Why California is a Pro-Union State (sort of)

Posted on January 25, 2013 by

Ask Los Angeles Times reporter Alana Semuels why union membership in California rose by 100,000 in 2012 and she’ll give you a simple answer:

“Latino workers.”

To explain the contrast between the trend in California and the U.S. as a whole – where union membership dropped last year by 400,000 – Semuels turned to some credible sources, including Steve Smith of the State Labor Fed who cited “an appetite among these low-wage workers to try to get a collective voice to give themselves opportunity and a middle-class lifestyle.”

Quoting Smith and others, Semuels finds that, “After working hard to get here, many Latino immigrants demand respect in the workplace and are more willing to join unions in a tough economic environment, organizers say.”

True enough:  immigrant workers have been particularly important for unions in California and Latino organizing has helped reignite the state’s labor movement.  But that’s only part of the story.

Many California unions, allied with progressive groups up and down the state, have dedicated enormous resources to community and economic organizing.  This has influenced California’s political culture.  Union-friendly city councils, boards, commissions, a democratic legislature and statewide office holders produce a relatively pro-worker political and economic atmosphere.

Though employer resistance to unions can be as fierce in California as in other states, there is also a growing sense that a cooperative relationship with labor can be good business (note the expedited permitting for the construction of downtown L.A.’s Farmers Field).

California unions were ahead of the curve in recognizing the power of Latino workers and voters and then led other states in building diverse constituencies around progressive economic development strategies.  The number of “living wage” districts around the state testifies to that.

There is no pro-union state in the U.S.  But California (with 18.4 percent of the workforce unionized) may be pointed in that direction.

Despite its failure to offer context, the L.A. Times piece draws the same conclusion.

“Labor’s more optimistic proponents say that California could serve as a blueprint for unions across the country as they seek to stem membership declines,” writes Semuels.  ”The trend comes amid forecasts that the Latino population in the U.S. is likely to double in two decades.”

Comments (6)


  1. Paul Worthman says:

    Good insight that growth is related to Latino workforce. But growth is dialectical: Low-wage latino workers saw unionizing as a way of improving working conditions, wages, security, but unions -like SEIU, HERE, Teamsters, Building Trades, and more- focused their organizing on these workers, including undocumented, and developed militant and creative strategies, as well as building bridges with the Latino communities.

  2. Cathy Deppe says:

    Non-union labor organizing in California by largely immigrant women household workers seeking basic labor rights long denied to them has also been a significant force for worker rights. Labor unions must use their growing strength to support these efforts. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed last year, but Governor Brown failed to sign it into law. That was disgraceful.

  3. Gavin Koon says:

    I would not discount the work of Labor Union’s organizing efforts. Which have improved due to the economic issues affectinting the workplace. Employers have been harder on workers due to it. For an example, that is why the maintenance workers at Burbank Airport last year chose to organize and become Union, when they had never had a Union contract before.

    Unions in the past have been almost too successful by engaging lawmakers to pass minimum wage, 8-hr day, workers comp, FMLA, and many other general worker protections that use to only be in Union contracts. These matters can make Union organizing efforts harder to reach people who now have these protections.

  4. [...] post originally appeared on LaborLou.com and was also reprinted on AFL-CIO [...]

  5. [...] more than most cities (and California, more than most states) has stayed a step ahead of an employer-class determined to cleanse the global economy of [...]

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