Published in the San Francisco Chronicle:
On Labor Day, we do well to remember the historic gains fought for, sometimes at great sacrifice, by union activists. We also should remember that labor’s efforts on behalf of the common good continue today. Perhaps you’ve noticed California public schools have been faring better. No longer are you reading headlines about thousands of teachers receiving pink slips because of lack of funding.
Nor are you hearing about “Sacramento gridlock,” as the meme had it for many years, leading to stalled state budgets and disastrous cuts year after year. Instead, the state budget has been coming in on time, and with more robust educational programs because of better-than-expected revenues.
Although we have a long way to go before schools and services are funded at levels necessary to appropriately support our powerhouse state — more like a nation in many ways — compare how we’re doing with almost every other state, mired in slash-and-burn budgeting as if they were still in the depths of the Great Recession.
On Labor Day, it is appropriate to thank unions for the difference between our steadily improving outlook in California and what’s happening in those other states.
If you listen to vocal, well-funded antilabor forces, unions are a thing of the past — irrelevant, yet somehow simultaneously the most powerful and problematic lobby in Sacramento.
Those contradictory negative messages about unions should give one pause.
Unions are neither a relic, nor the most powerful lobby in Sacramento. However, when we speak with a united voice, we remain a formidable force not only for members, but for the common good. The state’s revenue picture has improved, and legislative decision-making is no longer a subject of late-night TV derision, because unions — democratic organizations representing millions of dues-paying members — made addressing these concerns a priority:
Restoring functional government: In 2010, California voters embraced Proposition 25, transforming the undemocratic law requiring a two-thirds supermajority of the Legislature to pass a budget, to a simple majority. The union-backed Prop. 25 made it impossible for a minority group of legislators to endlessly delay budget deliberations, thus restoring functioning democracy in the state’s Capitol.
Progressive taxes to fund education and public safety: In 2012, a top union priority was Proposition 30, which taxed the biggest incomes at slightly higher rates, and imposed a quarter-cent-sales-tax increase. The $7 billion increase in revenue from this measure, which passed by a 55 percent margin, has made a qualitative difference in the ability of school districts to restore programs and increase access to quality educational opportunities.
Raising the minimum wage: Although their own members usually make far more than the minimum wage, it is labor that mobilized support for higher minimum wage campaigns under way in cities across the state.
Prop. 30 has proved its importance for all Californians. The arguments against it — rich people, businesses and jobs would leave — have proved utterly false. According to the California Budget and Policy Center, more millionaires pay taxes in California now than in 2012, there has been no significant increase in businesses leaving, and California has outperformed the entire nation in job generation since Prop. 30’s passage.
Labor fought in the past for child labor laws, collective bargaining, Social Security and unemployment insurance. If we wish to understand the root of growing economic inequality, we need look no further than the decline in union density.
At midcentury, when unions were at peak strength, with a third of the workforce organized, the prospects for working-class Americans shone brightly. The top 1 percent of income earners, the employing class, took in under 10 percent of national income, and they were doing just fine. Today, union density has been driven down to just 11 percent of the workforce, the top 1 percent takes in nearly 20 percent of national income, and economic inequality is soaring.
Perhaps the most important thing for us to recall is that workers’ rights and a measure of economic fairness, once won, are not permanent. They depend on the sustained activism, values and organizations that they required in the first place. Honor labor.
Joshua Pechthalt is the president of the California Federation of Teachers.