Dan Walters

Dan Walters
Published: Monday, Sep. 5, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 3A

California, like other Western states, was not fertile ground for labor union organization during the early 20th century, with Southern California employers being particularly hostile, even violently so, to union activity.

As manufacturing took hold in the state during and immediately after World War II, however, union membership boomed, particularly in the defense industry, topping out at about 40 percent of the state’s workers in the 1950s.

The decline of manufacturing in the 1960s and 1970s hit unions hard, but they found a savior in Jerry Brown, who was elected governor in 1974. He signed long-sought collective bargaining legislation for farmworkers as well as teachers and other government workers.

Public employee union membership soared, partially offsetting decline in the private sector. Overall California membership stabilized in the high teens – 18.6 percent in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, well above the national average of 11.9 percent.

On this Labor Day, it would be accurate to say that without more than a million public employee members, the California union movement would be virtually dead.

While more than half of the state’s nearly 2 million government employees belong to unions, it’s scarcely 10 percent in the private sector, according to a recent UCLA study. And private sector unions are increasingly dominated by hospital and other health care workers whose services are largely dependent on state and federal spending.

However, times are tough for government employees these days because state and local agencies face whopping budget deficits and are shedding workers and seeking salary and fringe benefit cuts to close their gaps.

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