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After 'hot labor summer,' San Diego unions hope to maintain winning streak

Flight attendants for United Airlines picketed outside San Diego International Airport on Thursday in one of several demonstrations across the country ahead of Labor Day weekend.

Unionized flight attendants are calling on United to meet their demands over wages, health care and staffing levels that contributed to an operational meltdown in late June.

Timothy Trueman, a longtime flight attendant and council representative for AFA-CWA Local 12, said newer flight attendants in particular are struggling to get by on the wages paid by the airline.


"Right now many of them are living 20 to a crash pad," Trueman said. "They don't live in a town where they're based because they can't afford to get an apartment."

Meanwhile both American Airlines flight attendants and Southwest Airlines pilots have voted to authorize strikes, threatening widespread disruptions in air travel if the companies fail to reach a deal with their employees.

Add that to the ongoing actors and writers strikes against Hollywood studios, the looming threat of an auto workers strike and a host of other labor actions and it's easy to see why observers have dubbed the past few months "hot labor summer."

Brigette Browning, executive secretary-treasurer of the San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council, said she has seen a monumental shift in San Diego politics in favor of unions since she began her career in organized labor 27 years ago.

"We're often prevailing with local government agencies in a way that I could have never fathomed in 1996," Browning said. "Whether it's the Port (of San Diego) or the city of San Diego or the county of San Diego, these agencies understand the values of workers and how it affects our local economies, making sure that workers have a job that they can afford to live in a very expensive city."


Unions still represent a minority of workers in the San Diego region — 17.6% according to the consumer protection website Construction Coverage, which analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau and That makes San Diego the ninth most unionized large metropolitan area in the country.

But there have been some high-profile successes in local union organizing, including at Sharp Grossmont hospital and two Starbucks locations in San Diego County. There have also been setbacks, including a vote by teachers at Gompers Preparatory Academy to decertify their union with the San Diego Education Association.

Despite the decades-long trend of declining union membership, polling suggests public opinion of unions is at its highest since the 1960s. Unions in California are also more diverse than past generations, with women making up at least half of union members in the state and people of color making up a majority, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

Browning said she's encouraged by a growing willingness among union members to go on strike, which she said is "an amazing way to empower workers." And she said the new generation of workers is more likely to see collective bargaining as the best way to improve their pay and working conditions.

"I think young workers in particular are really hungry for unions in their workplace," Browning said. "The ethos of the individual making it that was really prevalent in the '80s and '90s — I don't think anybody buys that mythology anymore."