Unions struggle to keep gains, enlist members after Sept. 11

By Gary Gentile, AP Business Writer
Monday December 03, 2001

LOS ANGELES – Last year, hundreds of immigrant janitors marched through the streets with raised fists chanting “si se puede!” – yes, it can be done – after winning raises from employers. 

Today, those workers and members of other unions are fighting to hang on to their recent gains, particularly in the low-paying tourism and hospitality sectors hit so hard by the terrorist attacks. 

Meanwhile, the unions themselves are struggling to sustain a nationwide organizing effort as they lose dues and potential members to the tough economic times. 

“There’s no doubt this has had a serious impact on our resources,” said Maria Elena Durazo, president of Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International union. 

Durazo said her union has reacted by cutting support staff, trimming travel budgets and eliminating raises in order to keep organizing. 

Despite strong regional gains made by unions in 2000, especially among immigrant workers, organized labor across the country had a net loss of about 200,000 members during the year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

That loss is likely to be repeated in 2001 after mass layoffs in the airline and tourism industries sparked by the Sept. 11 attacks. 

“When workers need unions the most, they have the most concerns about moving toward them,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of Industrial Relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. 

Nationally, the membership of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International has been among the hardest hit. Since Sept. 11, the union has lost more than one-third of its 300,000 members in the United States and Canada to layoffs. 

Things were much different just 18 months ago. Los Angeles unions were celebrating newfound national clout in the wake of the “Justice for Janitors” campaign that served as a model for similar campaigns throughout the country. The high-profile strike by the Service Employees International Union lasted three weeks. 

Today, the picket lines have been replaced by lines of laid-off workers waiting for free groceries from unions and help applying for unemployment benefits and food stamps. 

“The hotel workers’ union has been aggressively organizing in Los Angeles,” said Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. “Now they’re having to turn inward and see how to help these members survive day to day.” 

Of the 12,000 members of two hotel and restaurant union locals in the Los Angeles area, about 3,000 are now out of work or logging reduced hours, union officials said. Many workers at hotels, theme parks and airports were let go, only to be hired back at lower wages. 

Rhina Gonzalez and her husband, Cesar Perez, both lost their jobs as housekeepers in area hotels after Sept. 11. 

“This is very scary for me,” she said. “I have to bring Christmas to my kids.” 

While struggling to recruit new members, unions have also turned their attention to lobbying the government to extend unemployment benefits and offer other help to displaced members. 

The California Labor Federation, which represents more than 2 million unionized workers in the state, recently endorsed Gov. Gray Davis for re-election . 

Before giving its endorsement, the group received several commitments from Davis, including a promise to speed up unemployment benefits for those who lost their jobs as a result of the terrorist attacks. 

Meanwhile, Durazo and the presidents of other union locals continue to push their national agenda. They will soon travel to Boston in support of a contract dispute involving 3,000 workers at nine hotels in the city. 

“Hotels are under an enormous amount of pressure, but that’s no reason to take advantage of workers,” Durazo said. 

Durazo said it is important that unions stay aggressive and not worry about their public image if workers strike. 

“We’re taking the offensive as far as trying to secure greater rights for our members even at the time this is going on,” she said. 

It’s possible that unions may garner even greater public support because of the crisis. 

Workers standing in unemployment lines – the economic victims of terrorism – could be seen in a more sympathetic light than defiant workers on a picket line. 

“The silver lining is this is a test for organized labor to become united, responding to a crisis in solidarity with each other,” Contreras said. “Labor gave a voice to janitors last year. Labor is giving a voice this year to these workers who are affected by layoffs.”