Column: The union movement’s ground zero is California

Thomas Starr King Middle School teacher Joel Laguna hands out ballots to LAUSD colleagues to vote on whether they will allow their union's leadership to call a strike in Los Angeles, Calif. on Aug. 23.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

United Teachers Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District, at loggerheads over a contract for a year and a half, are now in 11th-hour state-run mediation talks. The teachers’ union deems insulting the latest offer by Superintendent Austin Beutner, so it seems increasingly likely that 33,000 L.A. educators may make good on their threat to strike.

Cue the critics: A teacher’s strike will just hurt the kids. See? Unions are too radical and corrupt and do more harm than good.

Balderdash. Unions aren’t perfect, but the monotonous smear campaign against them shows how out-of-touch haters are. Especially in this era of Trump, unions offer working class America a competing vision of prosperity and protection. Unlike the California quitters who leave the state complaining that the dream is over for the middle class, labor argues that solutions start with good jobs and management that takes care of more than quarterly earnings.


And in recent years, unions across the state, across different industries, have made their case to the public.

In Kingsburg, more than 500 Sun-Maid workers went on strike for two weeks in September over reduced healthcare coverage; the raisin giant eventually offered a better contract. At Keck Medical Center of USC, the National Union of Healthcare Workers picketed this month to argue that workers at USC-run health clinics should receive the same fully paid health insurance enjoyed by their colleagues at USC hospitals.

Up in the Bay Area, about 2,700 Marriott employees in San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland are currently on the picket line looking for higher wages as they face an ever-escalating cost of living. They’re represented by Unite Here, the powerhouse hotel-workers union that shamed Disney into raising wages next year by publicizing how its employees in Anaheim earn so little that they have to sleep in cars or live five to an apartment.

Meanwhile, my journalism colleagues are currently in negotiations with the Los Angeles Times’ owner to hammer out a contract that will ensure regular raises, solid health benefits and a degree of job security that reporters here haven’t felt in a generation.

40% of “major work stoppages” (strikes involving 1,000 or more workers for at least one shift) in the U.S. in 2016 and 2017 happened in California.

Records with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 40% of “major work stoppages” (strikes involving 1,000 or more workers for at least one shift) in the U.S. in 2016 and 2017 happened in California. The revolts recall the days of the Great Depression in California, when everyone from garment workers to Jewish bakers to orange pickers to longshoremen fought strikebreakers and law enforcement to win workplace rights.


All of this, though, comes at a time when unions represent an decreasing segment of California’s labor force. The UC Berkeley Labor Center estimates that just 16.9% of workers in the state are under a union contract — at 2.5 million union members, the highest amount in the nation but still nowhere near the majority of California households.

But even those of us who don’t belong to one can still learn from their example.

Long before “woke” became a thing, rank-and-file members in California recognized they had to change unions’ old boy network to better reflect society. Immigrants became a vital part of the labor movement going back to the Service Employees International Union’s Justice for Janitors campaign that rocked Los Angeles in the 1990s. In the wake of #MeToo, labor leaders from San Diego to Orange County either walked away or got fired from their influential positions under the cloud of allegations of sexual harassment. Alumni of unions including candidate for U.S. Senate Kevin de Leon, State Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo and even former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa helped to transform California into the redoubt of the anti-Trump resistance it is today.

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Union members also offer a lesson for those of ustedes depressed by the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court: Labor went through its own devastating loss this year with the Janus decision, which ended compelled dues for public-employee unions. But activists — who saw that decision coming — didn’t fall into gloom-and-doom fatalism. They planned for defeat, doubled down on their mission and have emerged with a renewed sense of purpose.

I’m totally biased toward unions, of course. My mother was a Teamster for about 20 years at the old Hunt-Wesson tomato cannery in Fullerton. We were never rich, but my siblings and I never lacked for anything and always had health insurance. Even though she got laid off in 1997 when ConAgra shut down the Fullerton cannery, to this day Mami receives a small pension. My siblings now work in the public sector, and I see how their membership creates a sense of stability in their lives.

To paraphrase two terms from labor’s heyday at the turn of the 20th century, “bread and roses” (dignified work through a union) seems a better, more realistic option than the pie-in-the-sky (everyone can become rich on their own, either through hard work or in the afterlife) promises of unchecked capitalism. I expect the visibility of unions, and maybe even their numbers, to grow in California in the coming years.

And non-unionists: Don’t believe the hater hype. Unions fight not so much for self-preservation as they do for a strong economy that supports middle-class jobs. That’s far more pro-prosperity than anything Trump offers nowadays, amirite?

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