No one can say the Bay Area labor movement is dormant. Between fighting employers over wages and politics and fighting internally over strategies and tactics, local labor is boiling over. The sense of crisis that seems obvious to progressives outside of the movement is being felt and acted upon by those within it. This array of disputes has the rest of the country watching closely and learning from our movement's travails.
First the internal. The dizzying array of disputes between the California Nurses Association; the Service Employees International Union; and the SEIU's Oakland-based affiliate, United Healthcare Workers-West, is harder to comprehend than the rules of cricket. For instance, the warring factions of the SEIU each claim that the other is undemocratic, practices "business" unionism, and is employing a losing model for organizing. Claims of conspiracies abound and each union is working to publicize its views and convince allies. On July 14, several thousand members of United Healthcare Workers-West marched to protest an SEIU hearing being held in Manhattan Beach that could result in the transfer of the union affiliation of thousands of UHW members to another SEIU California affiliate.
While seemingly a waste of time and energy, these debates play an important role as they move beyond personality and power and raise fundamental issues of theory and strategy. The movement's history is being examined in an effort to determine which factors were responsible for labor's golden years. Difficult questions are on the table, such as whether the labor's primary goal should be securing a better life for its workers, or representing the working people of the country in general. Ideas about the most effective and democratic union structures are being debated. In healthcare, for example, the Oakland-based California Nurses Association advocates a national craft union for registered nurses, United Healthcare Workers-West favors statewide unions that unite all healthcare workers regardless of craft, and the international SEIU is somewhere in between.
But even amid all this infighting, three local events illustrate labor's enduring power and possibilities. The first was the short May 1 strike by longshore workers at the Port of Oakland seeking an end to the war in Iraq. Most in labor intelligentsia now agree that the power of workers is best expressed when labor is part of such social movements for justice. Chanting "No Peace, No Work," the protest of local longshore workers and their allies has inspired many around the world, although buried in the mainstream media. It keeps a taste in labor's mouth of the nascent power of united action. A recent book from the UC Berkeley Press, Solidarity Divided, written by former AFL-CIO official Bill Fletcher Jr. and UCLA professor Fernando Gapasin, argues that only by practicing such "social justice" unionism can labor rebound.
The second important local event was the five-day "strike to end poverty at the University of California," held July 14-18 by the gardeners, janitors, kitchen workers, and parking attendants at UC campuses. In contract negotiations with the union, UC management's "last and best" wage offer to many of these workers was $11.50 an hour even though the California Budget Project estimates that a single parent living in Alameda or Contra Costa County needs to earn more than $30.00 an hour to make ends meet. (No surprise that 96 percent of UC service workers are eligible for food stamps, Women Infant and Children nutrition programs, or some other form of public assistance, according to professor Dana Frank of UC Santa Cruz.) In response to the university's offer, Local 3299 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees called this five-day strike. Calls are being made to the new president of the UC system, my old law professor Mark Yudof, to turn his sights to this moral imbalance.
Finally, an underpublicized yet important labor event was the recent union victory by the East Bay reporters employed by Dean Singleton's Bay Area News Group. Taking place in a very difficult economic time for newspapers and their employees, a majority of eligible voters concluded that they were better off working in unity with their peers through the Newspaper Guild than in trying to get by on their own. The reporters were joyful about the victory until, after the election, their bosses announced a layoff of 29 more newsroom employees. Layoffs of this type are standard operating procedure by anti-union companies involved in labor disputes. Often, they are planned well in advance of the election but kept quiet so as not to anger potential voters. Announcing them after the election has the effect of making the union look like a toothless tiger.
Included in the layoff was a very active union adherent, award-winning journalist Sara Steffens. Recently elected president of the local union, Steffens pondered whether her union activities were worth it in an e-mail sent to her fellow reporters after the notice of her layoff. "Yes," she wrote. "Yes. A hundred times yes. And I'd do it again, every bit of it. What we accomplished has not been undone. Our union isn't going anywhere. As those of us on the organizing committee have so often said: The Guild is not one person. It's all of us, working together, to advance our shared interests. Our managers can't take that away. Dean Singleton can't take it away. Even the ever-worsening finances of the newspaper industry can't take that away. We can sit around and mourn the demise of our industry. Or we can stand up and fight for our little corner of the world, for ourselves and our co-workers and the communities that depend on what we do. Without a union, we have nothing. Together, we have a voice. Months ago, a fellow organizer described a union as a family. Today I see more than ever how that's true. Family makes us stronger, shapes who we are, provides a fall-back in the toughest of times."
Fighting against poverty and an immoral war with the unity and strength of family — that is the spirit of unionism. It is this spirit that must be recaptured if justice is to return to the American workplace.
Jay Youngdahl is a distant cousin to SEIU political director Jon Youngdahl.
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