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At Labor Rallies, a Call for Unity

In Wilmington and at City Hall, union leaders and politicians pledge to defeat what they called anti-worker initiatives on the November ballot.

September 06, 2005|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

They turned out in force under a sweltering sun Monday -- throngs of janitors, teachers, electricians and others -- to show their solidarity in honor of Labor Day.

At rallies near the docks in Wilmington and on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, they accused President Bush of favoring corporate America over "working families" ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

And they pledged to defeat what they called anti-worker initiatives promoted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his political allies in the upcoming November special election.

There was no public mention of the ugly rift that threatens the 50-year-old AFL-CIO, which lost three of its largest unions in July amid differences over the labor federation's direction.

Instead, as workers waved American flags and chanted slogans about getting a fair deal, they called for a day of unity.

"Make no mistake about it, brothers and sisters," state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), a former Los Angeles County union leader, told a crowd of about 300 outside City Hall. "Yours is an effort to ensure we have a middle class in California."

The Labor Day celebrations attracted a veritable who's who of Democratic politicians and labor movement leaders.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa headlined a morning rally in Wilmington, where he was joined on stage by state Treasurer Phil Angelides and Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown.

But the biggest attraction for the hundreds gathered there was the appearance of AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, who said he chose California for his Labor Day speech so he could support campaigns against initiatives on the Nov. 8 ballot, including one that would curtail the ability of unions to spend money for political purposes.

"What's at stake here in California is the future of working families across the nation," Sweeney told workers munching on hot dogs and searching for a little shade at Banning Park.

There was plenty at stake for Sweeney too.

The Teamsters, Service Employees International Union and United Food and Commercial Workers Union defected in July from the AFL-CIO.

The three unions, which accounted for about one-third of the labor federation's 13 million members, broke away because of complaints about the federation spending too much money on political campaigns but not enough on recruiting new members.

In an interview, Sweeney acknowledged the federation's waning membership over the last several decades, even as he assailed the Bush administration for policies that he said have eliminated manufacturing jobs or pushed them overseas.

"There's no question we have to organize more aggressively," Sweeney said, adding that he would strive to bring the three unions back into the fold.

"The challenge is to find ways to unite the movement," Sweeney said. "We have to find ways to work together. It's the only way we can be successful."

Some in the crowd said the national schism within the labor federation might actually help re-energize the organization.

"Sometimes splits can have positive effects," said Patrick McAuley, 55, a public school teacher in the harbor area who was wearing a maroon United Teachers Los Angeles union shirt.

"The idea of putting more resources into organizing is a good message for the AFL-CIO. That's something the unions need to do. It could be stronger if the union leadership gets the message and pulls the union together."

Union leaders downplayed the impact of national labor politics on California, predicting that the fall election would harden labor's resolve against a common foe -- Schwarzenegger.

The governor is promoting ballot initiatives that would make it easier to fire public school teachers and would cap state spending on schools and other services. Schwarzenegger has said the first measure would allow school districts to maintain higher quality in the classroom and the second measure would force the state to live within its means.

Schwarzenegger's allies also have supported Proposition 75, the so-called "paycheck protection" measure, which would require public employee unions to obtain consent from members to use their dues for political purposes. Schwarzenegger has remained officially neutral on the initiative.

Rank-and-file union members said they were ready for the fight.

"We're a good team. We're a strong team," said Los Angeles electrician Gary Parker, a member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 11. "We have to meet and beat any challenge."

That message was hammered home by a raft of union leaders who traversed the city, hopping from one rally to another.

"It's going to be tough," Martin Ludlow, the recently elected head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said in between stops. "No matter what, the local labor movement will be united through this election."

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