Labor Won LA. So What?


If labor is so powerful in Los Angeles, why aren't workers there doing better?

This is the question that goes unanswered in so much commentary about labor's power in Southern California -- and across the state. Yes, the relatively small percentage of private workers who are union members can claim a small wage premium (this is most particular true among janitors in big LA office buildings). But the benefits of labor union power are mostly invisible to most of us. Labor may control the city council, so why isn't policy friendlier to employment? If LA is run by workers, what explains a city unemployment rate that has been stuck above even the high state unemployment rate of 12 percent.

The answer seems to be: labor unions have been mostly unable or unwilling, or both, to leverage their political power into broader pro-worker policy changes. The reason for that is disputed. Labor blames national and international capitalists and the local business community. Business types blame labor. Economists and experts suggest that the reasons for Southern California's economic malaise range from the end of the Cold War (and the resulting aerospace cutbacks) to the real estate market and can't be explained by the usual labor vs. business debate.

Regardless of blame, the simple fact is that labor's political power hasn't been enough. Which is why it's frustrating to read triumphant writing about labor's political gains. Lou Siegel, a longtime consultant to labor who now teaches a class on the subject (full disclosure: I'm friendly with Lou and have spoken at the class), is the latest to boast of this hollow union triumph:

"...we don’t hear many elected officials in our cities, counties and the capitol engaging in the toxic rhetoric being spewed out in those states under the influence of tea party conservatives. Because we’re not demonized, marginalized or disenfranchised, California labor activists may feel a little more mellow than our colleagues and comrades in the rest of the country. And unlike those regions, where union power has dropped steadily, L.A. Labor has absorbed the shocks, seized the opportunities and looks relatively strong going forward."

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