Is L.A. the Place for a Resurgent Union Movement?

Gregory Rodriguez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a research fellow at Pepperdine's Institute for Public Policy

The AFL-CIO’s 54-member executive council will be convening its winter meeting this week in Los Angeles--not South Florida, as it has for seven decades--because the nation’s labor leaders say they want to be closer to where the action is.

Miguel Contreras, who heads the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the nation’s second-largest metropolitan labor council, will open the proceedings with a pitch to the executive council to invest in union organizing in Los Angeles. To cement his case, he is likely to contend that L.A. is critical to the future of labor for some of the same reasons that New York was earlier this century. Ours is the most heavily immigrant metropolis in America, and immigrants once made up the backbone of many American unions. Los Angeles also has the nation’s largest manufacturing base, the traditional source of union strength.

Contreras may also speak of the enormous potential for organizing the region’s Latino immigrants, who constitute nearly a quarter of the county’s workers and 38% of Angelenos employed in manufacturing. Such an appeal would dovetail with the national leadership’s reemphasis on organizing, in general, and recruiting “minorities,” in particular. But the larger question is whether organized labor will give the foreign-born Latino working class a boost up the economic ladder.

The recent ascendance of Latinos to the top posts of several local unions, as well as the County Federation of Labor, has buttressed expectations that immigrants will use unions as a means of securing their portion of the American Dream. But just as the local labor leadership will have to convince national leaders of the importance of Los Angeles to the labor movement, so, too, will they have to sell the viability of unions to a growing and vital sector of the work force.


Immigrants were not always the coveted targets of Southern California’s union organizers. In the 1970s, it was common for local unions to call the Immigration and Naturalization Service when foreign-born strike breakers, legal or illegal, were employed. Immigrants, in general, were often dismissed as too docile to join labor unions. It was only when it became clear that foreign-born workers presented an opportunity to strengthen the waning movement that more and more organizers became convinced of the necessity of organizing immigrant workers.

Enlightened self-interest, then, induced California’s labor movement to become one of the state’s most pro-immigrant institutions. David Sickler, special assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO and the person widely credited with turning around local unions’ approach to immigrants, says labor leaders have worked hard to promote the image of unions as immigrant-friendly. In 1994, California’s labor leaders were among the most vocal opponents of Proposition 187, the anti-illegal-immigrant initiative. Even the state’s more conservative building-trade unions, which have called for tougher sanctions against companies hiring illegal immigrants, opposed 187. Without union backing, the October 1994 march against 187 probably would not have materialized into the largest protest in Los Angeles history.

After Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, the AFL-CIO started the Laborers Immigrant Assistance Project to help eligible immigrants wade through the amnesty process. In 1989, the union founded CIWA, the California Immigrant Workers Assn., to promote both organizing and the “culture of unionism” among immigrants. At its high point, CIWA had upward of 12,000 members and played key roles in several of the most successful union-organizing efforts involving Latino immigrants. Citing budgetary concerns, the AFL-CIO terminated funding for the project in 1994.

In the 1990s, several highly publicized efforts to mobilize Latino immigrant workers have been undertaken. In 1990, 200 Central American and Mexican-born janitors of Service Employees International Union Local 399 struck and negotiated major increases in wages and health care. In 1990 and 1992, respectively, machinists at American Racing Equipment and drywall hangers in Orange County organized themselves and staged wild-cat strikes, leading to union representation and higher wages. Labor activists point to these and other successes as proof that Latino immigrants are single-handedly spearheading a resurgence in Southern California ‘s labor movement.


But the absolute numbers of foreign-born Latino workers who have been organized in the past several years is relatively small, according to Kent Wong, director of the Center for Labor Research at UCLA. As of 1994, only 12.4% of foreign-born Latino workers in Los Angeles County were unionized, compared with 19.2% overall. At 26%, U.S.-born whites have the highest rate of unionization in the county.

While several local unions have begun individual campaigns to organize foreign-born workers, it will take, by all accounts, major injections of money from international unions and the national AFL-CIO, as well as new strategies, to organize a critical mass of immigrant workers in Los Angeles. The decade’s organizing victories here are largely regarded as demonstrating potential that can only be realized if the national AFL-CIO goes after L.A. like it is going after Nevada. Last week, President John J. Sweeney announced plans for the largest organizing effort in decades, a $6-million-plus campaign to fully unionize Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project, a much-heralded, areawide, multiunion, community-based effort aimed at organizing the Alameda Corridor has lost support from eight of the nine unions that had initially funded it. While some unions like UNITE, the garment union, pulled out to push their own organizing, others dropped their support out of the belief that Los Angeles is just too difficult to organize. Daniel Stewart, organizing director for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, is pessimistic about his organization’s ability to unionize the corridor’s estimated 17,000 workers in the plastic industry.

The decision by Guess? to move a large portion of its clothing manufacturing to Mexico to avoid, in part, a union-led campaign against it exemplifies the difficulties L.A.'s labor unions face. While the mobility of capital is not unique to the region, our proximity to the border makes the problem all the worse. Certainly, Las Vegas’ appeal for organizers is due, in large part, to the fact that hotels can’t pick up and move to Asia.

There is also the question of whether a downsized economy can be effectively organized. While this is a national challenge for unionizers, Los Angeles seems to best express it. Two-thirds of the region’s labor force works in companies with fewer than 1,000 employees. Of the nation’s 50 largest urban areas, L.A. has the third-highest percentage of firms with fewer than 100 employees.

Its demographics and economy make Los Angeles a laboratory for the future of American labor. It remains to be seen whether organized labor can make itself as relevant to the region’s Latino immigrant workers, as it was for European immigrants earlier this century.