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A Labor Day of pride and precariousness

Even as they celebrate the holiday, L.A. union members face rising costs and tough contract talks. Writers and actors weigh possible strikes.

September 03, 2007|Duke Helfand and Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and leaders from organized labor will gather today to celebrate the workers of Southern California. But the Labor Day festivities will mask one of the most precarious periods in memory for tens of thousands of the region's employees and their families.

Unions that represent plumbers, teachers, writers, librarians, crossing guards and others are in the midst of uncertain contract talks, with strikes potentially looming for some.

Even those who win new contracts and work full time may still find themselves struggling against spiraling healthcare and living costs that put the American Dream well out of reach.

"Workers in L.A. are slipping behind," said Barbara Maynard, a spokeswoman for a coalition of six municipal unions negotiating new salaries for 22,000 city employees. "Whether you're a city worker, a screen actor or a port truck driver, your issues are all the same."

Those points are underscored by new statistics that highlight the plight of the region's working poor.

Nearly one-third of Los Angeles County's 3 million full-time workers earned less than $25,000 in 2006, toiling in jobs that offered little, if any health insurance, according to a report released last week by the labor-affiliated Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.

Although household income rose slightly from 2005-06, median wages have increased an average of only 1% a year since 1996, well below levels necessary for workers to keep up with inflation, the organization said.

Perhaps most troubling, the fastest-growing sectors of the local economy -- including food services, retail sales and transportation -- offer low-wage jobs with limited access to health benefits and little hope of advancing up the socioeconomic ladder.

"The typical worker is really struggling this Labor Day," said Jessica Goodheart, research director at the alliance that wrote the report.

Goodheart could very well be talking about Affaw Yemane , an Ethiopian immigrant who earns $9 an hour as a full-time security guard at a West Los Angeles office building.

Yemane, 57, said that 80% of his net income goes toward the $900 monthly rent for a studio apartment he shares in Mid-City. Without sick pay or health insurance, Yemane said, he's in "big trouble" when he falls ill, with no safety net to catch him in an emergency.

"The irony is that, when I came from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest 12 years ago, I never expected it to be this hard," Yemane said.

Yemane does not yet belong to a union, but he is trying to persuade his employer, Pacwest Security Services, to join an effort by the Service Employees International Union to secure contracts for 5,000 security guards throughout Los Angeles County.

Union organizers believe their campaign will improve wages, working conditions and safety. Their efforts could be particularly helpful to African American and Latino workers, who disproportionately fill the ranks of low-wage jobs, according to the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.

Researchers have found that unionization is an important tool for driving up wages and securing benefits, both locally and nationally.

A study released Sunday by UCLA's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment found that unionized workers in Southern California earned $26.82 per hour on average during the first six months of 2007, compared with $21.58 an hour for nonunion workers.

Although organized labor's ranks have steadily thinned over the last decade, from 15% to 12% nationally, Southern California membership has held steady at 15%, according to the UCLA study.

The local rate reflects recent union successes in organizing janitors, security guards, hotel workers and other low-wage service employees, said Ruth Milkman, director of UCLA's labor institute.

But union officials know that trying to organize manufacturing workers, once stalwart union members who commanded solid salaries and enjoyed company-paid health benefits, can put a kiss of death on their jobs, prompting employers to move their operations overseas or across the border. "Nobody's trying to organize the garment industry in Los Angeles for that reason," she said.

Still, labor remains a formidable power throughout the region, one that has demonstrated an ability to organize workers, sway political races and influence virtually all levels of government.

Maria Elena Durazo, head of the 800,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, lists recent labor victories, including a contract reached this summer for 65,000 grocery workers and a decision by the Los Angeles Board of Education last week to award health benefits to part-time school cafeteria workers.

But Durazo also frets about the year ahead.

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