California Unions’ “Silver Linings Playbook”

Last week’s annual national union membership numbers were eye-opening, and well, pretty depressing. The relentless attacks on unions nationwide have caused overall union density to drop to a startlingly low 11.3%. The share of union members as part of the workforce is the lowest it’s been in 97 years.  That’s not just bad news for unions, that’s really bad news for everyone.

According to the Center for American Progress:

Without the counterbalance of workers united together in unions, the middle class withers because the economy and politics tend to be dominated by the rich and  powerful, which in turn leads to an even greater flow of money in our economy to the top of the income scale.

Sound familiar?

But despite last week’s bad news on a national level, there were silver linings. Not the least of which is the trend here in California.

Unions in California are growing. That’s right, growing.

Last year, California union membership grew by more than 110,000 members and actually increased overall density to 17.2%. And that all happened while California's economy, which now leads the nation in job growth, has been expanding.

So what’s going right in California? On today’s New York Times Economix blog, reporter Steven Greenhouse provides some answers.

But some union leaders saw some important silver linings in the gloomy report — especially the surprisingly strong growth in labor’s ranks in California. The bureau reported a jump of 110,000 in the number of union members in California, to 2.49 million (meaning that in the 49 other states, the overall loss was 508,000 members).

“There is a significant organizing consciousness among unions in California that I haven’t seen in other parts of the country,” said Kent Wong, director of the Labor Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. “And a major factor in California’s success is there has been a very aggressive attempt on the part of many unions to organizing immigrant workers.”

If you dig deep into the Bureau of Labor Statistics union membership report, you’ll find that among Latinos, both union membership and density grew last year.

LA Times reporter Alana Semuels notes that immigrant workers, who often find themselves on the lower rung of the income scale, have a powerful motivation to join together with a collective voice in the workplace.

Workers fed up with years of stagnant wages may be motivated to join a union for financial reasons. Last year, union members made $943 a week, on average, while non-union members made $742, according to the BLS.

Truth is, a union card is still one of the best pathways a worker has to a middle class life. And California’s unions are at the leading edge of a national movement to give a voice to immigrant workers.

From the New York Times:

In California, there are vigorous campaigns to unionize car-wash workers, recycling workers and the truck drivers who transport freight to and from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. And in recent years, labor unions have organized about 200,000 home care aides in California.

Immigrants account for a high percentage of workers in those groups.

“The Latino population is growing in California,” said Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, the federation of the state’s unions. “Latinos and other immigrants are more prone to join unions. A lot of Latinos developed a historic sense of economic and social justice in their home countries.”

While immigrants are an important reason for the union membership growth, they’re not the only one. The state’s unions have also been aggressive in giving a collective voice to nurses, home care workers and others in the growing health care industry. And all California unions have committed to a union organizing Renaissance to bring new younger workers into the Labor Movement.

The other important ingredient in the success of California unions is one that can’t be overstated: political organizing. While unions in Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana saw their numbers decline precipitously as a result of politically motivated attacks by Republican governors, California has a Democratic governor and a pro-worker supermajority in the legislature, thanks to a sophisticated Labor-backed political operation that's engaging millions of voters to stand up for working people's values.

From the New York Times:

“I think we’re on the cutting edge of what unions are doing in the United States,” Mr. Pulaski said. In other words, he says, California unions have put together a silver linings playbook that unions in other states can learn from.

Labor is poised to turn the tide nationally. The demographics favor it. And organizing – both workplace and political – are on the upswing. While this year’s report underscores the urgency in rebuilding the Labor Movement, by no means does it sound the death knell for unions. In fact, here in California, we’re charting a new path to build more power for working people.

From the LA Times:

Demographic shifts can be only positive for unions in the next few years, said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at UC Berkeley. Labor has built new alliances and is going into a new, proactive phase, he said.

“Reports of labor's death have been greatly exaggerated,” he said.