by Jim Smith
L.A. Labor News

What has become of the Teamsters-Turtles alliance of labor and other protest groups that was founded in Seattle? In Los Angeles, during the past few days, neither Teamsters nor Turtles have been noticeable.

The Turtles have been replaced by Ballona Wetlands Frogs, who are in danger of being exterminated by Playa Vista, the largest single development in L.A. history. Playa Vista has the backing of official labor because it is being built by union construction workers. The damage to the environment, and the fact that after the construction the only workers who will live there will be maids and other domestics, has impact only to some rank-and-filers.

Around 1,000 labor union activists participated in the Aug. 14 "Human Needs, Not Corporate Greed" march and rally. They came from some of the more progressive unions including AFSCME Local 1108, California Nurses Association, Hollywood film unions including SAG and IATSE, ILWU, Laborers and PACE (formerly OCAW). A number of Justice for Janitors and other SEIU t-shirts were scattered through the labor contingent. This was a respectable turnout considering that no leaders of major unions or the county federation of labor lifted a finger to help build it and, if fact, some of them sabotaged it in the press and by discouraging members from participating. It was a far cry from the 30,000 - 50,000 union members who gathered in Seattle for the anti-WTO demonstrations.

The previous day, a Santa Monica coalition, which is the closest thing to a Teamsters-Turtles alliance in the Los Angeles area, held a noisy demonstration at the Loews hotel at the beach. It's being used as a convention delegate hotel and includes the Rev. Jesse Jackson as a guest. The labor side of this demonstration included the feisty Santa Monica hotel workers union, HERE 814, which is trying to organize Loews, as well as many union activists who live on the westside. A large number of community organizations support the unions as do Green Party members on the Santa Monica city council. The Loews chain owner, Jonathan Tisch, is a major supporter and contributor to Al Gore.

On Aug. 15, separate marches of SEIU Local 660 county workers and UTLA teachers had upwards of 3,000 participants each. However, leaders of both groups made it clear that they were supporting Gore, not criticizing him or the Democrats. I attended the SEIU Local 660 rally which was held in the same location where police had been shooting rubber bullets at union members and other protesters less than 24 hours before. Not a word of this was uttered by SEIU President Andy Stern or any of the other speakers.

Organized labor, in Los Angeles and nationally, has been struggling for years to stem membership losses and become more relevant to working people. Two strategies have emerged from this dilemma. The official one, best exemplified by the Service Employees union, is the mobilization model where unions hire lots of young, temporary organizers at low wages and rely on their energy and enthusiasm to recruit more members. On the political side, this strategy calls for mobilizing large voter turnouts for Democrats, largely through phone banks and the expenditure of ever increasing amounts of money.

A competing strategy, which has support mainly in smaller and maverick unions and among a growing number of academics, is "social movement" unionism. In this model, unions grow by building alliances with other social movements (such as those on the streets of Los Angeles), organize mainly through movements within the workplace, practice through-going democracy and attempt to influence political leaders in much the same way as they struggle with employers.

Unfortunately in Los Angeles, most large and powerful unions are still wedded to the mobilizing model - or worse, business unionism - and the Democratic Party. They are willing to put aside their differences with Al Gore on trade and globalization in order to remain players in the Party. While a Labor for Nader group has been formed in Los Angeles, it includes no officials of unions larger than 3,000 members, with the exception of the California Nurses Association.

One result of the D2K activities is that labor activists and observers will be able to distinguish between union leaders who are committed to building alliances and those who just spout good rhetoric and have inflated media images.

A more important result of the convention week activities is that after the protesters and the Democratic delegates go home, union activism will be stronger than ever. The D2K labor committee is already talking about ways to keep the coalition together. In the process of organizing for the demonstrations, labor activists have come in contact, and worked with, many local progressive community groups. Once the media spotlight is off Los Angeles, the hard, but pleasurable work of building a real labor left - community alliance will begin.