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Unions a Tough Sell in County : Labor Official Cites Workers’ ‘Professional’ Self-Image : MARY YUNT

Times staff writer

When Mary Yunt moved to California from the family farm in Kentucky 28 years ago, she wasn’t sure what a labor union was. Three years later, she took a part-time clerical position with a Teamsters Union local in Los Angeles and, she recalls, “I found my niche.”

She has been a union activist ever since.

In 1979, she was elected secretary-treasurer of the Orange County Central Labor Council, the umbrella lobbying and policy organization for all AFL-CIO-affiliated unions in the county, a post she continues to hold.

As secretary-treasurer, she heads the council and is labor’s chief spokesman in the county--the least unionized county in California with only about 14% of the total work force represented by organized labor, according to the state Employment Development Department.

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Yunt describes herself as “an optimist” and “a liberal who likes to see the underdog win.”

The chief function of the Central Labor Council, she says, is to carry out national AFL-CIO policies for affiliated unions and to assist AFL-CIO unions in the county. The council’s work includes lobbying, political action, strike action, organizing and resolution of contract negotiation problems.

The council, however, has a charter bigger than its capabilities. Because unions are relatively weak in the county, and because the council is supported entirely by dues from union locals, Yunt presides over a staff of just two full-time workers and one part-timer.

There are now about 60 AFL-CIO union locals with headquarters in the county, she says. And many of the unionized workers who live in the county belong to about 90 locals with headquarters in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.

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Yunt is forthright in acknowledging the uphill battle waged by organized labor in the county, where generally high wages, a conservative political structure and the high level of professional employment mitigate against unions. In a recent interview with Times staff writer John O’Dell, she discussed the problems, gains and goals of the labor movement here.

Q. One fallout from the rapidly changing economic structure of Orange County is a dramatic decline in the growth of traditional blue-collar manufacturing jobs. What does that portend for the labor union movement in the county?

A. Well, interestingly enough, it hasn’t shown up as a decline in our membership. Actually, there has been an increase in union membership.

Q. What percentage of the work force is union?

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A. There really aren’t any good, current statistics. The problem is that a lot of union members, especially in the building trades, don’t work for a single employer. But the last formal count that was done by the state showed that about 14% of the workers here were union members, as of 1985. The percentage hadn’t changed much since 1983, but the total number of union members was 140,200, and that was up by 15,200 in 2 years. We think it is still about 14%.

Q. So with about 1.3 million workers in the county, that’s about 188,000 union members. Where are they coming from if manufacturing is down?

A. What is happening here is something that’s happening nationwide. The traditional blue-collar workers are no longer the lifeblood of unions. We’re going to grow in the service industry and in public employment. And so there has been a lot of activity in organizing public employees. Recently the Service Employees International had four successes: organizing municipal employee groups in Anaheim, Santa Ana, Costa Mesa and the County of Orange. They also had a couple of organizing drives that weren’t successful, but we were very close in those contests and, obviously, the interest was there or there would not have been a union election.

Q. What kind of government employees are we talking about?

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A. It crosses a pretty wide spectrum. In Santa Ana, Anaheim and Costa Mesa, they were city employees other than police and fire. In the county unit, the local picked up workers primarily in the environmental management area--the landfill and park maintenance people. And the International Assn. of Machinists & Aerospace Workers recently picked up a unit of city employees in Irvine.

Q. What’s the machinists’ union doing organizing government employees?

A. Well, that’s something we’ll be seeing a lot more of. A few years ago, the national office of the AFL-CIO indicated that many of the old union jurisdictions just didn’t exist anymore. That’s because, for example, if the steelworkers union had to stay with steel, there would be no steelworkers union anymore. So you’ll find a lot of these crossovers. Now almost every major union is organizing public employees and professional employees.

Q. How are county unions doing with the upper white-collar professional workers?

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A. There really has not been, that I know of, any major attempt to organize them. Again, this pretty much follows a trend, it’s not just Orange County. Professionals are very difficult to organize, and I think that will make it a little more difficult for all unions in Orange County, simply because we seem to be going very rapidly to banking, insurance and those kinds of professional occupations. There is still, I don’t know--a tradition--that unions are for only blue-collar people, that they’re the only ones that need them. You have heard people say, “Oh, I’m a professional, so I don’t need a union.”

Q. I wonder how many people realize that there are 60 labor union locals here. Several--the Teamsters being one, the Carpenters another--are very active in what they’re doing for their membership. But when you get out beyond the immediate membership, you don’t hear about unions unless there’s a strike. Is that by design or just the lack of ability to generate a lot interest?

A. If you quote me on this one you’re going to get some controversy. But in my opinion, you still have unions and chief executive officers of unions that were part of the labor movement in the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s, when the movement was different. The labor movement now has members that are younger and better educated and has a much higher percentage of women. There were union ads on TV during the Olympics, and you would have never seen that under George Meany (AFL-CIO president in 1955-79). But I think you still have a lot of people who are chief executive officers in unions who don’t think it’s proper for us to be in the media or be active or well known in the community.

Q. Do government and business come to the Central Labor Council and seek labor’s input?

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A. I would say yes. And I can say conclusively that if there is a problem or a topic that’s coming out that labor should be involved in, we give our opinion even if it isn’t asked for. We call up and give it, and they’re always open to accepting that. The County Transportation Commission repeatedly has asked for labor input, and we’ve talked and given them suggestions. And there are two labor members on each of the private industry councils, the Santa Ana and Orange County councils, working with the job training programs. Also, I served on the airport commission 9 years ago, and now they’re building what was approved back then. So yes, we do try to be active and involved. I know there are some other organizations that we should be involved with, but it’s been a difficult job to convince other union members that they should be serving on these committees and commissions.

Q. But this is a county that thrives on publicity and community involvement. Keeping a distance seems sort of a backwards way of trying to gain acceptance.

A. I believe it is. One of the first things that happened when I was elected was discussion with the executive board of the directions the council had to take in community services. I believe we have to be out in the community.

Q. How successful have you been in achieving that?

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A. Well, I guess the best way I can tell you I know it’s successful is because the phone rings all the time with invitations for me to be in this and that. We’ve been very active in the United Way and all of its agencies--I serve on both the executive committee and the board of United Way. Labor also has two people who work at United Way as full-time people who are labor liaisons. We also have had labor members on Red Cross and the Urban League and on various community organizations. And we have an annual picnic that we started 2 or 3 years ago. We have our annual labor night banquet. We’ve just really encouraged labor members to get together and do things and be visible.

Q. How does an organizing campaign start?

A. A campaign always starts--and most people don’t understand this--with an employee or employees contacting this body or an individual union and asking to talk about being organized.

Q. You say always. That’s not regulated, is it?

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A. No, the union’s not prohibited from going out on its own. But it just isn’t feasible. I mean you can’t cold-call a company and say ‘Hey, would you like us to organize you?’ And the law does say that you can’t go on those premises unless management says you can.

Q. What happens after an employee calls to ask about organizing?

A. Well, if a union is asked in, it generally will first ask that person to produce more interested employees. Then the organizer will generally try to put together an informal meeting--off the premises, obviously--to see what some of the problems are and to find out things, like the current wage structure. From then on, it’s like a pyramid. You get more and more people until you feel that you have a good percentage of the workers. The National Labor Relations Board says a union can file for an election when 30% of the workers have signed election cards. But very seldom are you ever going to file with just 30%. Most unions want about 70%.

Q. With percentages like that, you run a fairly good chance of winning.

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A. And you also have, under the current NLRB, a number of unions that will not go to the board for certification anymore. They are simply demanding that they be recognized on the basis of signed cards, so they want a big majority.

Q. Why won’t they go to the NLRB?

A. Because they feel that it’s not representative and that the issue will be stalled and that they’re probably not going to get certified to represent that group of workers.

Q. You are saying that the labor relations board is anti-union?

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A. Well, an explanation of what NLRB means under the Reagan Administration is ‘Now Largely Represents Business.’

Q. That leads me ask what the Bush election means to labor.

A. I’m not really sure what it’s going to mean to organized labor. I have some feelings about what it’s going to mean to workers in general, and I just think that it’s not going to be good for workers. I think what we’ve seen happening under the Reagan Administration is going to have its effect. And I would have felt that way even if Dukakis had been elected. We have about reached our limit on a number of things, especially in the economy, and the workers are going to be hurt.

Q. But what about the specific relationship between Bush and labor?

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A. I think we’ll continue to see the message sent by the Reagan Administration to management that “anything you want to do is OK.”

Q. Does that really have much of an impact locally?

A. I think it changes the environment; the Reagan Administration changed the environment here. Sure, it has always been difficult to organize in Orange County and still is. But there is a different attitude of management. In the (statewide) food industry strike 2 years ago, what management wanted was a contract that guaranteed employees 16 hours and only 16 hours of work each week. The union had to fight to get 20 hours guaranteed. The real issue in the strike was that employees were not eligible for benefits until they’d worked 20 hours a week, so by guaranteeing only 16 hours, management was saying, ‘See, we don’t have to pay benefits.’ And those were the kinds of attitudes that I feel came from the Reagan Administration.

Q. Benefits seem to have supplanted wages as a major battleground between management and labor.

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A. Mostly, yes. And it’s becoming more and more an issue because medical costs just are not under control. One major illness can wipe you out, whether you’re making union wages or not. And so benefits have become very important. And what we’ve seen to a certain degree is that benefits are used as a hidden issue in the contract negotiations. Management says it’s been paying the whole bill for benefits, and now the employee is going to have to pay $5 a week or whatever. But at the same time, they say they can’t afford a pay increase. So what they’re really telling you is that they we want you to take a $5-a-week pay cut.

Q. Despite what you say is a deteriorating situation for workers, the county has certainly not been a hot spot for unionization. Is that ever going to change?

A. We still are not a hot spot. We’re near Los Angeles, maybe even Riverside and San Bernardino, in the percentage of workers that are union. It seems to be the total mentality and concept of Orange County that works against unions. I would compare the attitude toward unionization to the denial that there’s a homeless problem here; the denial that there’s a drug problem here. People say that those problems don’t exist in Orange County. Orange County is an affluent, suburban area, and people here just think they’re different.

Q. No one ever gets exploited in Orange County?

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A. That’s right. There’s a complete denial: “If I’m in Orange County, then obviously I’m making good wages and get good benefits.” But the truth is that up until just recently, we had been behind Los Angeles, and even behind San Bernardino and Riverside, in wages for many hourly employees.

Q. So what does the labor movement have to offer in a county like this?

A. Well, you’re right that physical exploitation is not here. But there are other needs that need to be addressed. In one recent organizing victory, the most common complaint the workers had was about nepotism and favoritism. It did not matter how long you’d worked there. It did not matter what your experience was. If the supervisor had a son or a daughter that needed a job, they came in and you taught them how to be your boss. And that particular union heard that repeatedly, and that’s why they were successful in organizing that place. So there are subtle kinds of exploitation that need to be addressed.

Q. What can being a member of a labor union offer a worker in the county that they might not be getting if they weren’t a member?

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A. I always sort of answer that this way: If corporations and management are treating their employees fair, with good benefits and good wages and are listening to employees’ complaints, labor movements won’t exist. So that’s it. I mean, the reason unions are continuing to grow is that employees feel they have those problems.

Q. So it still is very much an adversary relationship between union and management?

A. It still is. There’s a trend, I think, to try to overcome that, but it’s still there.


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