service economy.

Each one started with a carefully considered game plan that examined the strengths and weaknesses of entire industries and the major players in them. The unions then looked for ways to help cooperative employers while pressuring those who resisted in every way they could -- working with political and community allies behind the scenes, staging attention-getting public protests, contacting customers and suppliers of targeted employers, running boycotts and sometimes launching well-financed strikes.

The goal typically was to win an agreement from employers to not fight the union's attempt to sign up members.

Not all efforts have panned out. Faced with rising healthcare costs and intense competitive pressures, and convinced that a union would only add to their burdens, many employers are determined to keep organizers out.

But the campaigns that have succeeded prove that organized labor can grow even in a tough political and economic environment, said the five union presidents who on Wednesday formed the Change to Win Coalition, citing frustration with the AFL-CIO. The presidents said strategic campaigns had a greater chance of building union density than organizing one workplace at a time through the slow and contentious federally supervised union election process.

The five -- SEIU, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Laborers' International Union of North America, United Food and Commercial Workers and Unite Here -- said they would work together on large-scale coordinated efforts, using many of the principles proved in California.

"Our purpose is to get real growth," food workers union President Joe Hansen said. "To build worker power, we need action and we need action now."

Hansen, who took office last year, said his union's costly and disappointing 4 1/2 -month supermarket strike in Central and Southern California that ended in February 2004 convinced him that radical change was needed in his own ranks. He said that he was restructuring the union to better match the geographic reach and corporate structure of employers, and that he joined the coalition to become more strategic about organizing and bargaining.

"The world that all workers live in has dramatically changed, and quite frankly the labor movement has not changed," Hansen said. "It is our responsibility as leaders to address that, and to do things to regain the power that we had."

For a variety of economic, political and cultural reasons, organized labor's share of the workforce has steadily declined since the 1950s, when one in three workers was unionized.

AFL-CIO leaders elected 10 years ago promised to reverse that trend, but membership has continued to fall, from 15% of the workforce to slightly less than 13% today. The federation's president, John J. Sweeney, is expected to win a third term next month, over the dissidents' objections that new leadership is needed.

During the same 10 years, unions in California have fared slightly better than in the nation as a whole, losing 1 percentage point of its share of the workforce, to 17%. One reason is that the most rambunctious of the dissident unions -- the service employees -- had a strong presence in the state, where the union has tested its strategic approach, said Ruth Milkman, a UCLA sociologist who has written extensively on the California labor movement.

"SEIU has tripled in membership in the last quarter-century," Milkman said. "That's the best advertisement for this approach that I can think of. But those experiments were never brought to scale. We don't know what the results would have been if more unions were doing this. Now, we'll have a chance to find out."

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