IN A SPARSELY furnished storefront office southeast of gleaming
downtown office towers, Joel Ochoa Perez quietly prepares for a
struggle that could signify the rebirth of the American labor
Ochoa Perez, a longtime union activist who left Mexico in the
1970s and became a U.S. citizen last year, is part of a nine-union
effort aimed at organizing 350,000 workers, mostly Latino
immigrants. They form the low-wage base for the hundreds of light
manufacturing firms in Los Angeles' Alameda Corridor.
Union activists say that what's under way in the barrios of Los
Angeles County is the cutting edge of organized labor's struggle to
reconnect with American workers, at a time when both the membership
and political clout of unions is dropping.
Labor's crisis will be front and center on Wednesday, when the
leaders of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial
Organizations meet in New York to decide the first contested
election for president since the AFL-CIO was formed four decades
But both candidates have committed to organizing on a scale not
seen since the historic industrial campaigns of the Great
Depression. At least $100 million would be spent on the project
over the next five years, Cand at least 1,000 new organizers would
be sent into the field.
SIGNS OF RESURGENCE
Ray Hilgert, a specialist in labor relations at the Washington
University School of Business, says the organized labor movement,
given up for dead by many, may in fact be poised for a historic
breakthrough. The reasons?
Two decades of steadily eroding standards of living for
Increased inequality in incomes.
The disappearance of job security.
"Most people today are disposable," Hilgert said. "Their wage
rates are declining. The potential for abuse of workers is
enormous, absent some form of representation. . . . When I look at
what's going on in the economy, my feeling is that there are
literally millions upon millions of people waiting to be organized,
if someone can figure out the right message to give them."
If organized labor finds that message, the likely testing
ground will be in Los Angeles.
This is home to the nation's greatest single concentration of
unorganized workers. The city's immigrants have already
demonstrated their organizing prowess. Wildcat strikes by janitors,
dry-wall workers and manufacturing employees have brought thousands
of workers under union contracts.
And now, the immigrants have the multi-union project known as
LA MAP (for the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Plan), which takes
in everything from university research to the Roman Catholic Church.
"Labor has got to act like labor," said Ochoa Perez. "If
nothing happens, our generation will witness the disappearance of
(organized) labor in some areas, especially manufacturing. Either
we organize them or we cease to exist."
David Sickler, labor's top man in Los Angeles as head of the
AFL-CIO's Region 6 and a co-founder of LA MAP, hopes to have the
project running by spring, with as many as six different teams and
up to 50 organizers on the street.
The nine unions that have signed on, committing $250,000 in
start-up funds, are: the United Autoworkers; the Teamsters; the
Food and Commercial Workers; the Machinists; the Oil, Chemical and
Atomic Workers; the Steelworkers; both branches of the
Longshoremen; the Brotherhood of Carpenters; and Unite, the new
combined union of textile workers.
Sickler's union roots stretch back to Golden, Colo., where as a
brewery worker he helped set up the national boycott against Coors
beer. Long before most of his AFL-CIO colleagues he saw that
labor's best potential in the Los Angels area was among immigrant
workers and that successfully organizing them would require radical
change in traditional union tactics. …