A year ago, Patricio Estupiñan called the Teamsters, seeking help improving wages, equipment and job safety at the Sonoma County garbage company where he has worked for 25 years.
“We need to get respect. A better life, everything,” Estupiñan said Friday during a short break from driving a street sweeper in Cotati.
It led to a union organizing campaign at the Ratto Group, the county’s dominant trash hauler. In May, Estupiñan and his co-workers — about 400 drivers, mechanics, customer service reps and others — voted to join Teamsters Local 665.
The vote culminated more than 20 years of efforts by the Teamsters to unionize Sonoma County’s waste and recycling workers. It would be the first in a string of high-profile victories this summer by unions in Sonoma County, where an estimated 1 in 5 workers are represented by organized labor groups.
In June, the Santa Rosa Junior College Board of Trustees agreed to negotiate a deal that would set union rules and benefits for a planned large campus construction project, despite intense opposition from non-union construction interests.
Then, in August, more than 50 workers at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek hotel in Santa Rosa — housekeepers, servers, cooks, dishwashers and others — voted to join UNITE HERE Local 2850, a hospitality workers’ union.
“I’d say the union movement is alive and strong in Sonoma County and growing,” said Jack Buckhorn, executive director of the Santa Rosa-based North Bay Labor Council. “We’re going to fight for any worker who wants to have a higher standard of living.”
But some union rivals warn that gains by organized labor can come at a cost. They are focusing their opposition on efforts to impose union rules and benefits on major taxpayer-funded construction projects.
“People ought to be up in arms over the money wasting about to take place,” said Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the 1,100-member North Coast Builders Exchange, which is leading a campaign against so-called project labor agreements at SRJC. “This is a big battle.”
For many, Labor Day marks an unofficial end to summer, with barbecues and big sales at retail stores. Monday’s commemoration, started by trade unions in the late 19th century and designated a national holiday in 1894, honors the social and economic achievements of American workers.
Union membership has been declining in the United States over the past half-century. Just 10.7 percent of the U.S. workforce was organized last year, the lowest figure since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking it in 1983.
In Sonoma County, however, unions have retained a much stronger presence. Nearly 21 percent of the workers in Sonoma County belonged to a union last year, according to unionstats.com, a database constructed by two university professors who analyze BLS data and produce county-level projections. Two-thirds of Sonoma County’s union members work in the public sector, largely local government and schools, according to their estimates.
It’s nothing like the union concentration of 40 percent of the county workforce in the early 1950s, said Marty Bennett, a history instructor emeritus at Santa Rosa Junior College and local labor activist. The post-World War II boom of big construction projects was “a different era,” he said.
But the advances by organized labor this summer may mark a turning point, said Bennett, who serves as an advisor to UNITE HERE and is co-chairman of North Bay Jobs with Justice, an advocacy group seeking higher wages for local workers.