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Hundreds of labor leaders and supporters look to the future at AFL-CIO convention in LA

Fast food worker Johnathan Pacheco marches outside of a Burger King in South Los Angeles to support higher wages. It's part of a nationwide labor action calling for pay to be increased to $15-an-hour.
Fast food worker Johnathan Pacheco marches outside of a Burger King in South Los Angeles to support higher wages. It's part of a nationwide labor action calling for pay to be increased to $15-an-hour.
Corey Moore/KPCC

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The future of the nation’s organized labor movement may emerge from Southern California.

Last year, the nation’s unions lost about 400,000 members. Compare that to California, where 100,000 members were added, according to Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor that specializes in labor issues.

“Southern California is very much a bright spot for labor on many different fronts,” Shaiken said. He counts organizing, political clout and broader outreach among the successes of unions in the region.

The leaders of the AFL-CIO have taken notice. More than 1,600 union leaders and supporters will discuss ways to strengthen the labor movement at the AFL-CIO Convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The conference, held every four years, will run from Sunday through Wednesday.

California union leaders say they've have added members by taking on community issues that may not be related to traditional union activities. Take Orange County, where a fast-growing portion of the population is Asian American. The Orange County Labor Federation has spoken out about immigration reform and has held classes that educate members of their communities about City Council.

“We want to build a labor movement that does not only just speak for union members, but speaks for everybody that gets up in the morning and goes to work,” said Tefere Gebre, executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation. “We want to fight for every worker in this country.”

Gebre, who was born in Ethiopia and came to the U.S. as a political refugee, will likely become the next executive vice president of the AFL-CIO on Tuesday. He is running uncontested and if he is elected, he will become the first immigrant and first African American male to serve as a national officer.

Gebre said one potential area for growth for unions would be among immigrants.

“It’s no longer your father’s 'white guy' labor movement. It’s a movement that talks like me, and which looks like me, and which is mostly immigrant like me. It’s the changing face of the labor movement as our country’s changing,” Gebre said.

Shaiken agrees. He said one of the real strengths of labor in Southern California is how it’s been supportive and engaged with the immigrant rights movement and that many immigrants are labor union members.

“It has broadened its voice, expanded its outlook and I think that’s the future of work in the United States."  Shaiken said. “What we are seeing here is why labor has real potential moving forward.”

He said unions nationally have lost members due to factors like companies moving jobs out of the U.S., corporate hostility to organized labor and laws that have been tilted against unions. While membership in unions in California has increased, union workers as a percentage of the overall workforce has dropped over the years.  Traditional union jobs, like those in manufacturing have seen significant declines, according to Shaiken.

Recently in Southern California, there have been protests by fast-food workers and Walmart employees advocating for higher wages and better benefits. The protests were part of efforts spanning several other states.

Anthony Goytia, a overnight stocker at a Walmart in Duarte, said he is struggling to pay his rent and has been on food stamps in the past. The 31-year-old earns $9.60 an hour as a part-time worker. He would like to see that increase to $11 an hour.

"I don't make enough wages to support my family," Goytia said.  He has a wife, three children and a baby on the way. 

Goytia was among hundreds of people who marched in downtown L.A. on Thursday to protest Wal-Mart’s treatment of workers. He later was among 20 people arrested.

Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg told KPCC he believes the march was led mostly by unions and the participants generally don't work at the company. He said Walmart has a history of promoting its employees and 75 percent of the store management team started as hourly associates. 

"They have the opportunity to come in, get their foot in the door and progress as far as their hard work and talents will take them," Lundberg said.  He declined to say how much part-time workers earn, saying "they are going to be earning a wage that is going to be very competitive with any other retailer in the area." Lundberg added, "If you think about it, you can't hire good people in an area if you aren't paying them competitive wages and we absolutely do, everywhere we operate in the country."

But Shaiken said the message carried by unhappy workers, like those who demonstrated against Walmart and fast-food chains, has gained momentum and could lead to cities passing living wage ordinances or potentially to increased unionization.

“The numbers are small, but the fact that this is taking place is a powerful symbol and it’s resonating. These demonstrations have gotten considerable national attention,” Shaiken said. “Workers who in so many ways have been invisible are suddenly on the map.”