An East Bay Trail of Tears 

It's been a sad summer for workers in the East Bay and elsewhere in Northern California. Why are their unions fighting among themselves?

It has been a sad summer for working people in the East Bay. The communities served by the BART line are a veritable Trail of Tears. The economic downturn is pressing on workers especially hard. Alone they often lack the resources to respond, yet their unions are locked in internal battles that are rendering them increasingly ineffectual.

The first stop on our journey is Fremont. Some of the East Bay's best remaining fair-wage jobs could soon disappear with the threatened closure of the New United Motor Manufacturing auto plant. The multiplier effect of factories such as NUMMI has an extraordinary economic impact on the lives of many people in their communities. And in an area in which racial issues remain front and center, it should not be forgotten that it was plants like this one that allowed many African Americans and other minority-group members to first attain middle-class lives. These jobs also provided their employees with adequate health care into retirement, a precious commodity for anyone today.

Meanwhile, following the BART line north, some of the last Bay Area working folks who still have good wages and pensions have been roundly ridiculed for their audacity in fighting to protect them. The BART workers' contract struggle is a focus of derision for those who claim that it is ridiculous that those who operate the trains would make more than the people who ride them to get to their "important" jobs.

As a result of such tools and the devastation they have wrought, this summer many people throughout the East Bay have lost their homes and their tenuous grip on the American Dream. Those who can no longer afford to make their mortgage payments are the greatest victims. But as the sale of distressed properties continues to climb, the glut of foreclosed properties is driving down prices so much that many people who still can afford their payments are also deeply underwater on their mortgages.

The pain this crisis has inflicted on the statebudget is just beginning to affect the East Bay. The final budget is sure to be painful for working-class caregivers and care recipients in East Bay communities. California has long had one of the country's best home-health-care systems. While caregivers often make little more than the minimum wage, at least they have stable jobs about which they can feel justifiably proud.

And the new state budget will hit working people in other ways. In spite of Proposition 98, which theoretically guarantees a certain level of funding to community colleges, the new budget is certain to restrict access for future students. With industrial jobs evaporating, community college is one of the only roads to success for kids who have spent time in California's K-12 educational system. For those without financial resources or mommy and daddy's networks of connections, the community college system is a way to gain the skills and entry into higher education that can allow one to succeed in the difficult marketplace of work. Heretofore, this avenue to success has provided an impressive amount of support for its students, but it is becoming heavily potholed.

Traveling north to Oakland, we reach the epicenter of misplaced union energy. Since bitter internal fights have a way of sapping the creative juices of their leaders, the leadership that unions should provide suffering East Bay workers is sorely lacking. Creative and passionate women and men work for local unions, yet they often seem more focused on fighting each other than on fighting for their members.

At the Aramark laundry in Oakland, some of the poorest industrial workers in our country are fighting a battle for a decent contract with their employer. Unfortunately for these industrial laundry workers, their union has split in two, and each side is fighting for control, leaving the workers themselves swimming in a sea of confusion. The garment workers of Workers United and the UNITE-HERE hotel workers with whom they recently merged are locked in a Lucha Libre death match, in which workers are just pawns in battles among union leaders. Good contracts are difficult to secure for industrial workers in the best of times; but, when union battles dominate the scene, employers have little reason to agree to a fair contract.

The same divisive atmosphere permeates the caring professions of health care. Even as Kaiser Permanente announces new layoffs, the three-ring circus between the Service Employees International Union, the California Nurses Association, and the former service workers in the National Union of Health Care Workers continues. The latter union, which has maintained a positive and wholesome image among many national labor activists, recently received a stinging rebuke from a local federal judge, putting its progressive and democratic reputation in question.

Given the current political climate, the difficulties that workers face from budget cuts are not surprising. But battles among unions are especially sad. Their skirmishes sap the ability of workers to respond to hardships. All the unions involved in these battles espouse a love for workers and the importance of focusing on them, but it is hard to find evidence of these sentiments in what look like ego-driven battle royales. All are tremendous strategists and tactitians. But while they claim to put the interests of workers first, each is spending huge sums of workers' money on lawyers and public relations specialists of all stripes.

Unions serve their members when they exhibit a spirit of unity, solidarity, and self-sacrifice. It is time for these union leaders to step back and think about their duties to workers. Like the Native Americans on the original Trail of Tears, the anguish of those who face difficult conditions is often unheard in our present culture. For those who live in the East Bay and labor with their hands and minds, this summer has produced too many external pressures and not enough organized response.


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