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Labor Day unites unions

At a Wilmington rally, leaders talk of progress and struggles. SEIU officials suspected of wrongdoing are absent.

September 02, 2008|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Hundreds of Southern California workers rallied Monday at a Labor Day gathering, with union leaders hailing improved working conditions for some but highlighting steep challenges facing others.

Amid a festive atmosphere -- the hot dogs were free and the speeches fiery -- Los Angeles labor chief Maria Elena Durazo told those gathered at Banning Park in Wilmington that some workers had made progress in the last year. She cited 1,000 newly unionized hotel workers and what she called a "big breakthrough" for thousands of security guards who won a 40% hike in wages and benefits this year.

At the same time, many talked of less positive developments: rising prices, a declining economy, the state budget shortfall and the lack of universal healthcare.

Union membership nationally rose this year for the first time after more than a decade of decline. And Durazo said Monday that new government statistics show that poverty across Southern California declined between 2000 and 2007. She said the two trends were probably related.

"We're far from alleviating poverty, but we have big chunks of the labor market where we have been successful," said Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor AFL-CIO.

Leaders with the Service Employees International Union who are under investigation for alleged financial improprieties were conspicuously absent from the noon rally and a Labor Day breakfast.

According to a labor federation spokeswoman, members of the United Long-Term Care Workers attended the breakfast but its president, Tyrone Freeman, did not. Freeman is facing a federal criminal investigation and congressional probe of allegations first reported in The Times that he was involved in funneling union funds to companies run by his wife and mother-in-law.

The SEIU's top California officer, Annelle Grajeda, was also a no-show. Grajeda, The Times reported Sunday, took a leave of absence amid allegations that she was improperly involved in union payments to her former boyfriend.

Grajeda had been scheduled to speak at the rally but did attend or call to explain why, said Louie Diaz, a Teamsters vice president and chairman of the Los Angeles-Long Beach Harbor Coalition, which organized the rally.

Mary Gutierrez, spokeswoman for the L.A. County labor federation, said union leaders were waiting for results of the investigations. She said they continued to support the workers in those unions.

"Ultimately, what's best for the workers is our priority," she said.

The rally featured several speakers who urged support for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and for the cause of universal healthcare. Several union representatives passed out literature and sold T-shirts.

While some talked of progress, others at the rally lamented their current labor conditions.

Until six months ago, Ernesto Lopez, a 50-year-old Norwalk resident, owned and operated his own business, hauling goods from the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. But rising costs for fuel and equipment and increased road taxes forced him to sell his truck, he said. By then, his take-home pay had been squeezed to $500 a week, less than half of what he had been making five years ago.

Lopez said he was waiting for the port truck drivers to win their fight to unionize before restarting his business. Under a union contract, he said, he would make more hourly. About 15,000 truck drivers who are classified as independent owners/operators are fighting for status as employees of transportation firms and for union representation.

Education workers also talked of worsening job conditions.

Lillian Taiz, president of the roughly 20,000-member California Faculty Assn., said the Cal State system's budget was cut by 20% in 2002 and faces a proposed cut of $288 million, or about 7%, this year.

As a result, she said, the workload for faculty members has ballooned. The number of students in her U.S. history classes has increased by as much as 50% since she started teaching two decades ago, making it difficult for her to spend the time she wants with them.

"It's a nightmare," said Taiz, who added that the rise in class sizes has turned what used to be a joy into a grind.

Jill Furillo of the 80,000-member California Nurses Assn. said nurses in the state have made progress in the last several years. The ratio of patients per nurse is down to five from 15, she said.

But Deann McEwen said registered nurses like herself are treating patients sicker than before because they lack the health insurance to address their problems at an earlier stage. Seeing patients die from preventable illnesses has made the job even tougher, she said.

"It's time to make healthcare a right," McEwen said.

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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