The nurses at the Canoga Park Public Health Center earlier this year gave Michael Pirkkala, their new union representative, an ultimatum.
The nurses told Pirkkala that they'd quit the union if he failed, as had his predecessors, to accomplish anything on their behalf, said Maxine Falls, a nursing supervisor.
Within weeks, the nurses got results. Pirkkala turned the nursing staff into lunchtime pickets who protested the clinic's leaky ceilings, broken toilets, filthy examination rooms and a bug infestation. A few of the clinic's cockroaches, trapped in bottles, even made an appearance on the picket line. In no time, Los Angeles County officials, stung by the bad press generated by the protests, ordered the facility cleaned up.
"I know the only thing the county cares about is being embarrassed," said Pirkkala, who hopes the Canoga Park nurses' gumption will be contagious.
Being embarrassed doesn't seem to bother Pirkkala, who has represented county workers belonging to Local 660 of the Service Employees International Union for the past two years. Since February, he has been the union business agent for the 2,500 county health workers in the northern portion of the county.
At a time when labor leaders around the country seem to be in retreat and union membership has been dropping, Pirkkala might seem to be an anachronism. He continues to believe that organized labor is the only salvation for workers and says, defiantly, "Unions are back, Jack."
Security police have thrown him out of county buildings, frustrated county workers almost punched him out once and he's been yelled at a lot. Then there was the time he dramatically urged a roomful of county welfare workers in Echo Park to leave their typewriters and follow him outside to protest poor working conditions. They just stared at him and asked, "Who the hell are you?" he said.
Considering his background, it's not surprising that Pirkkala, 32, has been giving county officials fits. Born in the shadow of steel mills in gritty New Castle, Pa., all the men in Pirkkala's family punched time cards in the mills. In grade school, teachers taught Pirkkala and his classmates labor songs and a weathered union card was ranked with the Liberty Bell as a symbol of patriotism.
As a child, Pirkkala watched his grandfather, father and uncles get laid off--often at Christmastime. He said the steel company executives thought they could patch things up by handing out new basketballs to the kids or giving families free turkey dinners.
Pirkkala said he learned that it was "total fantasy" to believe that an employee who performed his job well would be rewarded. Only union membership, he concluded, could give the little guy leverage.
The union he chose to work for operates the biggest local in the western United States. Local 660, which represents 40,000 Los Angeles County employees, is also the union group most detested by the conservative Board of Supervisors.
Nonetheless, Pirkkala said he avoids confrontation unless there are no other options. Instead, he said he encourages employees, who might lack confidence, to realize that they have the ability to improve their working lives.
One of those he convinced was Juanita Fry, a typist clerk at the county's welfare office in El Monte. Fry said Pirkkala was persistent in encouraging her to join the labor team negotiating a new contract.
In the midst of the negotiations, Fry recalled saying, "I don't know why I ever started this. He'd say, 'Because you're good.' He builds up your confidence."
The union, with Pirkkala's help, persuaded the county to bring in more people to help with the endless stream of paperwork in the El Monte office, Fry said. Once, when Pirkkala thought supervisors weren't willing to listen to the workers' grievances, he passed out whistles to everybody in the office and instructed them to blow simultaneously.
"They came unglued," Fry said. "It did get their attention."
"When he came in, the administration treated us more like equals and treated their employees much better than they used to," Fry said.
County officials declined to comment about Pirkkala, who once grew a beard after tiring of county workers calling him "the kid." The supervisor in the El Monte welfare office just laughed when asked about Pirkkala, but also would not comment.
Pirkkala got his start organizing while majoring in political science at San Diego State University in the 1980s. He also immersed himself in the anti-apartheid and nuclear disarmament movements and Democratic politics.
"Once he left the campus, the level of student activity really declined," said Herb Shore, a physics professor who worked with Pirkkala on nuclear issues. "Somehow he could energize people and keep after people."
After graduation, he joined a Democratic political consulting firm in downtown San Diego until one day when he saw two different picket sites while driving to work.
"When I got to work I said, 'Man, this is a great day in America. There is labor unrest up and down Broadway!' "
At lunchtime, Pirkkala went back and introduced himself to demonstrating janitors and volunteered to help. It was that experience that led him to seek a career as a labor organizer.
Pirkkala's politics are left of left. He disdains yuppies, but wears classy wire-rimmed glasses decorated with a touch of tortoise shell. His left ear is pierced with a tiny diamond stud and he seems to fuel his intensity by puffing cigarettes.
Rules sometimes seem an inconvenience to him. To celebrate the nurses' victory at the Canoga Park clinic, Pirkkala arrived one day unannounced with three large pizzas for lunch. As everyone crowded into the tiny lunchroom, a reporter invited by Pirkkala to cover the event was summoned to a phone in the next room. The callers were two county health officials, who were furious at Pirkkala for not getting permission for the visit.
When asked about it later, Pirkkala just smiled.
He also didn't bother to inform county staffers that he would be visiting nurses on the graveyard shift at Olive View Medical Center recently. Once there, he joined a conversation between a nursing manager and a nurse who was complaining about the potential danger of being accidentally pricked by contaminated needles. When the nursing manager learned who he was, she called a security guard and he was told he would be arrested if he didn't leave. Pirkkala grudgingly walked out.
"I thought about risking it, but I thought it's late at night and what if my supervisor wouldn't turn off his answering machine" and answer the phone, he said, smiling.