A century ago, Los Angeles proudly proclaimed itself an "open shop" city. Wages were low, unions were weak, and employers were determined to keep it that way. But today, just the opposite is true: The L.A. labor movement is widely regarded as a national model. Southern California unions' organizing strategies are state-of-the art, thanks in part to the formidable political clout of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. While unionism has declined relentlessly in the United States as a whole, in Los Angeles it has held steady for the past decade, even inching upward slightly in some years. And southern California unions have an especially strong record in organizing Latino immigrant workers.

Three key factors explain why Los Angeles has become the shining star of the American labor movement. The first involves the region's exceptional labor history. The dominant force in the L.A. labor movement throughout the 20th century was not the industrial unionism that emerged in the 1930s with the Congress of Industrial Organizations or CIO, but rather the occupationally based unionism historically associated with the American Federation of Labor or AFL. In 1955, when unionization was at its peak, and on the eve of the merger between the AFL and the CIO, only 16 percent of L.A. union members were in CIO affiliates, compared to 29 percent of union members nationally.

At the time, many observers saw this as a sign of L.A.'s backwardness. The CIO unions were the progressive wing of organized labor, while the AFL had a reputation for conservatism, sometimes corruption. But in recent years the old AFL unions led by the giant Service Employees International Union or SEIU, which for decades had a disproportionate presence in California relative to the rest of the nation have made a comeback. The manufacturing-based CIO affiliates have collapsed under the weight of de-industrialization and outsourcing; while most AFL unions are in non-mobile sectors such as construction, transportation and services. The CIO unions also were deeply damaged by the unraveling of the New Deal regulatory order that helped them get started back in the 1930s; in contrast, the former AFL unions pre-date the New Deal and thus have adapted more easily to the revival of market fundamentalism.

In short, the AFL's historical predominance gave Los Angeles, and California more generally, a comparative advantage in the late 20th century, when the region became a crucible of labor renewal. That advantage was further reinforced by the second factor underlying L.A. labor's recent dynamism: namely, the massive population of Latino working-class immigrants who arrived in the region starting in 1965. Early on the conventional wisdom, among union officials and employers alike, was that these newcomers especially the undocumented were passive, easily intimidated workers who were from labor's perspective "unorganizable."

But that conventional wisdom turned out to be dead wrong. By the early 1990s, when L.A. unions began signing up janitors and other low-wage immigrants by the thousands, it was clear that the new immigrants were actually more receptive to organizing efforts than most U.S.-born workers. And after 1994, when Proposition 187 stimulated extensive immigrant naturalization and then voter registration throughout the state, with a direct assist from organized labor, they would become a significant political force as well.

Political culture
Which brings us to the third factor shaping L.A. labor's ascent in the 1990s: the city's unusual political culture and history. The virtual absence of Tammany Hall-style political machines, the relatively small number of political offices, and the high costs of electoral campaigns all thanks to the Progressive reforms of a century ago created a vacuum in L.A. politics that the labor movement of the 1990s was destined to fill. In 1994, the same year the state's voters passed Proposition 187, the L.A. County Federation of Labor's talented Miguel Contreras began developing a grassroots field mobilization effort that fundamentally transform local politics and catapulted labor to center stage. Contreras capitalized on the post-187 climate by helping immigrants eligible for naturalization become citizens, and then mobilizing them at the polls.

The Fed had the resources to influence California's expensive electoral races something no other organized entity representing immigrants could even aspire to do. Soon a new cadre of labor-sponsored Latino candidates among them, Antonio Villaraigosa, then a mid-level union official entered the fray. Suddenly they began winning one race after another while soundly defeating a whole series of anti-labor ballot measures.

L.A. labor's newfound political clout, like its innovative workplace organizing during the same period, had strong roots in the burgeoning Latino immigrant community the same community whose groundswell of protest last spring exposed their capacity for mobilization for all to see. It is no accident that the marches here in Los Angeles were the nation's largest.

If organized labor cannot claim the credit for those massive marches, here in Southern California it was nevertheless ahead of the curve, tapping into the potential for immigrant organizing both at the workplace and in the voting booth starting more than a decade ago. Building on the foundation that work has created, it does not seem farfetched to imagine the labor movement virtually the only organized force in the nation opposing the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots once again fulfilling its historical mission as a vehicle of social mobility for impoverished first- and second-generation immigrants. Unions did just that for southern and eastern Europeans in the 1930s and 1940s; this time around the beneficiaries could be working class Latinos and Asians. And if history does repeat itself in this way, the AFL unions that have long dominated the labor movement here in Los Angeles will be leading the way.

Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at UCLA, is the author of "L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.