Unions Gain Ground in Golden State

Times Staff Writer

Although unions continue to shrink nationally, California labor has managed to turn things around, adding 500,000 members and increasing its share of the state’s workforce since 1997.

The growth, detailed in a report to be released today by the University of California’s Institute for Labor and Employment, is driven in part by history and lucky circumstance. But aggressive organizing by several unions, including the state’s largest -- the Service Employees International Union -- also has played an important role.

“There is a lot of demoralization among people who support unions,” said Ruth Milkman, director of the UC center and the report’s main author. “Here we see at least the prospect of an alternate path. We see that it is possible to grow.”

In 2002, 18% of California’s wage and salary workers belonged to unions, up from 16% in 1997. For the same period, union membership nationwide declined from 16% to 13%.


Both figures are far below labor’s glory days in the 1950s, when more than one-third of U.S. and California workers belonged to unions.

The decades-long decline has many causes, including the loss of traditional union jobs in manufacturing and the fast growth of jobs in typically nonunion sectors such as business services. Most labor leaders concede that unions were slow to respond to those changes in the economy and, until recently, failed to put sufficient energy and resources into recruiting new members.

California labor was cushioned a bit because manufacturing was not as highly unionized in the state as it was nationally, so the loss of those jobs had less effect on union density. Conversely, the state had higher-than-average unionization in health care and the public sector, both of which have grown tremendously.

As of 2002, unionization rates were higher in California than the national average for all industry groups except manufacturing. More significant, the state trend has been toward growth in both the public and the private sectors.


“We look at California as an example of what is possible for the rest of the country,” said Stewart Acuff, organizing director for the AFL-CIO. “It’s a place where a lot of people have worked extremely hard and done a lot of things right.”

The UC report traces union density, or the percentage of workers who are union members, from 1997 to 2002. It drew from federal census data as well as the results of a survey sent to 1,600 union locals. More than 80% of the union locals responded, giving a snapshot of California labor that has not existed since the state stopped conducting a similar survey 16 years ago.

The report underscores the significance of the SEIU, which represents about 17% of the state’s 2.58 million union members. The SEIU’s members include health-care workers, from hospital cooks to nurses, as well as city, county and state clerks and other administrative workers, social workers, parole officers, commercial janitors and security guards. The union added 200,000 members in the last decade.

That growth “was a matter of choice, not chance,” said Eliseo Medina, SEIU executive vice president for the Western region. More than a decade ago, under then-national President John Sweeney, the union decided to be more focused and methodical about bringing in new members, Medina said. It hired organizers, increased the budget for campaigns and settled on three target areas -- health care, public sector work and building services. All three areas have seen high job growth.

The union also moved away from “hot shop” organizing, in which it responds to small groups of workers who are angry and want to join a union. Instead, SEIU became more strategic, selecting key employers and using community groups, investors, building tenants and others to pressure them not to fight the union.

“We used to go out and spend a huge amount of energy to organize 500 people,” Medina said. “Now we invest the same time and energy, but at the end you wind up with 50,000 members.”

The SEIU’s biggest success story, and a major factor in the state’s union growth, was its campaign to organize home-care workers, who help feed, bathe and do chores for the disabled or homebound.

The workers are paid through the counties with some federal and state funds but are hired directly by the people for whom they work. That arrangement presented a challenge to organizers, because it wasn’t clear who was the actual employer. Unions cannot organize without an employer of record with whom to bargain.


The SEIU used its political clout in Sacramento to pass a law that allowed counties to set up home-care boards that would serve as the employer. Then it lobbied counties to create the boards. After nearly a decade of political work, the union was set to organize home-care workers. Its first election, in Los Angeles in 1997, added 74,000 members at once. Today, about 160,000 home-care workers belong to the union in California, Medina said.

The SEIU also orchestrated a high-profile campaign to organize janitors in commercial buildings in downtown Los Angeles and other metropolitan areas, adding about 20,000 members and significantly boosting pay and benefits for the workers.

The janitors’ local is trying to organize security guards in the same buildings -- an effort that could add 40,000 members in L.A. County alone.

Every week, organizers dressed in the union’s distinctive purple shirts stand outside targeted buildings and hand out pro-union leaflets to building tenants and customers. At the same time, the union has enlisted the support of local clerics, community groups and friendly building owners.

Private-enterprise groups, however, say growing union membership -- and political clout -- contribute to what they call an anti-business climate in California.

“Unfortunately, it leads to an imbalance in the legislative process,” said Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce. “You can see over the years a number of these bills sponsored by organized labor have been passed, whether or not they are harmful to job growth in the long run, and I think that’s a problem.”

Labor backs a number of what the chamber dubs “job killer” bills, including a proposal for mandatory employer-provided health insurance. In the long run, Zaremberg contended, such mandates push businesses out of California to less union-friendly states. “The rest of the country’s gain is our loss,” he said.

California’s numbers could change as a result of state budget woes that jeopardize jobs in the heavily unionized public sector, Milkman said. At the same time, campaigns by several other unions, including the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, are beginning to pay off.


A related study by Cornell University labor economist Kate Bronfenbrenner said the trend in California was likely to continue, even to accelerate. Organizing in the state generally is more successful than the national average, in part because of the methodical approach taken by unions here.

California unions, especially the SEIU and HERE, also have been more inclined to bypass the traditional federal union election process, which can be lengthy and contentious and often results in failure for the union. Instead, California organizers have tried to persuade employers, through public campaigns, to remain neutral during organizing and to recognize the union if a simple majority of workers sign union pledge cards.

Bronfenbrenner said California unions have added three times as many members through the card-check approach than through federally supervised elections.

Former SEIU chief Sweeney, who now leads the national AFL-CIO, has tried to push the same culture at the national level. But he has little power over member unions, and many have been reluctant to change their approach, several union leaders said.

California’s experience, documented in the UC report, could nudge some along, said the AFL-CIO’s Acuff.

“It’s not magic. It’s not anything in the water in California. It’s a combination of things that need to happen, that we’re trying desperately to make happen,” Acuff said. “We are beginning to really grapple with this in a serious way, trying to organize at a serious pace and scale beyond just the SEIU. We’ve got more huge campaigns, on a regional or national level, than we’ve had in several decades.”

But California remains one of the few bright spots. Although seven states have greater union density -- New York, Alaska, Hawaii, Michigan, New Jersey, Illinois and Washington -- only Alaska had a greater increase than California in percentage of union workers from 1998 to 2002. Four states saw declines or stagnation.

Union density is significant not only because it brings unions more resources in the form of dues, but also because it allows unions to negotiate stronger contracts. Density also translates into political strength, which facilitates further organizing.

In California, the union premium -- or the amount of higher pay and benefits earned by union workers over nonunion workers in similar jobs -- is 16%, according to a related report by Arin Dube, also of the UC Institute. Union members in the state also are far more likely to have an employer-paid pension plan and health insurance, he said.

The UC report also said:

* The traditional gap between unionization rates in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles region has all but disappeared, with both areas at about 16%.

* African Americans have especially high rates of unionization in California, with 28.7% of African American workers in the state belonging to a union.

* Foreign-born workers are less likely than U.S.-born workers to be in a union, mainly because they are more likely to be employed in the underground economy.

* About 54% of all public sector workers in the state are union members, and only about 10% of those in the private sector are organized.

The report also said that, compared with the national picture, union members in California tend to be more demographically diverse. This, Bronfenbrenner said, could lead to even higher numbers. “Unlike the labor movement in other states,” she wrote, “unions in California have a solid foundation upon which to build and a diverse workforce that is ripe for organizing.”