Even with slight improvements in the economy, the labor movement in
Los Angeles continues to face challenges in 2013, fighting to keep what it has
and head off renewed efforts to scale back salaries and pensions.
At the same time, the L.A. labor movement is being singled out for its work in organizing new workers, immigration reform and other social issues that have helped it gain new power.
"The power I'm looking for is the power to change and get working people out of poverty," said Maria Elena Durazo, the executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, an umbrella group with some 600,000 members from unions throughout the region.
"This is not about me having power. It is about getting workers out of the poverty level and into the middle class."
But to do that, Durazo and the union have had to focus on the lower-paid jobs such as fast-food workers and retail clerks.
"We are working to fight the declining standard of living for all workers. That's why we are working so hard on immigrant rights," Durazo said, adding that the unions are committed to immigration reform and organizing those workers. "It is a very aggressive way (of) getting safe conditions for them."
Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Downtown Labor Center, credits Durazo with leading much of the political discussion over immigration.
"She was critical in opening the national debate on immigration reform, and the unions that have been successful in organizing immigrant workers have been in Los Angeles," Wong said. "Justice for Janitors, home care workers and hotel workers -- it all spearheaded the call for embracing immigrant workers and became a turning point for unions.
"Two years ago, the unions would not have embraced immigrant reform and a path for citizenship, but they are the ones pushing it now."
As a sign of the strength of the Los Angeles labor movement, the national AFL-CIO is holding its quadrennial convention in the city starting Sept. 8. The last time it was in Los Angeles was in 1999, and it is expected to attract 2,000 labor leaders from around the country.
President Barack Obama is scheduled to address the union leaders as part of his effort to promote middle-class jobs. Also expected to appear are Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Labor Secretary Tom Perez.
"Los Angeles has become the hub of so many worker-rights campaigns and has set up so many successful models in organizing," AFL-CIO spokeswoman Amaya Tune said. "We think Los Angeles is the perfect spotlight for workers all over the country. What they have done is show how the workforce has changed and how you can do something different as a labor group."
Tune agreed that Durazo has become a national leader in both the union movement and in politics. "She has been a huge figure in Los Angeles but also has become a major national figure," she said. "So, it's important for us to come to where she calls home."
It is in Los Angeles that the latest tactic of one-day walkouts has developed, targeting large retailers like Wal-Mart as well as fast-food franchises. But some of their greatest strength and controversy has been with its public employee unions.
"There was a time that public employee unions were in the backseat of the union movement," said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. "It was the business and private sector unions with all the power. But now the public employee unions are driving a lot of the issues."
Politically, in Los Angeles, the unions did well in City Council races. The city unions and the county Federation of Labor did not do as well in the mayor's race, throwing more than $4 million in on behalf of former Controller Wendy Greuel, only to see Councilman Eric Garcetti win the election.
Garcetti, who has never been an enemy of the unions, did campaign about how the city unions -- particularly the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18 at the Department of Water and Power -- had campaigned for Greuel.
Durazo said though she has yet to meet with Garcetti, she hopes to soon. "I have reached out to him but haven't heard back yet," she said.
Dan Schnur, executive director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said it is a surprising turn in local politics. "If I had told you a year ago that pro-labor Eric Garcetti would need an intermediary to engage the unions, you wouldn't have believed me," he said. "But the nature of the campaign was such that even while he had a lot of labor support, it became muted."
He said the reason Garcetti's campaign resonated with voters is that it is the public employee unions who most affect the local services people receive, from police and fire to sanitation and street repair.
"Actually, our polls show that people generally like unions," Schnur said. "Their concern is when it looks like the public employees have too much influence over government."
Also, Sonenshein said, part of the problems the union movement faces is expectations. "The expectation is they will always win," he noted. "Like any front runner in politics, they have nowhere to go but disappoint when they fall short."
And, he points out, in Los Angeles there is an additional issue. "When you are so successful, you become the establishment," Sonenshein said. "And this city has a long history of the public rebelling against whatever establishment group there is."
As for the future, the unions are looking to repeat their success at the county Board of Supervisors.
They were strong supporters of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. For this coming year, two announced candidates are former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who wants to succeed Supervisor Gloria Molina and former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, who wants to succeed Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Solis and Kuehl both have strong ties to labor.
Most Popular Stories
- Small-Business Loans Fueling Economic Growth
- Comic-Con Offers Toy Designers a Chance to Go Wild
- Google Chrome Bug Draining Batteries: Report
- Tesco Head Steps Down After Profit Warning
- Want a Job? Try Minneapolis
- Clinton Wants U.S., E.U. to Get Tough on Russia
- Startup Makes It Easier to Buy American
- GM Looking for Ignition Fix for Certain Cadillacs
- BlackBerry Appoints New COO from LiveOps Inc.
- U.S. Stocks Start the Week on Shaky Ground