Matt Welch

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September 11
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© 1986-2004

, the print-shop unionist who was convicted along with his brother of blowing up the L.A. Times in 1910, killing 21 and effectively crushing the budding labor movement in Southern California. (There is considerable opinion that union-busting Times founder Harrison Gray Otis engineered the explosion to inflame public opinion and even cover up his own duplicity in the blast, but it has never been proved.)

The only description of the guy I could find was that he was tall and blond, so I just dressed as badly as usual and showed up. Unfortunately, L.A.'s historical antipathy toward labor won out: nobody else was in costume, and few had even heard of Luxembourg herself. Inside, the only real talk of syndicalism was how the screen actor's commercial strike was cutting into everyone's work, and driving even more production to Canada. Woody Guthrie's Working Man would have probably thought he'd landed on Mars, with all the talk of "Al-Anon," high-priced art installations involving household plates, and -- really -- cabalistic sessions in which the spirit of Isaac Bashevis Singer was channeled to work out the kinks on a posthumous screen adaptation of one of his novels.

But despite appearances, L.A. has been on the leading edge of union recruitment and activism for the last two years, and the results may reshape the way labor thinks about crucial issues such as trade and immigration.

The vast majority of the new members are Latinos, not ethnic Europeans or African-Americans, who work in the service industry, not manufacturing. They are minimum-wage janitors (who won solid wage and benefit increases after a popular strike this spring), bus boys and entry-level nurses, not white longshoremen or blue-collar aerospace employees. The new blood is building momentum for "Living Wage" ordinances all over Southern California, from Santa Monica to LAX to Hollywood Boulevard.

And, importantly, New Labor in L.A. has moved the movement away from the kind of flag-waving nativism that, along with institutional corruption, has turned many smart people away from unions. It gets much harder to complain about the job-stealing, Spanish-speaking immigrants, when all the new members are job-stealing (or crap-job-accepting) Spanish-speaking immigrants.

This has led to a historic shift: suddenly, L.A. unions are coming out strong in favor of amnesty for illegal immigrants, who they recognize now as future labor activists, rather than job competitors. Earlier this summer, labor did something the Clippers could never do -- sell out the Sports Arena -- with a big rally favoring immigration.

Not only does this discourage any remnants of white-trash racism within the rank and file, but more importantly this brings a little institutional diversity and personal experience to the free-trade debate. For years and decades, the manufacturing-dominated unions have howled much more about factories moving south of the border than for issues that affect all their members, such as universal health care, or education reform.

While many still claim some concern over "exploitation" of foreign workers or ecosystems, the main motivation for trade barriers is and will always be job protectionism. While this makes sense on the immediate level -- unions should protect jobs, no? -- the people who suffer most from restricted trade are workers in countries which want to narrow the gap between U.S. wealth and global poverty.

This is a story that L.A.'s new union members will be able to tell their comrades first-hand. And, for those who worry more about border sweatshops and pollution than unfettered trade, well, here are some new eyewitnesses who can go beyond abstract rhetoric.

The Left, while generally dispirited, does not realize how far its strenuous opposition has gone toward scuttling global trade pacts. It is my minority hope that labor can expend its considerable energy and money on living wages, health coverage and education, rather than on brutishly blocking Mexican trucks from delivering loads of avocados into California. L.A.'s new unionists are poised to do precisely that. Viva Labor Day!

© 1986-2004; All rights reserved.