Sat, Dec

The Hard Times that Gave Birth to Unions are Circling Around Again … Will the Unions Survive?

LABOR DAY 2011 - What are those people up to?—the ones who gave us the weekend, health care, and the 8 hour day?   

My name is Steve Nutter, and I wear one hat as the Mayor’s Senior Labor Advisor, and another as a Public Works Commissioner, which allows me to be a close observer of Labor in the City.  

I grew up in LA, and before coming to City Hall, I spent 30 years working on the side of seamstresses, nurses, laborers, and farm workers, trying to make their lives better at the bargaining table, in court, and by keeping their health and pension funds in the black.  I now find myself on the management side of the table, overseeing the Public Works Department.   I’ve been asked to write a Labor Day piece, and this is what I’d like to share.

These are challenging times for Labor.  Nationally, unions grow weaker each year, with just 11.9% of the overall workforce, 36% of the public sector, and only 6.9% of the private sector.  In California, union density is higher, but only stands at 17.5% of the overall workforce, up slightly over last year.  State union membership now totals 2.4 million, having grown 300,000 since 1985.  But, even with these daunting numbers, Labor remains the primary source of donations and troops for the Democrats, who face an uphill battle in D.C. against a better funded GOP, with a lot on the line.

Locally, LA’s labor movement showed us again this year that, by aligning itself with the public interest and finding real partners, it can protect the working men and women in our City, create good jobs, and defend what’s left of the middle class.   Under the leadership of Maria Elena Durazo, the LA County Federation of Labor, with its 350 unions representing 800,000 members, has given working families both material support and a real voice.  Those interested in supporting Labor would be more than welcomed to join its traditional Labor Day march and picnic this Monday, September 5th, starting at 10 a.m. at Broad & E Street in Wilmington, and ending at Banning Park, where hot dogs will be roasting.

Inside City Hall, organized labor used its strength responsibly to help the City solve its budget crisis.  The Coalition of City Unions, the Council, and the Mayor avoided the political paralysis and polarization of Wisconsin, and proved that collective bargaining works, by reaching a settlement that will help keep the City in the black and restore City services.  

The largest group of City employees, over 19,000 in all, is represented by the Coalition, which includes AFSCME District Council 36, SEIU Local 721, Operating Engineers Local 501, LIUNA Local 777, Teamsters Local 911, and the Los Angeles/Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council.  

With the City facing a massive shortfall, and labor costs the largest share of City expenses, few choices were left. After exhausting other alternatives, the Coalition bit the bullet.  It agreed to stem the tide of recession born red ink by voluntarily reopening its contract early, and agreeing to salary adjustments and an additional employee contribution of 4% of payroll to the civilian pension fund (LACERS), in exchange for an end to furloughs for 3 years.   Civilian city employees now pay 11% of payroll to LACERS—and they don’t get Social Security.  Compare that to the 6.2% of payroll withheld for Social Security in the private sector.  The end of furloughs means more hours of City services for residents each week.  All of this comes on top of a recent history of re-negotiated MOUs, a large early retirement program, hundreds of layoffs, and elimination of over 3,500 positions, as the recession took its toll.   Most of the bargaining units involved understood the long-term benefit to the City and themselves and voted to ratify.  

The City’s firefighter (UFLAC Local 112) and police (LAPPL) unions, which have a separate “sworn” pension plan, also recently agreed at the table to substantial increases in contributions for post-retirement medical, as well as other concessions, to help the City meet its budget shortfall.   Additionally, Charter Amendment G was passed by the voters in March 2011, rolling back retirement pension benefits for new hires and adding an additional 2% employee contribution for new-hires, changes estimated to save the City $150 million over the next 10 years.  This change, unopposed by the unions, was the first change in the sworn pension plan since benefits were increased in 2001 under former Mayor Richard Riordan.

Outside City Hall, the labor movement is now rallying behind the 62,000 men and women who ring up and bag our groceries in Southern California.  Led by the LA County Federation of Labor, area unions recently voted to back UFCW Locals in their contract dispute with the big 3 grocers, Ralphs, Albertsons, and Vons (Grocers).   They’ve pledged to join grocery workers on picket lines, go door-to-door in the community, and raise food and funds for striking families.  So far, members from other unions, including nurses (CNA and UNAC), machinists (IAM), janitors (SEIU), longshore workers (ILWU), and film employees (IATSE and SAG), among others, have “adopted” and sent delegations to local stores, urging a fair settlement instead of a strike or lockout.

What’s this grocery fight all about?  Not surprisingly, the sticking point is health care, a big problem for many of us.  I’ve talked to both sides.  Grocery workers don’t make much on average (about $25,000 year), given the prevalence of part-time work, and modest wages.  The UFCW says it has offered concessions, but that the Grocers’ health care proposal goes too far and could cost seriously ill members up to $11,000 per year, when all the premiums, deductibles, co-pays, and other expenses are added up.  The UFCW also says the joint labor-management trust fund, which provides these benefits, will go bust unless the Grocers agree to pay more into it.  

The Grocers dispute UFCW’s picture, including the numbers, and contend their health proposal is fair.   Both sides want to avoid repeating the 2003 strike and lockout, which ran over 4 months, impacting more than 300 stores in LA County alone, and cost the Grocers significant market share.  Other unions have stepped out in support of UFCW now, not just out of “solidarity,” but also out of a belief that their employers are watching, that they may be next, and that another labor setback could be costly for everyone.  No matter where you are on this dispute, the wages and healthcare benefits of the last unionized retail workers in Southern California are on the line, and that means a lot to their families.

There are more worthy Labor efforts in LA than there is space here to talk about them.  The Blue-Green Alliance to clean up the Port (Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports) has already accomplished a lot.  (Link)

The labor-community coalition to create “Construction Careers” deserves mention—it will leverage Billions in tax dollars over the next 5 years to get City residents more jobs on public works projects and more training in apprenticeship programs--and it hopes to create an even bigger impact by expanding the initiative to cover area transportation projects.  

Carwash workers in LA, who often work for just tips, also deserve a shout-out.  Their “Clean Carwash Campaign,” with Labor backing, recently scored some organizing victories.  

Labor’s backing for SEIU’s janitors and UNITE-HERE’s housekeepers also deserve mention, as does its support for the Dream Act, comprehensive immigration reform, and a living wage.  And there’s much more.

Looking back over the last year, Labor can be proud about what they’ve done to keep the City going, to clean up our harbor, create local construction jobs, and lift up their sisters and brothers.  Labor hopes the coming year will be a better one, especially for those working in our markets, whose future hangs in the balance, and the quarter of a million LA area workers still looking for jobs.  These are hopes we can all share.  

The hard times that gave birth to organized Labor seem to be circling around again.  Come out on Labor Day and bring a friend!

(Steve Nutter is a Los Angeles Public Works Commissioner and Senior Labor Advisor to Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa) -cw

Tags: City Hall, Public Works Department, labor, Los Angeles labor, Southern California labor, unions, national unions, Wisconsin, Coalition of City Unions, City Council, Mayor, Labor Day, Social Security, health care, Ralphs, Vons, Albertsons, collective bargaining

Vol 9 Issue 70
Pub: Sept 2, 2011