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Labor Movement Flexes Its Muscles

As clout grows, L.A. unions affirm solidarity, target Bush and Schwarzenegger.

September 05, 2006|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

Southern California's labor leaders spent Labor Day publicly pleading the case of struggling workers while at the same time showcasing the union movement's growing influence in politics.

"All right!" said Maria Elena Durazo, chief of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, at a union-sponsored breakfast that included most of the Los Angeles City Council and the region's state legislators, as well as the entire statewide Democratic ticket in next month's election. "We're building power!"

New research by UCLA sociology professor and labor expert Ruth Milkman, author of a new book, "L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement," confirmed as much. Although union membership rates have declined nationwide, from 14.5% to 12.5% over the last decade, they have held steady in Los Angeles (now 15.5%) and California (16.5%).

Increases in the number of unionized government workers appear to be making up for labor's losses in the private sector. In 2005, more than half of public sector workers in California belonged to a union, according to Milkman's work.

That strong presence was reflected in remarks Monday by John Wilhelm, president of the Unite-HERE, the hotel workers' union. "I wanted to be in the city where the labor movement is showing the rest of America how we rebuild a movement of working people," he said.

At Monday's breakfast, headlined by Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Angelides, Durazo praised Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) as examples of longtime union officials who have used their skills in political careers. Villaraigosa, speaking in Spanish, called Los Angeles "a great city because there is a labor movement."

The breakfast was followed by a Labor Day Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Hundreds of workers gathered later in the day in Wilmington for a rally at Banning Park, where union members briefly clashed with about a dozen members of Save Our State, a group that opposes illegal immigration.

At these events, labor leaders outlined their goals for the next year, which include high-profile organizing campaigns of truck drivers at the port, security guards in office buildings and workers at airport-area hotels.

Hotel workers handed out fliers advertising a planned act of civil disobedience on the afternoon of Sept. 28. Union officials say they plan to shut down Century Boulevard near Los Angeles International Airport. They expect to be arrested.

Several union leaders threatened walkouts in the next year. Preparations have already begun for possible strikes by hotel workers, nurses, grocery store workers and Los Angeles city employees before next Labor Day.

The potential for conflict between Villaraigosa and city workers, who are already holding monthly strike preparation meetings, was a topic avoided on Labor Day. Instead, Villaraigosa and leaders of state and city teachers' unions exulted over the passage last week of legislation they say will give both the mayor and labor more influence in the running of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

As he made his way into the breakfast, the mayor wrapped California Teachers Assn. President Barbara Kerr in a long embrace and asked TV cameras to record the hug. "Let's get a picture of me and my sister," he said.

Kerr also announced Monday that her 335,000-member union would join the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. The rules of the National Education Assn., with which the teachers union affiliates, had previously barred the move. Although the union representing Los Angeles Unified teachers already belongs, the decision will effectively make teachers in Glendale and several other L.A. County cities members of the federation and will probably give the California Teachers Assn. more clout.

Across the Southland, Monday's labor events were marked by repeated denunciations of President Bush and of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, likely to be a target of labor-funded campaign ads this fall.

The toughest language was offered by Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony during his homily at the cathedral.

Mahony criticized the region's grocery stores for a union contract that is creating "this whole new underclass" of part-time workers. He also expressed strong support for the union organizing drive at hotels near LAX; hotel owners are fighting the effort.

But Mahony reserved his most pointed remarks for the U.S. Congress. He said Congress is running out of time to revise immigration law, and he called the treatment of immigrant workers "one of the most pressing moral and social issues of our time."

He blamed previous congressional efforts to deal with immigration for adding to the confusion about the issue. Mahony, whose comments were interrupted by applause, warned members of Congress not to play political games or delay action, especially given that only four weeks remain before they recess for the year.

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