Three unions' departure from the national AFL-CIO could cause major headaches for the L.A. County Federation of Labor, just as it gears up to fight two initiatives aimed at weakening unions' strength.
Labor leaders say that they're united in their common enemy, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's called a special-election for November that will include Proposition 75, which would make it harder for public-employee unions to spend member dues for political purposes, and Proposition 74, which would make it easier to fire teachers and harder for them to attain tenure.
Unions have raised more than $60 million to fight the two measures. The national unions that left the AFL-CIO have instructed their local branches to continue cooperating with other unions, said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Studies.
"The difficulty is that, historically, that hasn't happened," Wong said. "There's speculation that the coalition of unions that left will continue to contribute funds toward the ballot fight, but it will be captured in a separate fund."
Because the ballot is statewide, the AFL-CIO's local arm, the County Federation of Labor, plays an indirect role in fundraising. The question is whether locals of the unions that broke away will continue to cooperate with the group's incoming leader, former L.A. City Councilman Martin Ludlow. If Ludlow, who took over after Miguel Contreras' death, can't help herd labor to a coordinated campaign, there is a danger that the effort will be blunted.
Ludlow did not return calls.
With Proposition 75, the stakes couldn't be higher. Unions representing private employers have been losing membership for years. Public-employee unions retain their strength partly by using ties to politicians to influence workplace issues. Now they're threatened with losing their biggest lever on the politicians: money. The measure, which its supporters call the Paycheck Protection Act, would require unions representing public employees to first gain members' approval before it could put dues money toward political purposes.
"It's a huge boost to our campaign," said Eric Beach, a spokesman for Californians for Paycheck Protection, which is sponsoring Proposition 75. "The fact that unions themselves are divided nationally only reinforces our message here in California to give public employees in unions a right to choose how their dues are spent."
The measure, which Schwarzenegger has not yet endorsed, is seen as a move to cripple organized labor's ability to fund pro-labor causes.
When Washington State voters approved a similar measure in 1992, union political donations dropped more than 80 percent. "It would be Armageddon for them," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior scholar at USC's School of Policy Planning and Development.
With the breakup, the local federation lost one-third of its membership.
The three breakaway unions, the United Food and Commercial Workers, Service Employees International Union (largely public employees) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, say they are committed to dedicating volunteers and funds toward fighting the ballot initiatives.
But their departure from the AFL-CIO came after years of frustration that so much of their contributions went toward Democratic Party donations.
They want a higher proportion of resources dedicated toward organizing new members. Last year, 12.5 percent of the national workforce was unionized, compared with 23.3 percent in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Because they are so focused on recruiting new members, it's unclear whether they will put as much money toward trying to defeat the initiatives as before. (Proposition 74, the Teacher Tenure Proposition, would make it easier to fire teachers for poor performance and offer tenure after five years instead of two.)
"Certainly there's questions raised," said Mike Garcia, president of SEIU Local 1877. "The AFL-CIO nationally sent letters to labor councils trying to split us up, but we expect to hold together and continue paying fully into local and state labor councils. What happens after November is another question, but it's too early to tell."
One positive for Ludlow is his popularity among the breakaway unions and another union with a strong L.A. presence, Unite HERE, which is also considering leaving the AFL-CIO.
Ludlow has labor roots, having worked for Contreras before becoming an L.A. City Councilman. This could help him bind local labor groups through regional common interests, such as the November election or a city living wage law.
"The Teamsters have a strong relationship with Martin Ludlow, and whatever adaptations might take place in the federation, we're solid with that," said fEd Rendon, spokesman for Southern California Teamsters Joint Council 42.
Indeed, the biggest impact of the split will play out over a longer-term period.
"For California and the November election, the AFL-CIO splintering won't have too much of an effect on union activity," said Daniel J.B. Mitchell, professor of management and public policy at UCLA's Anderson School of Management. "The November election will focus the minds of union people, so they can function on a unitary basis until then. They just have to hold the ship together for a few months, and worry about what happens after, later."
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