‘Union boss’ rhetoric distorts the role of organized labor in California

As a longtime Capitol “denizen”–a term that always brings to mind some giant
sea monster–I can remember the days before it was almost routine to refer to
union leaders as “labor bosses” or to describe them with other unflattering

Thirty years ago, when John Henning headed the California Labor Federation
after a stint as JFK’s and LBJ’s Undersecretary of Labor, he was known
around the Capitol as a tough but progressive champion of the union
movement–but certainly not a “labor boss.”

And when Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers union bused in thousands
of newly organized field hands to Sacramento to demonstrate for humane
treatment for the people who harvest California’s produce, Chavez was viewed
by millions as a crusader for human rights, using the nonviolent tactics of
Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

That’s not to say that labor-management relations in the Capitol in those
days were smooth as a baby’s behind. In the late 1970s, when the late Sens.
Albert Rodda and Ralph Dills, with the support of Gov. Jerry Brown, carried
landmark legislation that gave teachers and state employees collective
bargaining rights, the Capitol got pretty edgy.

Still, though, labor leaders were generally recognized as democratically
elected representatives of workers who had organized to give voice and clout
to the needs of many, speaking as one.

But somewhere between then and now–in an era where politicians and news
media representatives can unintentionally end their careers for gaffes in
their references to the sexes, to sexual preferences, to races, ethnicities,
holidays and a host of other items too numerous to mention–it has become de
rigueur to call union officials “labor bosses.”

During the recent special election campaign, if I had a dollar for every
time Gov. Schwarzenegger and his forces referred to union leaders as “labor
bosses,” I’d be able to retire.

I’ve always thought “labor boss” was odd depiction of the people who brought
American workers the weekend, the eight-hour day, health insurance, pension
plans, workplace safety measures, and overtime.

It seems especially off target when, in 2004, corporate CEOs of major
companies received an average $9.84 million in total compensation–a 12
percent increase over 2003. That’s according to a study by compensation
consultant Pearl Meyer & Partners.

Remember, that’s only an average. Yahoo’s Terry Semel was paid $109.3
million in 2004, while Bruce Karatz, the KB Home CEO, came in number nine at
a paltry 47.2 million. I rounded off the .2 because the additional $88,228
didn’t seem worth noting until I thought about it for a second or two.

Oh, by the way, nonsupervisory workers’ pay increased 2.2 percent to $27,485
the same year, according to the Pearl Meyer study.

As an old newspaper reporter who was in the business for nearly a quarter of
a century, I propose a fair and balanced policy to describe union leaders
and corporate executives. Every time the term “labor boss” is used, you
must use “corporate fat cat” to describe the labor counterpart in the
corporate world.

And as for fair pay for a corporate executive, I propose that corporations,
voluntarily, of course, adopt the following policy. Since the President of
the United States is, in effect, the CEO and Chairman of the Board of the
most powerful nation on earth, and since the President is paid $400,000 a
year, corporate CEOs should earn no more than the President.

Go to a shareholders’ meeting and make that motion. Then run for the exit
before the security guards catch up with you.

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