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Los Angeles is the Labor Movement's Great Success Story

The purpose of Labor Day is to give American workers recognition and honor—and to give them a little rest. Boy could they use it. As Tom Schaller notes today in the Baltimore Sun, workers in this country are among the most productive in the world. Yet they get less paid vacation time and fewer guarantees of time off than their peers in other industrialized countries. Nor has pay kept up. “The shameful reality is that worker productivity rose 80 percent from 1973 to 2011, yet median hourly compensation during the same period grew only about 10 percent,” Schaller writes. “Since 2000, productivity is up 23 percent, but inflation-adjusted hourly pay has flat-lined. Increasingly, the reward for hard work in America is, well, more work — at the same or lower compensation and with less time for play.”

Of course, another purpose of Labor Day is to honor the labor movement—without which U.S. workers would have even fewer protections, and be making less money. But celebrating unions isn’t easy these days, because they are struggling so much that their basic existence is in doubt. Every year, the number of Americans who belong to unions declines, in absolute and relative terms. Today it’s just 14.4 million. (In 1983, it was nearly 18 million—and the size of the total U.S. workforce was smaller back then.) Conservatives like to blame this decline on the unions themselves, for greed and mismanagement. But the proximate causes are changes in the economy and the weakening of U.S. labor laws, which were never that strong in the first place. If not for the survival public sector unions, labor density would be even lower. And these days public employee unions are under assault too.

It all sounds pretty hopeless. But in a few pockets of the country, labor isn't just surviving. It's making progress. One of those places is Los Angeles. After World War II, the city economy was based on manufacturing: The same factories that churned out airplanes for America’s national defense created good-paying jobs for America’s middle class workers. And those workers had unions. But jobs that involved building things eventually disappeared, as the local economy shifted more to lo-wage, service-based jobs.

It was the same transformation that was taking place in every other city—only it hasn't play out in quite the same way. And a big reason is an organization called Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, or LAANE, whose story journalist Harold Meyerson tells in the American Prospect this month:

Established in 1993, LAANE is the think tank, policy arm, and, on occasion, political organizer for the Los Angeles labor movement. Over the past 20 years, it has become the nation’s most innovative and effective force for raising the incomes of low-wage private-sector workers. No other think tank has come up with more ways to leverage the powers of municipal government to create higher pay for America’s working class. No other community-organizing group has built more effective labor-environmental-neighborhood alliances. No other lobbyist has a better record of persuading elected officials to enact not just progressive legislation but the kind of progressive legislation that no one has ever before enacted. …

Founded and led until last year by attorney Madeline Janis, the organization first came to public notice in 1997 when it spearheaded a living-wage ordinance for employees of companies with city contracts. The legislation became the model for ordinances in more than 100 other cities. Soon after, LAANE set the template for community benefit agreements. Local governments had often compelled developers to pay their construction workers a living wage, but these agreements conditioned government assistance on businesses within the completed projects paying a living wage to their employees as well. LAANE has won such benefits—including local-hiring, living-wage, and union-representation agreements—at many of L.A.’s mega-developments (most prominently Staples Center, where the Lakers and Kings play). It has crafted an inner-city hiring accord with the county’s transit agency, which will produce tens of thousands of jobs in the African American community. It has brought together the Teamsters, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council and hammered out agreements that reduced the truck pollution around the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors by nearly 90 percent. It has restructured the city’s private trash-collection industry in Los Angeles, which will lead to more recycling and a better-paid workforce.

LAANE’s victories have come when American liberals are generally sunk in pessimism about the prospects for reversing the growth in economic inequality and the decline in middle-income jobs. LAANE has cracked the code for the economy’s seemingly most intractable conundrum: how to raise the incomes of American workers. It has helped win living wages for 64,000 private-sector workers. As projects subject to LAANE–devised regulations expand over the next five years, that number should rise to 95,000.

I first encountered LAANE and its allies many years ago. In their efforts to organize hotel housekeepers, janitors, and security workers, LAANE and their union partners frequently highlighted the workers' lack of health insurance. I was similarly impressed—with the organizational savvy and broad reach. Of course, I can’t really vouch for the analysis in Meyerson’s piece. (What do I know about politics in Los Angeles?) But I can vouch for Meyerson himself. There may be no journalist who knows more about the labor movement—or Southern California. His story is well worth reading, in its entirety—for information and, if you want labor to survive, for hope. 

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at the New Republic. Follow him on twitter @CitizenCohn