Interview with Utility Workers Local 132
President Marti Rodriguez-Harris

LOS ANGELES – Verbal abuse, sexual harassment and unequal treatment were the issues that drove Marti Rodriguez-Harris to the union movement.

“It was 1978 and I was working in accounts payable at Broadway Department stores. The bosses would take the young girls to a nearby motel as a condition to getting a raise. We had no union. I was doing the work of three supervisors,” Harris told the World in a recent phone interview.

“I went to the personnel manager and spilled my guts. Later I was called into the office of the general manager – just me with a bunch of supervisors – and they used all sorts of four letter words. It was the scariest time of my life.”

Harris went looking for a lawyer – and justice. She learned some basic labor law along the way. For one thing, she discovered you don’t get unemployment compensation when you quit a job. She also found out that sexual harassment was not illegal, unless you belonged to a union. That was the first time she heard the word “union.”

“I didn’t know what a union was. The person at the Labor Department told me to go to the library to find out more,” Harris said. And she did.

She got her first union job in 1979 with Southern California Gas Co. Some 25 years later, Harris became the first woman president of the 3,900-member Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 132. She is also one of two women on the union’s 23-member national executive board and a vice-president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

In a 2001 UWUA survey on working women and deregulation, Harris told the story of a mom who got a call from her child’s school while she was at work. A customer call center employee, a single mom, got a call from the school telling her to pick up her sick child, Harris said. The women’s supervisor refused to let her leave because the center was “understaffed.”

“Luckily this woman had the UWUA behind her. I called the supervisor and was very clear: The problems of an understaffed unit – a direct result of how companies run their businesses under deregulation – are of management’s making. The employee – and her child – shouldn’t be penalized just because you haven’t staffed your unit appropriately,” Harris said.

The union won that battle and one against deregulation of the natural gas industry. “We had no choice except to fight, Harris said, deregulation destroys jobs and customer service.”

Local 132 is going into contract negotiations with Southern California Gas this year. “Part-timers have mushroomed from 36 to 1,500; they have no health care and no benefits. It’s a negative trend for workers. We want to expose this injustice.”

Harris said the long-term, full-time workers have to work 35 years before they are eligible for full pension. She’d like to win a lower threshold – 30 years at least – in this year’s contract negotiations.

“We are starting early in working with the membership about the contract,” Harris said. “Our members are spread out all over the state, so I want to be out with the workers talking to them. We are having a series of membership meetings, too, so we can bring all the members together.”

Women’s History Month celebrates achievements by women. Women’s leadership in the trade union movement and for workers’ rights is an important part of that. Harris lives a slogan that can improve conditions for all women workers: “A woman’s place is in her union.”

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org.

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