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Economy taking bites out of labor RECESSION: Unions grappling with local governments, high state unemployment.

Byline: Rick Orlov, Staff Writer

On a day normally set aside for picnics, marches and parades to honor America's workers, many Angelenos will spend their day either looking for jobs or worrying about keeping the ones they have.

The economic downturn has pushed Los Angeles County's jobless rate to nearly 12 percent - and the tough jobs outlook is expected to continue in 2010.

It is a challenging time for all workers, even those in the formal labor movement. Following a year of massive job losses and steep cuts in pay and benefits for non-union workers, public sector unions - which in comparison have escaped much of the pain - have lost a great deal of sympathy from the general public and politicians.

Even with major political gains with the election of President Barack Obama and Democratic control of both houses of Congress as well as control of the California Legislature and many local governments, the nation's economic problems are straining labor's relationship with the Democratic Party.

The Obama administration has upset teachers unions by calling for teacher pay to be tied to student performance, as well as pushing for the opening of more charter schools, which are not required to hire expensive union teachers.

"On the one hand, labor is thrilled with Obama and the opportunity presented by a sympathetic administration, but, on the other hand, there is the economy to deal with," said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center.

"There is tremendous economic anxiety being felt by everyone and we're still seeing layoffs and furloughs, even at the government level. The mortgage crisis is a major concern for working families and we are seeing more of these challenges at the same time than at any time in history."

Locally, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who began his political career as a union organizer, has been at odds recently with local unions - most notably United Teachers Los Angeles and the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City.

The UFLAC dispute is over the organization's new contract and cuts the city wants to make with the firefighters.

The UTLA disagreement goes deeper, back to when Villaraigosa was first elected in 2005 and he tried to take over schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Wong said he sees any disagreement as temporary disputes.

"Generally, the mayor has very good relationships with the unions and Maria Elena Durazo (secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO) is in constant contact with him. And, he has signed a number of programs that are very favorable to labor."

Among these are the port improvement plan and job training programs with the Community Redevelopment Agency.

"It is not surprising there are some difficulties and debates because these are challenging issues confronting the schools and cities," Wong said. "He came out of UTLA and it is not as if there there is a whole lot of agreement on what needs to be done with schools."

UTLA President A.J. Duffy said he recognized why the mayor was acting as he has to get more control of schools.

"While we are not particularly pleased with how the mayor has worked the school board, we are cognizant that he is trying to seize the moment," Duffy said. "And, we are going to do the same thing with schools where there have been improvements and put forward reforms of our own."

Durazo would not address the issue, other than to say she remains close to the mayor and is confident it will resolve itself.

"It will be a challenge to the unions to show they are working in the best interests of students," Durazo said. "I think when it comes down to a choice between bureaucracy and teachers, the public will side with teachers."

Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., said he believes it will be a long time until there is a real economic recovery and the jobs picture returns to normal.

"You have to look around and can't help but be a bit depressed by what we're seeing," Kyser said. "The number of manufacturing jobs is dropping and we see more use of temporary help and a growth of independent contractors."

One area hurt the most is government, he said, because of the decline in residential and commercial property values - a huge source of government revenue.

"And, no one really knows when that will get back to current levels," Kyser said. "So, for the first time, what we are seeing is government asking unions to have givebacks of some of their wages and benefits."

Kyser said unions have been more willing to deal since the city of Vallejo declared Chapter9 bankruptcy, allowing it to throw out all its contracts.

The California Budget Project, a nonprofit which studies policies to help low-income Californians, is also offering grim news in a report to be released today.

"The current recession stands apart from prior downturns for both the depth and breadth of weakness in the job market," the report said. "California has lost more jobs at a faster rate in the past two years than during any prior recession."

But if Los Angeles is an example, the union movement should do well during the coming years.

A study by UCLA's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment found organized labor made new inroads during the past year. Between July 2005 and June 2009, unions were able to sign on 24,904 new members in Los Angeles and 131,206 in California.

"These changes are really substantial," said Lauren Appelbaum, research director at IRLE. "The proportion of the workforce that is unionized has increased in the Southland by 5 percent over the past year and 12 percent over the past two years."

The IRLE study also found that men have been the most hurt by the economic downturn, leading some economists to name it a "mancession," Appelbaum said.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 7, 2009
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