This has been a hard couple years — on top of a hard era — for organized labor. The percentage of American workers who belong to a union has continued its long slide, dropping from 12.3% in 2009 to 11.9% in 2010. Those numbers are even starker if viewed through a longer lens: In 1983, more than 1 in 5 American workers was a member of a union; today it's barely half that. Moreover, while those numbers testify to the eroding faith many Americans have in organized labor to represent their interests — as well as the cunning tactics of employers to thwart organizing — they do not capture this year's singular, highly ideological rage.
Wisconsin was the centerpiece of that partisan fury. There, the conflict began over the Republican governor's attempt to address the state budget shortfall of more than $3 billion, but it quickly morphed into an attack on the bargaining rights of unions. Highlighted by histrionics on both sides, the faceoff dominated a few news cycles, produced an inconclusive set of recall elections and sharpened the hard feelings on both sides.
What's especially intriguing about that fracas, in historical terms, is that it occurred in Wisconsin, which has enjoyed a fairly appreciative relationship with organized labor over the decades. Indeed, Wisconsin in 1959 became the first state to recognize public employee unions, the very ones that became the objects of such derision this year.
And that's doubly notable when you consider the contrast to Los Angeles. About the same time that Wisconsin gave public employees the right to organize, Norman Chandler, then publisher of this newspaper, publicly boasted that he'd never had to sit across a negotiating table from a union leader (he died without doing so). The united stance against labor on the part of the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles city government was a defining feature of the city from its earliest days, the infamous low-light of which was the 1910 bombing of The Times in retaliation for the paper's position on an ironworkers' strike. The bomb killed 20 employees and hardened the paper's determination to fight labor with all the resources at its disposal.
Today, the labor picture in Los Angeles is radically different. Even as labor has lost clout nationally, in Los Angeles it has greatly expanded its influence and horizons, organizing new groups of workers and pressing its case with allies in city, county and state government. Roughly 16.5% of Los Angeles workers are union members, up from less than 15% five years ago. In recent months, labor has helped organize hotel workers near LAX and in Hollywood, and it's added security workers to its successful campaign to organize janitors (that was an especially important addition, as it brought representation to a largely African American labor group). Organizers are beginning to target waste and recycling workers, and they are eyeing the potentially significant new force of "green" workers, those creating or installing solar panels and other environmental technologies.
Those efforts are testament to the work of many people, but none more than Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Durazo, whose late husband, Miguel Contreras, is widely credited with igniting Los Angeles labor as a political and social force, has concentrated on organizing low-wage workers and building coalitions with clergy, environmental groups, advocates for immigrant rights and others. One result, says Madeline Janis, the executive director of the labor-connected group Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, is that labor here — unlike in some parts of the country — operates with both a coherent vision and a specific strategy.
Interviewed in her office last week, Durazo acknowledged that "in some ways, L.A. is the exception" to the national trends in labor, but stressed that the work remains arduous. Grocery workers are considering a strike. Business leaders, though cooperative on projects such as the proposed downtown football stadium, complain that labor demands too much in tough economic times.
Politically, labor's influence is significant if uneven. United Teachers Los Angeles has antagonized not only the public but many in the labor movement with its defense of a failing status quo; the Los Angeles Police Protective League is still habitually referred to as "politically powerful," but there's not much evidence of that anymore.
But labor puts boots on the ground and helps elect candidates at all levels. The union representing the city's Department of Water and Power employees wields what many consider too much control of that agency. And Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has had his differences with his old labor allies, despite Durazo being one of his closest friends. Still, his current emphasis on jobs is welcomed in the movement. "He hasn't had all the focus that he needs," Durazo said of Villaraigosa. But his work on accelerating transportation projects is a "great contribution."
Local labor's successes will hearten those who believe organizing can pave the way to a better future for workers in a deeply troubled economy. It will agitate those who view unions as rigid and overly demanding. Durazo, meanwhile, is plowing ahead. "We're trying to change the exclusivity of the labor movement," she said. "It's not about 'Are you a member?' It's about lifting as many people as possible to a respectable standard of living."