Labor-Saving Workers Poised to Lead Rebirth of Unions from la Stronghold

Article excerpt

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 movement.

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 ago.

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 working-class Americans.

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. …