As in many things, California goes its own way in terms of labor union membership, according to a new study released jointly by UC’s Labor Center and Institute for Labor and Employment. While the rest of the country has seen a further decline in union membership and the higher salaries and health care benefits that go with it since 1997, California’s union work force has actually grown slightly in the same time period. Labor union membership peaked in the U.S. in the 50s at about 35 percent of all workers nationwide.
According to the study, 16 percent of the country and California’s workers were union members in 1997. Today, thanks to an upswing occurring in 2001, 18 percent of the state’s worker s are unionized while only 13 percent of the country’s are. The study cites the strong political influence of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for the uptick in union membership in the state. SEIU, which represents janitors, home health care workers and other service workers, has been highly effective at organizing for new members.
Another factor contributing to union growth in California is that industrial unions such as the United Auto Workers have not had much of a presence here, so the decline in their membership due to losses in U.S. car manufacturing hasn’t impacted the state as much as, for example, Michigan.
While the stereotype of the union worker remains a guy in a hard hat, that image is now obsolete, says Ruth Milkman, Director of the UC Institute for Labor and Employment. The California union worker is more likely to be a college-educated woman, in part because the largest segment of union workers in California are teachers—more than 25 percent are in education.
But, the opportunity to join a union is far more important in determining whether someone does so than their attitude about unions. “It’s not really a matter of preferences,” says Milkman. “You have to have the option.”
Where most workers don’t have that option is in one of the economy’s growing segments, retail sales. According to UC researchers, retail workers—who are combined with finance, real estate and insurance employees for statistical purposes—make up 27 percent of all employed workers in the state but account for only 11 percent of union membership.
Unionization has enormous consequence for workers in the private sector, where the institute says unionized employees are 78 percent more likely to have pension plans and 44 percent more likely to have employer-provided health coverage.
Health benefits in both the public and private sectors are being steadily eroded by employers who want to increase the cost of premiums and co-payments. Health insurance premiums rose 13 percent in 2002 over the year before, costing California workers more than $400 million last year and precipitating recent strikes by unionized auto mechanics in Contra Costa and San Mateo counties and workers at the C&H Sugar Refinery in Crocket.
Locally, employees at the Berkeley Bowl are currently attempting to unionize the high-end market but are being met with stiff opposition from store owners who have retained a union-busting law firm to squelch the drive. Berkeley Bowl employees will soon vote on whether to join to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has for many years represented clerks at other area supermarkets such as Andronico’s, Safeway and Albertson’s.
At other retail stores sprinkled throughout downtown Berkeley there is no union presence, but many workers are eligible for health benefits if they work full-time.
“I do a lot of interviews and a lot of people do need benefits and they ask us,” says Quentin Moore, manager of Berkeley Hardware on University Avenue. “The first concern is how much? Then they go to the benefits,” says Moore who says that hourly wages are determined by an employees’ experience. All full-time employees receive a Kaiser health benefits package.
While he’s not looking for anybody at the moment, Moore says today older workers may have an advantage. “Older people want to work. They have bills to pay. Your students just want to have enough money for clothes or food for the week. You got people paying house notes and paying for their kids then you’ll see a little more effort put out.”
However, Moore notes that having more part-time student employees helps the store’s bottom line since they don’t have to pay for their health benefits. Three years ago the store had six student employees, today there are only three.
With workers making up half the 6.72 million people without health benefits in California—a rise of 437,000 from last year—legislative solutions are on the horizon, including SB 2. Introduced by powerful State Senate Pro-Tem John Burton, SB 2 would require employers to either offer insurance to workers or pay into a statewide pool that would make health benefits available to employees at an affordable group rate.