L.A. Sheds Anti-Union Reputation: Mayoral Race Brings Labor Gains Into Focus
LOS ANGELES For decades this city was known as an
anti-union town, but now Los Angeles seems to have warmed up
to unions, largely because of the huge influx of Hispanic
Perhaps the best evidence of this is that a former union organizer,
Antonio Villaraigosa, was a favorite in the mayoral primary on
Trying to continue a string of political victories, the city's labor
movement is doing its utmost to elect Mr. Villaraigosa, a former
speaker of the California Assembly who has worked closely with
labor on countless issues.
The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, with 800,000
members, has made hundreds of thousands of phone calls on his
behalf and mailed out a million pieces of literature in his support.
A victory by Mr. Villaraigosa would not only signify that the city
had gone far to shed its anti-union past but also show labor's
Labor's resurgence owes much to the more than 1.3 million
Hispanics who have moved to the city since 1990, many of them
using unions as a ladder out of poverty.
By focusing on immigrant workers, the city's labor movement is
adding workers faster than unions anywhere else in the country.
In recent years, unions have organized 6,000 part-time school
aides, 2,000 food-service workers and retail workers at the
international airport and 2,000 Los Angeles park and recreation
At the same time, many affluent Angelinos are viewing unions more
charitably, concluding that they help lift the lowest-paid workers.
When 8,500 office janitors went on strike for three weeks last
April, the public gave more than $2 million for food.
The city's Roman Catholic archbishop, Cardinal Roger Mahony,
also embraced the janitors' cause, calling their wage, $7 an hour,
unjust in a city with such high living costs. The janitors, almost all
Hispanic immigrants, won a 25 percent increase over three years.
The union movement here is now looked upon as a model for
languishing labor movements in other cities because of its
successes and the enthusiasm the movement has stirred among
immigrant workers. Two months ago, the AFL-CIO, the largest
U.S. labor organization, arranged for Los Angeles labor leaders to
hold what was essentially a tutorial for New York labor leaders.
"Los Angeles was always viewed as an anti-union town, but now
Los Angeles, believe it or not, has emerged as a major focal point
of the new American labor movement," said Kent Wong, director
of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University
of California at Los Angeles.
Several Los Angeles union locals led the effort that persuaded the
AFL-CIO to adopt a more sympathetic attitude toward
For decades, unions viewed immigrant workers as a threat, but
now the labor movement is eager to unionize them and has backed
efforts to grant legal residency to most illegal immigrants.
Several developments in the last two years have highlighted labor's
turnaround. In 1999, 74,000 home-care workers in Los Angeles
county, most of them Hispanic, voted to unionize in what was the
largest successful organizing drive in the country since the 1930s.
Last April came the successful walkout by janitors, and 4,400 bus
drivers and train operators went on strike for a month in
September and largely beat back management's effort to create
more part-time jobs to help hold down overtime for full-time
Organized labor also persuaded the city and county governments
to enact laws that require contractors to pay workers at least
$7.80 an hour.
The city's long-standing hostility to unions can be traced to 1910,
when two labor extremists bombed the headquarters of the Los
Angeles Times, killing 20 people, in a dispute over the publisher's
fiercely anti-labor views.
Many business executives and some government leaders are
uneasy about labor's growing power, fearing that it will hurt the
city's business climate and push up costs. Business leaders also
fear that a mayor with close ties to labor could bring more
regulations and higher taxes.
"There is a concern among segments of the L.A. community that
labor is becoming too powerful," said Sherry Jeffe, a senior
scholar for policy at the University of Southern California. "There
is also an undercurrent of anxiety about the possibility of electing a
mayor with strong ties to labor, and that could give labor undue
influence in the city."
Jorge Amselle, an immigration expert at the Center for Equal
Opportunity, a conservative research group, said: "The positive
side is that unions will help speed the assimilation of these
"But the negative side is the dirty little secret that labor is recruiting
a lot of illegal immigrants. That's not a good thing."
Mr. Amselle also said the unions "may make it impossible to ever
elect a Republican mayor again."But many immigrants have
embraced labor's message, and union meetings and rallies here
often resemble religious revivals."The union is very important to
me," said Dora Guzman, an immigrant from Guatemala who works
as a food server at Los Angeles International Airport. "With
unions, you get your managers to treat you with respect, and you
get a worthwhile salary."