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New Breed Tackles Tough Job of Organizing San Diego Labor : College-Educated Idealists Shun Better-Paying Jobs for Chance to Help Improve Workers’ Lot

Times Staff Writer

One would never expect the lives of Mary Grillo and Doug Baylis to cross.

Grillo comes from an affluent East Coast family, attended exclusive Wellesley College and, she says, was “expected to marry a Harvard man.”

Baylis was raised in San Diego by working-class parents. Although he received a state scholarship to UC San Diego, Baylis had to work his way through school doing menial jobs, even shining shoes for money during his freshman year.

But Grillo and Baylis have one thing in common--a burning idealism that has attracted them to the labor movement as proponents of workers’ rights. They are both union organizers in San Diego County, where unions are usually equated with the plague.

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‘A Difficult Job’

“Organizing is a difficult job, and they are deserving of our support. . . . We need more of them,” said Joe Francis, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

Grillo, 28, described a life that had been mapped out for her. After graduating from Wellesley in 1982, her parents expected her to marry within her social circle, she said, after which they looked forward to seeing her settle comfortably into Eastern Establishment life. Her father, an executive vice president with a corporation in conservative New Hampshire, and her mother, a music teacher, expected no less.

But Grillo, 28, had plotted out her own future by the time she was a college freshman. By her sophomore year, while other Wellesley women were playing field hockey, Grillo was interning at a Service Employees International Union local in Boston, learning about negotiating union contracts and organizing workers.

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After graduating with degrees in political science and economics, Grillo surprised her family by going to work for the SEIU.

‘Weren’t Real Happy’

“They wanted me to go into investment banking. . . . They weren’t real happy when I went to work for the union after graduation. I worked as a volunteer first, because the SEIU didn’t hire me directly. The union wasn’t particularly looking for Wellesley graduates,” she said wryly.

According to Grillo, her mother saw it as “a repudiation of my father” when she refused to interview with the corporations that descend on campuses to recruit graduating seniors. Her relationship with her parents was further strained when Grillo turned down an opportunity to go to law school and instead went to work for the SEIU, which represents service workers in the public and private sectors.

Six years later, after stops in about a dozen U. S. cities, Grillo resides in San Diego, where she is doing what she does best--organizing some of the most poorly paid workers in the county for the SEIU Local 102. Despite the long hours and the crimp that it puts in her social life, Grillo finds her job rewarding.

But the rewards are intangible rather than financial. After five years on the union payroll, Grillo earns only $24,000 a year--a little more, and, in some instances, less, than some of the workers she has organized.

Grillo is typical of a new breed of college-educated union organizers who are organizing workers in San Diego County. Despite sometimes wide differences in economic and social background, they are united and motivated by a 1960s-style idealism and by injustices they have seen in the workplace.

But the main thing all of them have in common is that they have forsaken the higher-paying jobs that their education could bring them for long hours in dingy union halls and weekends trying to persuade workers to join the trade-union movement. They are now organizing machinists, ironworkers, gardeners, county employees, janitors and hotel, bar and restaurant workers.

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Their efforts are more than a job, Grillo and her colleagues say. Organizing workers is a mission, a chance for each organizer to leave his or her mark on the world--a mark that will remain long after he or she is gone.

“We do it because it has to be done. I don’t think of it in terms of a job,” Grillo said. “It’s not that I like working on Saturdays, blowing away my weekends. I’m no martyr. I work on Saturdays because the people I’m trying to organize work on Saturday. . . . Sixty-hour weeks are not uncommon when you’re an organizer. But you’re proud of what you do. So much of who I am emanates from my job, and my job reflects so much of me.”

During her freshman year at Wellesley, Grillo became friends with a state labor officer. The next year she received an internship at the SEIU Local 285 in Boston, where she began to work on her “good faculty for talking and organizing.”

Grillo remembered family dinners at which her father, who is in charge of company operations, would talk about his bargaining sessions with union representatives. Today, when she visits her parents, Grillo said, she and her father “compare arbitration and grievance hearings,” but she added that she “could never sit across the table and bargain a contract” with her father.

Aggressive Union

As with most jobs, Grillo’s has its ups and downs. In the last two years, Local 102 has become probably the most aggressive union in the county, representing about 2,200 service workers. The union’s most recent triumph was the organization of about 230 employees of Hartson’s Medical Services, which has a paramedic contract with San Diego. Grillo is also attempting to organize 500 county employees and 100 gardeners and janitors at the North Island Naval Air Station.

But disappointments are also common. Local 102 is attempting to organize gardeners who work for landscape companies. Recently, the union passed out flyers publicizing an organizing meeting and encouraged gardeners to attend. The meeting was scheduled at a Coronado park, but only one person showed up.

“Doubts do arise at times, and you ask yourself if you’re doing any good. . . . When this happens, I allow myself time to be depressed and then go on to the next campaign,” said Grillo.

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Unlike Grillo, Doug Baylis, a member of the Ironworkers Shopman’s Local 627, was raised in San Diego and comes from a blue-collar family. Baylis, 37, graduated with honors from UC San Diego, where he earned a master’s degree in 1974 in applied physics and computer science. He worked in the computer field until 1978, when he enrolled in a 20-week welding course at a local trade school and, upon completing the course, went to work at National Steel & Shipbuilding Co. as a welder.

“Welding and working with my hands were more in tune with my interests. Sure, I had a good education, but my heart was not in physics or computer science,” said Baylis, who earns “under $30,000" annually.

In 1986, when he was laid off from his shipyard job, Baylis was accepted at several law schools, including Berkeley’s Boalt Hall, but instead opted for a job with the Ironworkers International Union as an organizer.

“My background is strictly blue collar. I got a state scholarship to UCSD, otherwise I never could have afforded to go to college. During my freshman year, I worked in a shoe repair shop, shining shoes, and have had a variety of menial jobs. . . . As an organizer, I get immense satisfaction in terms of taking workers who work in sweatshops and helping them attain better wages, a sense of dignity and job security,” said Baylis.

“People, particularly those who live in San Diego County, say that they don’t need unions. . . . But a working person is just a machine to to some companies. I’ve seen it at Nassco. A worker gets killed on the job, no problem, the company simply hires someone else,” said Baylis. " . . . The way some people are getting treated is wrong. I’ve got the ability to correct that. I can change that situation. When I die, I want people to say that, because I was a trade unionist, I left the world a better place.”

Local 627 has a reputation as being perhaps the most militant union in the county. The Ironworkers Union in general has a long history of radicalism. It was two ironworkers, brothers John and James McNamara, who were convicted of bombing the non-union Los Angeles Times building in 1910 during a labor dispute between the union and publisher Harrison Gray Otis. Some ironworkers were also charged with conspiring to explode bombs at the Nassco shipyard during a labor dispute in the 1970s.

But the union is now relying on progressive and sophisticated organizers such as Baylis to temper the its image and increase membership. As do the other organizers, Baylis puts in long hours that keep him away from his wife and two children. Recently, Baylis has been working on an organizing drive in San Bernardino, which requires him to leave his San Diego home at 3 a.m. and not return until as late as 8 p.m.

“First of all, we’re professionals. You don’t have to be college-educated to be a good organizer. But a college education becomes a plus when you negotiate contracts, particularly when you have to interpret management’s offer. The workplace, like the work force, is changing. Jobs are becoming increasingly complex and sophisticated, and so is contract language. You have to be on your toes, because management will slip it by you every chance they get,” said Baylis.

His wife, Debbie, is also a UCSD graduate and earned a degree in industrial psychology. She also worked as a welder at Nassco and is now studying for her master’s degree in computer science at San Diego State University.

Both Baylis and Grillo said they do not advertise their college degrees to the people they work with or are trying to organize.

“Working people aren’t easily dazzled by a diploma,” Baylis said. “You earn their respect through hard work and by achieving results. A master’s in applied physics doesn’t mean jack when you’re in the hold of ship with other welders. Down there, we’re all equal. The only thing that may set us apart is the quality of our workmanship.”


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