Opinion: California public employees tensed for action

Tuesday evening’s “solidarity” vigil by California’s unionized state employees on the Capitol steps to support Wisconsin’s public workers in their battle over the attempt to abolish collective bargaining rights for government workers was certainly no “Tahrir Square” moment…at least not yet.  

But the Wisconsin governor’s anti-union drive should serve to put this state’s lawmakers and politicians on notice that, as the elected leader of one of California’s leading public employee unions expressed it to me in an off-the-record conversation, “If they try to mess with our bargaining rights we will make what’s going on in Wisconsin look like a Sunday picnic.”

Like Wisconsin, California lawmakers struck an historic bargain with state employees back in the 1970s – give up your right to strike in exchange for the legally sanctioned and protect rights to bargain collectively with state administrators over wages, hours and working conditions.

Those are the same hard-won labor rights enjoyed by private-sector workers since the “New Deal” era of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which even conservative economists credit with having saved capitalism during the 1930s.

California’s commitment to collective bargaining rights for state workers was the Dills Act, passed by the Legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in the mid-1970s, and it remains firmly embedded in state law (California Government Code Sections 3512 – 3524).

Yet it is no secret that well-financed, reactionary forces in this state have long dreamed of repealing the Dills Act and all other New Deal reforms that lifted America out of the terrible despair of the Great Depression. That resulted in a dramatic improvement in the living standards of virtually all other American workers and transformed ours into the richest, most powerful and most economically equal and secure society in history.

Yet, taxpayers here and elsewhere need to understand that the fight now being waged by public workers to preserve their collective bargaining rights is part of a much larger and broadly based struggle to preserve the American middle class and the prosperous economic order upon which it has long rested.

The right of workers to form unions and collectively bargain with employers was established during New Deal, by the end of which some 25 percent of private sector employees were unionized. That resulted in a dramatic improvement in the living standards of virtually all other American workers and transformed ours into the richest, most powerful, and most economically equal and secure in history.

Yet the share of union workers in the private sector has since dwindled to fewer than 7 percent and continues to decline precipitously. The ability of most working Americans to better themselves and secure a measure of economic security is fast disappearing.

When I first came to California from “back east” as a young journalist over 40 years ago, the Golden State was largely the way poet and folk singer Woody Guthrie had described it in one of his immortal “Dust Bowl” ballads, only better — a thriving, modern economic powerhouse where unemployment was low, wages were comparatively generous, and the bounty of the state’s prosperity – wealth – was broadly shared by the hard-working people who produced it.

Since then, the share of America’s and California’s wealth appropriated by the super-rich – defined by economists as the top 1 percent of earners – has increased from fewer than 8 percent to nearly 25 percent including capital gains. In that time, I’ve witnessed our once “can-do” state transformed into an increasingly hardscrabble land of low wages, high unemployment, growing economic and social insecurity, and a tragic loss of the ability of We, the People, to effectively govern ourselves.

Billionaires, skillfully employing their obscene riches to convert our once-vital, highly mixed and decentralized economy where small business might thrive and prosper into one now dominated by powerful corporate monopolies that stifle free enterprise, and to buy and sell politicians. Our once high-functioning democracy is fast becoming an autocracy lorded over by a tiny minority of self-serving oligarchs and Wall Street kleptocrats.

Make no mistake – the battle to preserve collective bargain playing out in Wisconsin, and might soon be raging in Sacramento – has little to do with “shared sacrifice.” Public employees’ unions in Wisconsin, as they have here in California, have already accepted sharp wage and benefit cuts and have stipulated their willingness to make further concessions. Nor has it much to do with balancing budgets or eliminating the burden of debt clouding our progeny’s future but everything to do with who will be forced to pay that debt.

Ultimately, what we are witnessing is a struggle about raw power. Having wrecked our economy, and looted the public treasury to recoup their personal losses with the active complicity of corrupted politicians the oligarchs and kleptocrats are now trying to divert the attention of an electorate rendered profoundly insecure and fearful by their schemes and malfeasances. They are attacking the last remaining bastion of the hard-won right of all working people to have an effective voice in negotiating the terms of their economic future – public employee unions.

Public employees’ unions represent the citadel of what remains of the once-great American middle-class; in a very real sense we are the custodians of a rapidly fading “American Dream.” May we not fail in defending that citadel and that dream…even if it should come to spilling some blood.  

Ed’s Note: Ira Eisenberg’s views are his own and do not represent the position of SEIU Local 1000, which he serves as a job steward.

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