Organized labor finished the year in a quandary, not only in Los Angeles but all over the U.S.
Bookending the mid-year gains that saw the ranks of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union swell were the devastating loss suffered by unionized grocery workers and the fading leverage of organized hotel employees.
The rise of the global economy, along with an influx of eager immigrants willing to work for low wages and limited benefits, have completed the transformation of labor into a commodity. Those jobs that can be filled quickly and easily, whether at home or abroad, are threatened while highly skilled workers and those whose abilities can only be applied here still remain strong.
“Bargaining is a question of how much pain you can inflict on the other side,” said Daniel Mitchell, a UCLA professor of management and public policy. “If you’re subject to easy replacement or the services or goods you provide can be obtained from somebody else cheaper, that weakens your bargaining position.”
That means unions representing low-skilled grocery, apparel, hotel, janitorial and food service workers are having a harder time holding onto generous benefits like free health care coverage. They have also seen the erosion of wage packages for new employees when contracts are renewed.
Meantime, the ILWU, which moves 40 percent of the imports coming into the United States and has little concern about its jobs going overseas, remains one of the few organizations whose members have withstood the general erosion of labor’s sway.
“The longshoremen are in a class by themselves,” Mitchell said. “They are in a situation where there is high demand for their service. The rest of organized labor is threatened by imports. But the longshoremen benefit by them because that’s what they handle.”
Joining the dockworkers in holding on, and in some cases building upon gains, are the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, which have added muscle by becoming diversified bargaining units.
The Teamsters have long hauled imported cargo from the ports and delivered goods to retailers. Now they have established contracts with Hollywood studios and represent the interests of skilled workers on the production lines of technology companies. The SEIU, the nation’s largest union, represents workers in dozens of high- and low-skilled hospital jobs, as well as janitors, teachers and special needs educators.
If the ILWU has ridden a monopoly to its success, the Teamsters and SEIU have acted like a broad-based mutual fund.
“They have diversified in so many sectors,” said Marta Fernandez, a partner with Los Angeles-based Jeffer Mangels Butler & Marmaro LLP’s labor and employment department, representing management. “It expands its membership, and if they lose membership in one area they may very well be able to gain it in others.”
Just last week, employees represented by United Healthcare Workers West at Kaiser Permanente, Catholic Healthcare West, Tenet Healthcare Corp. and other hospital companies gained stronger voice when their union merged with the SEIU and created a 130,000-member statewide bargaining unit.
Diversifying a constituent base does not guarantee added leverage. The SEIU has been successful not simply because of its newfound girth, but because it moved beyond its traditional blue collar base.
The same cannot be said for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, which merged with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees to form Unite HERE.
The new union is bigger and has greater cash reserves, but at its core it still represents a class of workers who are easily replaced. The result has been little headway in negotiations for a new agreement to replace a six-year pact with L.A.’s nine unionized hotels that expired April 15.
The leverage held by a union can be measured largely by whether adequate wages are left over once health insurance costs are deducted. By that calculation, the 59,000 workers in Southern California belonging to the United Food and Commercial Workers have had little bargaining power.
Its ranks easily replaced by low-wage fill-in workers, the UFCW endured a 4 & #733;-month strike and lockout only to wind up with a new contract that called for meager wage increases, the first-ever health care payments and a two-tier system that pays lower wage, pension and health benefits to new employees.
What’s more, Safeway Inc. has set aside $50 million to buy out as many as 7,000 veteran Vons and Pavilions employees who would be replaced by new workers paid at a lower starting wage negotiated under the new contract.
With morale among the workers low, Rick Icaza, president of the UFCW’s L.A.-based Local 770, said he had no reason to doubt management’s projection that 25 percent of the 7,000 employees will take the money and run.
For its part, Safeway is seeking to put the offer in the best light for workers.
“It would allow employees who choose to participate the opportunity to change careers, maybe start their own business or simply head toward early retirement,” said Daymond Rice, a Vons spokesman.
Losing its base of workers whose benefits were defined under earlier contracts will further weaken the union, which will see declining employer payments to its pension fund. “You know damn well they are not going to contribute $50 million unless they get something in return,” said Icaza. “They want to bring on a new Wal-Mart force.”
Despite the setbacks, grocery workers remain in a better position than those in the apparel industry, who may have the region’s weakest voice when it comes to negotiating compensation and working conditions.
Unions have found that organizing sewers and cutters is next to impossible. Reasons range from the fact that 90 percent of all manufacturers in L.A. employ fewer than 20 people at a given time making it harder to generate the mass needed to agitate for representation to the transient nature of the business as apparel workers jump from shop to shop.
“(Unions) have tried and tried, and there is no constituency for them in apparel and textiles,” said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association, a lobbying group representing manufacturers and retailers. “You can’t unionize somebody who doesn’t have an affiliation with the company on a full-time basis.”
Low-cost overseas competition only makes matters worse. In the end, it may just not be worth trying to organize the industry. Unions, like businesses, need a return on their investments. Organizing a non-union shop is likely to lead to its closure, and every job lost would be a union member lost.