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Los Angeles is home to 11,000 striking United Parcel Service workers a sliver of the 185,000 Teamsters who have taken to the picket lines in a drawn-out fight over part-time employment and pension plans.

But that doesn’t mean local labor officials aren’t keeping a close eye on what is shaping up as the nation’s most significant labor dispute in a generation.

“Our phone is ringing off the hook,” said Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which represents 325 union locals, encompassing everything from parking attendants to longshoremen. “People see it as a labor fight, not as a Teamster fight. This is a real line in the sand for us.”

Indeed, the battle between the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and United Parcel Service of America Inc. which revolves at least in part around the fate of part-time parcel sorters and truck loaders who earn about $10,000 a year highlights an issue which has vexed local labor officials for years:

Can unions, which have historically derived their strength from highly paid manufacturing jobs, regain their relevance by targeting low-wage workers in an increasingly service-oriented economy?

The answer to that question could turn on the outcome of the UPS dispute, said John Barton, staff director for Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union, which spearheaded the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles.

“The UPS strike is going to have an enormous impact on how work gets organized in this country,” Barton said. “More and more jobs are becoming part time, especially in the service industry. The whole issue of the strike has incredible resonance in L.A.”

A victory for the Teamsters, Barton added, could provide a crucial spark for organized labor in Los Angeles at a time when union locals are putting more and more effort into recruiting new members.

“If the Teamsters win, it is going to be very invigorating and uplifting both for unions and for workers that are considering organizing,” he said.

The stakes also are high for the state’s employers and manufacturers who are keeping a close eye on the dispute as well.

A Teamster victory “would certainly encourage more activism on the part of labor,” said Willie Washington, who tracks labor issues for the California Manufacturers Association. “They might be encouraged to take to the streets in future negotiations. It could be a big, big win.”

However, Washington added that the stakes are far higher for the nation’s unions than they are for its employers.

“Whether or not (the Teamsters) win, it is very important that they not be perceived as having lost,” he said. “They are really under the scope. For them to lose would be pretty devastating.”

The move to recruit low-wage, low-skilled service workers reflects the vision of John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, who rose to the top of the labor movement after heading the SEIU, which uses strikes, sit-ins and other in-your-face tactics to win higher pay for bottom-rung workers.

More recently, Sweeney has challenged union locals across the country to commit 30 percent of their budgets to organizing a challenge to which many L.A. unions are rising.

Sweeney’s vision is shared by L.A.’s top labor officials, the most aggressive and high-profile of whom also come from the service sector.

Indeed, it’s no accident that the most significant labor disputes in Los Angeles in recent years the Justice for Janitors campaign; the battle to organize workers at Little Tokyo’s New Otani Hotel & Gardens; the fight over the living wage ordinance have revolved around workers on the lowest rungs of the pay scale.

“The public fights have definitely been in the service sector,” said Contreras, a veteran of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union and United Farm Workers. “In terms of the manufacturing and industrial sectors, things have been a lot slower.”

But despite all of the attention on low-wage, low-skill workers, there are signs that the manufacturing unions are slowly beginning to get on the organizing bandwagon.

The L.A.-Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents 125,000 craftspeople in Southern California, for example, has begun sending union members into non-union shops, in an effort to recruit employees who are earning a fraction of what union workers make.

“For 15 years, we’ve languished,” said Richard Slawson, the group’s executive secretary. “But now we’re getting back to our roots.”

The same is true of the Regional Council of Carpenters. Despite the fact that union carpenters make as much as $20 an hour, the group has been energized by Sweeney’s call to organize, said Patrick McGinn, the group’s business representative.

“Any time you help the bottom,” he said, “you help us all.”

Nonetheless, exporting the organizing zeal of the service sector to the industrial sector is likely to be difficult, at best.

Between 1987 and 1996, L.A. County lost 241,000 manufacturing jobs the vast majority of them union jobs as a result of the restructuring of the U.S. economy following the end of the Cold War, according to the Economic Development Corp. of L.A. County.

Those staggering losses sent the region’s manufacturing and industrial unions into something of a state of shock, as they shifted their attention to maintaining work conditions and benefits for remaining members, rather than building their clout by recruiting new workers.

The leadership void in large part has been filled by service employee union leaders such as Contreras, Maria Elena Durazo, president of Local 11 of the hotel workers union, and Julie Butcher of SEIU Local 347, the powerful public employees union.

In the meantime, Southern California has begun to regain at least some of its manufacturing base. The county has 659,000 manufacturing jobs, up a bit from a low of 638,000 in 1995.

Labor officials say very few of those jobs are unionized. Of the 300,000 metal workers in L.A. County, for example, only 10 percent to 15 percent are members of a union, according to Carl Kessler, who chairs the organizing committee of Local 725 of the International Association of Machinists.

That compares to a national rates of union membership in the metal trades of between 30 percent and 35 percent, Kessler added.

And organizing those workers is likely to be difficult at best, union officials admit. Of the 18,101 manufacturing establishments in L.A. County, more than 15,000 have fewer than 49 employees, according to the EDC, and only 113 have more than 500 workers.

“This is not the traditional turf of unions,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist of the EDC. “It presents a very unusual playing field.”

Added Contreras: “The challenge is, how do you organize an industry? If you go one by one by one, they’ll still be doing it long after we’ve all retired.”

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