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Unity, action pledged at labor rallies

Leaders at holiday events say unions will push organizing efforts, flex political muscle.

September 04, 2007|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

During Labor Day rallies and marches Monday, hundreds of Southern California workers pledged unity and aggressive action to prevail in upcoming contract negotiations in what many described as one of the toughest labor climates in years.

At a breakfast attended by representatives of more than 100 unions and dozens of elected officials, labor leaders told the crowd that contracts covering 228,000 workers would expire next year. That group, the largest facing contract negotiations at one time in several years, includes actors, healthcare and construction workers, electricians and janitors.

To withstand pressure for cutbacks in healthcare and other benefits, workers must support each other, even if their own contracts are not at issue, said Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

"When we stick together, when we fight together, we win together," Durazo declared to wild applause at the event held downtown in the conference center of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels.

She added that workers would confront the looming challenges through labor organizing and political muscle, warning elected officials that labor would hold them accountable for their votes.

"If any elected official fails to defend our core values, then they do not deserve to say they are a friend to workers and labor," Durazo said.

After the breakfast, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony celebrated a Labor Day Mass. He spoke of the rising gap between rich and poor and urged universal healthcare, better schools and comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants.

Immigrant workers in particular need public support, Mahony said, with many living in fear despite their backbreaking contributions to building up the nation's economy.

"Our immigrant people need us to stand with them and help protect their rights," said Mahony, among the most vocal advocates of labor and immigrant rights in the nation's 69-million member Roman Catholic Church. "Otherwise, we are not seeing them in the image and likeness of God."

In Wilmington, thousands of truck drivers, longshoremen, teachers, nurses and other workers joined a Labor Day parade that included floats, classic cars and marching bands, followed by a rally and picnic in nearby Banning Park.

Louie Diaz, parade chairman and vice president of Teamsters Local 848, said retaining healthcare and retirement benefits were two of the labor movement's biggest issues.

But he said he was optimistic.

"The labor movement is on the move as never before," Diaz said. "The unions are now joining, bonding together and building alliances, networks and political power."

Two recent studies offered both gloom and hope for labor's future.

One study released this week found that nearly one-third of Los Angeles County's 3 million full-time workers in 2006 had jobs paying less than $25,000 a year, with little if any health insurance. Jobs in the local economy's fastest-growing sectors -- including food services, retail sales and transportation -- offer low wages and little health insurance, according to the study by the labor-affiliated Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.

A second study showed that robust labor organizing statewide had pushed up union membership rates in California to 16.5% in the first half of 2007 from 15.7% in 2006. The Los Angeles area posted slight increases, according to the study by UCLA's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

The study also found that union membership helped workers win higher pay and better benefits than their nonunion counterparts. In the first half of 2007, for instance, unionized workers averaged $26.82 an hour, compared with $21.58 an hour for nonunion workers.

At the downtown breakfast, attended by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and more than 40 other state and local officials, organizers showed a video presentation of labor's recent victories, including successful efforts to organize security guards. Then several workers facing contract negotiations next year appealed for support.

Jesus Enriquez, a California farmworker, drew a standing ovation when he told the crowd that he dreamed of the day he would be fighting for healthcare benefits. The struggle of farmworkers today, he said, is for far more basic rights, such as shade from the searing sun, sanitary drinking water and clean toilets.

Labor leaders presented an award to an employer they touted as a model for good labor relations -- Stater Bros., the state's largest privately owned supermarket chain, with 162 stores and more than 17,000 employees as of last year. During contract negotiations involving several chains last year, Stater Bros. was the first to step forward and eliminate a two-tiered wage and benefit system less generous to newer employees.

Providing "good, middle-class jobs makes good sense for employees and it makes good sense for business," said George Frahm, a Stater Bros. senior vice president, in accepting the award.

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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