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labor The Image and Influence of California's Organized Labor

While unions are "taking it on the chin" in many areas of the country - e.g. states like Wisconsin and Indiana eliminating collective bargaining rights - organized labor is alive and well in California politics.

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In many ways organized labor is the most the powerful political force here in deeply Democratic California. But the bitter Bay Area transit strike that ended this week revealed a few cracks in the armor. As the second BART strike in four months unfolded, commuters were frustrated and furious -- at both sides. Some blamed the transit agency for disrespecting the workers and for hiring an outside negotiator despised by the unions. But public anger seemed especially aimed at the workers, who some saw as greedy. So what do we learn from this very public transit strike? And what does it say, if anything, about the image and influence of unions in California? Scott Shafer and The California Report's Sacramento bureau chief Scott Detrow have more.

In many ways, organized labor is the most the powerful political force here in deeply Democratic California. However, the bitter Bay Area transit strike that ended this week has revealed a few cracks in the armor.

As the second BART strike in four months unfolded, commuters were frustrated and furious — at both sides. Some blamed the transit agency for disrespecting the workers, and for hiring an outside negotiator despised by the unions, but public anger seemed especially aimed at the workers, who some saw as greedy.

“This has got to be the last time this happens,” said Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom at the end of the strike on Monday night. “I think everyone is fed up, and no one wants to see this ever happen again. The people of this region don’t deserve it, and the folks behind me on both sides don't deserve this.”

What can be learned from this very public transit strike? And what does it say, if anything, about the image and influence of unions in California? Harley Shaiken, UC Berkeley labor expert, says a cultural shift is happening. He noted that in the past, the public believed that a union victory would trickle down to everyone else, and rooted for them.

“Now, when unionized workers in the case of BART seek to hang on to a good pension,” said Shaiken, “many people say, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t have it, why should they?’”

Shaiken faults the media in part for covering the BART strike like a four-month-long football game — who's up, who’s down, who won, who lost — rather than examining the real underlying issues that affect all working people.

“Core issues about what it means to be middle class and about workers sharing in that, were really at the core of a lot of the dispute,” Shaiken noted.

As the disagreements dragged on, one thing stood out — the absence of local elected officials taking part in negotiations. Newsom, who was present for parts of the negotiations, said the lack of involvement from regional political leaders was strange. Even San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was in China when the strike began.

 “These are labor allies, [who have supported] the labor unions, have been beneficiaries of labor unions, and just saw the public opinion move completely in a different direction,” said Newsom. “They didn’t want to necessarily line themselves too closely with that because people sort of had enough.”

That arm’s-length approach taken by some Democratic allies did not go unnoticed by Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

“We’re going to keep demanding from them that they stand with us,” Durazo said. “If they want our endorsements, if they want our help when it comes time to election or re-election, then in between they need to stand with us and show what they’re made of.”

One Democrat who's not standing with organized labor is San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed. He's pushing a statewide ballot measure on pension reform after years of severe city budget cuts and layoffs driven in part by the costs of public employee pensions.

“I’ve had that experience in San Jose, other mayors around the state have had that experience, and we’re tired of cutting services to cover these skyrocketing costs,” said Reed.

It remains to be seen whether bitterness over the BART strike will spill over into other issues like pension reform. One Democrat who's running for the Assembly and is also one of Jerry Brown’s closest advisers is calling for a ban on public transit strikes. But labor expert Shaiken calls that unnecessary.

“Ultimately, collective bargaining is something we can always improve on,” Shaiken said. “It’s an imperfect process, but it’s better than any of the likely alternatives, exactly what we say about democracy itself.”

 Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation, has acknowledged how tough these negotiations were, but says he believes unions will continue fighting for people who feel themselves struggling to make ends meet.

“The lesson for the labor movement here is that we keep going,” Pulaski said. “We keep going to fight for improvements in the minimum wage, improvements in healthcare for everybody, improvements for pensions for everybody, and we continue to fight for the improvements in the conditions for the workforce who we represent.”

Labor Still a Force in Sacramento

The BART strike may have hurt organized labor’s public image in Northern California, but unions are taking a victory lap in Sacramento.

California Labor Federation spokesman Steve Smith said 2013 was a historic year. “There’s no question that we had probably the most successful legislative session for workers that we’ve had certainly in years, and possibly in decades,” he told the California Report.

Among the wins:

  • A new, $10 minimum wage, the highest in the nation
  • A halt to the broad California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) changes that labor opposed
  • A new law ordering California’s charter cities to pay prevailing wages on public works projects

In addition, organized labor successfully pushed for sweeping new rights for California’s undocumented immigrants, including drivers’ license eligibility and protection from federal immigration authorities. That’s on top of last year’s big electoral successes: helping pass the tax-raising Prop. 30, and killing Prop. 32, which would have hurt unions’ ability to raise political money.

Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio has spent years working on labor issues. He also served as Assembly Speaker John Perez’s spokesman this year. He said the gains have a lot to do with unions’ Sacramento strategy.  “Unions decided that they were going to try to introduce a bill package that strengthens the middle class, and appeal to the next generation of union workers, which largely is the immigrant community in the state of California,” he said.

But where supporters see smart strategy, opponents see big money. Jon Fleishman edits The Flash Report, an influential conservative blog. He argued labor – particularly public employee unions – has too much sway, and can effectively run the table on its priorities.  “You have this vision that at the Palm Hotel in Las Vegas, the union presidents all get together with a big dry-erase board, and somebody says, ‘What ideas do you have? Really, they’ll pass. Anything!’”

Labor certainly spends money. MapLight tracks money in state politics. Three of the top five interest groups it tracked over the last two years are unions: Together they gave about $10 million to lawmakers. 

Take labor’s top priority, the minimum wage increase. MapLight says labor groups supporting the hike outspent the other side by 196 percent.

Dan Schnur, the director of USC’s Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics, said it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Sure, labor racked up win after win in 2013. But, he argued, “They’re not the only one. Labor got just about everything they wanted this year, though not everything. But the business community, which is equally involved in the legislative and policy-making process, was able to kill 38 of the 39 bills that they identified as job-killers.”

But that one job-killing bill that survived – the minimum wage increase – happened to be the top labor priority. And when the business community pushed to trim California’s environmental laws, labor joined with environmental groups to halt CEQA updates, and the effort stalled and died.  

So while unions are playing defense across the country lately, with states like Wisconsin and Indiana eliminating collective bargaining rights, organized labor is alive and well in California politics.