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California a testing ground for new labor organizing strategies

UCLA graduate students supporting a strike by the union that represents teaching assistants throughout the University of California.
Courtesy Nicole Robinson
UCLA graduate students supporting a strike by the union that represents teaching assistants throughout the University of California.

California is seen as fertile ground for a new labor movement. The state is home to the largest number of union members in the nation - some 2.4 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union organizers have used the state to test new recruiting strategies; but success has been limited.

That high number of union members can be deceptive. Part of the reason is simply that California is the most populous state in the country. The actual percentage of Californians who are union members actually dropped between 2012-2013 by nearly one percent.

Still, Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, says there are more organizing campaigns here than anywhere else in the country. LA’s successful organizing of the car wash industry is being tried in Chicago and New York. The organization of a quarter million home care workers is also being duplicated elsewhere. The United Auto Workers’ largest group of union members west of Mississippi consists of University of California grad students.

But Wong says nationwide, it’s more of a mixed bag. "On the one hand," he says, California has a "very healthy, robust labor movement that still has significant political power." He says in the rest of the country, "the scenario is much more bleak."

The UAW has lost two-thirds of its members since the late 1970’s, according to James Sherk, senior policy analyst in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation. Sherk says the union shrank from 1.5 million to 400,000 today, which is why they’re trying to organize grad students and casino workers.

Nationwide, teachers represent the occupation with the largest number of union members. And while the level of union membership in the public and private sector is fairly balanced – 7.2 million compared to 7.3 million – the percentage of union membership is much higher among government and public safety workers: 35 percent compared to 6.7 percent of workers employed in private industry.

Significant to California, union membership has dropped in agriculture. Just 1.4 percent of farm workers were unionized in 2012. That fell to one percent last year. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Union grape strike, Wong says agricultural unions are looking to get their mojo back to inspire a new generation. He blames the rising power of agribusiness and the failure of the federal government to pass what he calls “meaningful labor laws,” as well as a new challenge - language. "There's many indigenous workers from parts of Mexico who are now working in the fields who don’t speak Spanish," he says. "They speak their native languages."

But there is even a more fundamental challenge for unions across the board, according to James Sherk. Nowadays, union workers find their wages are comparable to their non-union colleagues. But union workers pay dues. Sherk says unions have a tough sell, persuading workers "that they’re offering a service that’s worth paying 1-2 percent of your salary.” 

One California organizing strategy has been to pitch union commitment to more than just a bigger paycheck. Wong says unions are working to identify themselves with broader social concerns, forming new partnerships with faith communities and neighborhood groups - to lobby and march on behalf of issues that matter to them. Union organizers hope to play a role in immigration reform and increasing the minimum wage. That’s reflected in the large turnout by union members in immigration marches nationwide. Wong says in California, that activism not only solidifies partnerships, it also encourages non-union workers to join.

But union clout hasn't translated to action on those issues in Washington. Congress has failed to pass the raise in the minimum wage, as well as comprehensive immigration reform.