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Berkeley labor unions enjoy increased numbers

By Daniela Mohor Daily Planet Staff
Monday September 03, 2001

Berkeley’s working class has much to celebrate this Labor Day. As the national percentage of unionized workers decreased in the past year, new unions have appeared in town and the membership of local labor organizations has grown. 

“There is a pretty high interest in union organizing in Berkeley, not only on campus,” said Margy Wilkinson, an administrative assistant at UC Berkeley’s Moffitt Library and the chief negotiator for the Coalition of University Employees bargaining team. “People have become aware that having a union is the only way that working people can have an effect on their working conditions.” 

Total union membership for Berkeley is not available, but experts say that the city follows the state trend. In 2001, California union membership grew by 19,000 and now represents 16 percent of the state’s workforce, according to the California Labor Federation. Nationally, the percentage of unionized workers dropped to 13.5 percent last year. 

Unlike other parts of the country, Alameda County has seen the decline of the manufacturing industry and more union members are emerging in the service industry, said Lincoln Smith of the Alameda County Center for Labor Council. 

Berkeley offers good examples of this transformation. In the past year alone, employees at the Berkeley Marina Radisson Hotel and recyclers who work at the Community Conservation Centers successfully unionized. After months fighting for a union and negotiating with the Radisson Hotel management, the hotel’s employees, represented by the Hotel Employee and Restaurant Employees Union, Local 2850, finalized a contract last December. Likewise, workers of Berkeley’s Community Conservation Centers organized a new union last February. And in June, the Industrial Workers of the World, which represented them, signed a union contract that raised recyclers’ wages by more than 20 percent.  

Meanwhile, unions on UC Berkeley’s campus are becoming more active. They are putting more resources into gaining attention and organizing the school’s workforce. 

“The labor movement in general realized that it will have to expand if it wants to survive,” said Chloe Osmer, program coordinator at the Center for Labor Research and Education. “Unions are re-invigorating. They’re organizing campaigns.” 

That’s exactly what the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees did. The union created the so-called UC contract campaign in 1999 with the purpose of mobilizing workers to defend their rights. Since the initiative was launched, AFSCME doubled its membership in Berkeley and nearly quadrupled it statewide. CUE’s membership has grown too. Between November and now, its membership expanded by 20 percent. 

Unions’ increased popularity can also be measured looking at public opinion. An Associated Press poll released Wednesday shows that Americans are more sympathetic towards unions than they used to be. Today, the poll indicates, three people out of four approve unions, while 20 years ago less than two people out of three did. 

“Unions are aligning themselves with social movements, such as the immigrant rights movement, and speaking up for the weaker members of our society,” said Osmer. “Playing a role in civil rights campaigns has put them back in the public eyes. It’s changing their image.”  

Walter Johnson, secretary treasurer of the San Francisco Labor Council, agrees that change is occurring. He says that the workforce is not the same it used to be and that unions are redefining the way they operate. 

“Labor is reaching more than it has in the past,” he said. “Now unions are working more together than before. These are a much more unified voice to give you the message of labor.”