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Union membership in California increases despite recession, study finds

A UCLA report discovers that unions added 25,000 new members in Southern California and more than 131,000 statewide between July 2008 and June 2009.

September 08, 2009|Patrick J. McDonnell

Union membership throughout California is rising despite the ongoing recession, according to a study released Monday by UCLA's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment

Between July 2008 and June 2009, unions gained almost 25,000 new members in Southern California and more than 131,000 statewide, according to the institute's fifth annual report on the state of organized labor.

Union workers still represent fewer than one in five employees in the state, but membership has grown steadily for two years.

"It's quite amazing that the recession hasn't caused a decline in unionization," said Lauren Appelbaum, lead author of the study.

Recessions tend to batter union jobs, particularly in the manufacturing sector, experts say. In the current recession, however, California manufacturing has fared somewhat better than elsewhere in the nation. Appelbaum said the residential-construction sector, which is relatively nonunion, was hit hard.

Union growth in California has been driven by the state's emergence as a hub of grass-roots organization, especially among low-wage employees like janitors, healthcare workers and security guards, said Appelbaum and Chris Tilly, the institute's director and a professor of urban planning at UCLA.

"Unions have developed strategies that seem to be much more successful, and they're adding members," Tilly said.

Across the country, according to the UCLA study, average hourly earnings for union workers are about $4 more than for nonunion employees. Government workers are much more likely to be unionized than those in the private sector, according to statistics from the Department of Labor.

For decades, union membership, now at 12.4% of all workers in the United States, had been declining until registering slight gains during the last two years, experts said. California's uptick in union members has outpaced the modest national increase.

The UCLA study showed that union members now represent 18.3% of all employees in California, and 17.5% of all workers in the southern California region, encompassing Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Ventura and San Bernardino counties.

California ranked sixth among all states in percentage of workers represented by unions in 2008, according to the Union Membership and Coverage Database, a compilation by scholars at Georgia State and Florida State universities. California ranks behind New York at 24.9% of workers, Hawaii at 24.3%, Alaska at 23.5%, Washington at 19.8% and Michigan at 18.8%, the database shows.

In downtown Los Angeles, Labor Day was marked by a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Roger Mahony. Before the service held at the Cathedral of Our Lady of The Angels, Mahony blessed a sanitation truck, calling the act "a symbol of the dignity of our work." While delivering the blessing, he sprinkled the truck, parked outside the cathedral, with holy water.

"Bless this truck, and those who use this truck," Mahony said. "May they travel and use it safely, with care for the safety of others."

During Mass, he called on unions and employers to work together to put people back to work in lasting employment befitting today's economy.

"It isn't just a matter of replacing yesterday's jobs with more of yesterday's jobs," Mahony told worshipers, including many union activists wearing T-shirts displaying their union affiliation. "That may have no future."

Among those attending was Ana Castro, 53, a native of El Salvador who has worked as a union janitor in downtown Los Angeles for more than 12 years. She said she earns $13 an hour, with healthcare coverage, almost double the amount she garnered in a previous, nonunion job.

"I'm with the union," said Castro, who brought a mop to the church service as a symbol of her work. "I know we're much better off being organized than not."

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patrick.mcdonnell @latimes.com

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