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Union membership grows in Southern California despite recession [Updated]

September 7, 2009 |  2:12 pm

Cardinal Roger Mahony blesses a sanitation truck in honor of Labor Day. Hundreds attended a Monday mass at Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times Despite the recession, union membership in Southern California is on the rise, according to a study released Monday by UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

The institute’s fifth annual report on the state of organized labor found that, between July 2008 and June 2009 — the peak of the current recession — unions gained almost 25,000 new members in Southern California and more than 131,000 statewide.

The gains follow decades of decline in union membership.

Union members still represent a minority all workers — about 18.3% of all employees in California and 17.5% in the Southern California region that includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Ventura and San Bernardino counties. However, the percentage of union membership has been rising the last two years, both in California and throughout the country.

Nationwide, union members represent about 12.4% of all workers. Across the country, the institute said, average hourly earnings are about $4 more for union workers than for non-union workers.

To mark Labor Day, Cardinal Roger Mahony celebrated a special Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of The Angels. He called on organized labor and employers to work together to put people back to work in lasting jobs.

“It isn’t just a matter of replacing yesterday’s jobs with more of yesterday’s jobs that may have no future,” Mahony told worshippers, including many union activists wearing T-shirts bearing their union affiliation. “That may have no future.”

Elsewhere in Southern California, union workers and their allies gathered for a parade in Wilmington and rally in Banning Park to press for government-funded healthcare benefits.

[Updated, 5 p.m.: Before celebrating Mass, Mahony blessed a sanitation truck, calling the act "a symbol of the dignity of our work." While delivering the blessing, he sprinkled the truck with holy water outside the cathedral.

"Bless this truck, and those who use this truck," he said as workers in union T-shirts watched. "May they travel and use it safely, with care for the safety of others."

The act was meant to symbolize the struggle of working men and women to earn a living wage, healthcare and respect in the workplace, a union official said.

-- Patrick J. McDonnell

Photo: Cardinal Roger Mahony blesses a sanitation truck in honor of Labor Day.  Hundreds attended a Monday mass at Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.  Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times