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Fading Unions

Jan
31
2005

It is getting harder and harder to ignore the coming split between labor unions and the Democratic Party. The split has started in California cities where hairline fractures are becoming cracks and it’s going all the way to the top of the ticket.
When all is said and done, there’s a good chance that the Golden State may not be a reliable Democratic stronghold because it is labor that provides Democrats with money and muscle during elections.
The signs are pretty much everywhere. But let’s start in San Francisco, long home to some of the West Coast’s most powerful unions. First, despite it’s pre-Christmas strikes, the union lost its bid to make all contracts with San Francisco’s hotels run on the same national timetable.


Now comes – from the city’s hard left – a suggestion that San Francisco’s city employee benefits be adjusted. No more lifetime benefits after only five years of employment says activist Randy Shaw. No more racking up the vacation hours, either.
Shaw has his own reasons for moving his self-styled progressives away from the city’s employees unions. He doesn’t want San Francisco’s “downtown interests” to call the shots when it comes to civil service reform. In the process, he raises a good question, one you’re going to hear again and again as California debates its financial future:
What is progressive about allowing employees to accrue ten weeks of paid vacation? Vacation time is necessary for recharging one’s batteries and makes for a more effective workforce. An employee who goes years without taking a vacation is weakening their own job performance, and the city should not reward such conduct.
Shaw is trying to get in front of the squeeze between the city’s inability to raise its taxes and the coming need to free up funds for needed social service and other programs. He puts it well: “Chanting “No Cuts” does not constitute a serious strategy for addressing the city’s budget crisis,” he notes. “Progressives must get creative on budget issues, and not let the anti-public sector Committee on Jobs control the debate on civil service reform.”
He’ll pick up help from “downtown,” you can bet on that. In fact, they might let him do all the work. See the lion can lie down with the lamb. Which is very, very bad news for unions.
Gov. Schwarzenegger is taking aim at the unions, too. And he’s using that really big gun he toted around in The Terminator movies, too. Why? Pretty much the same reasons Shaw cites. The state’s employee unions have great benefits and crummy performance. Just look at bankrupt Contra Costa County’s schools. The cause? Lucrative pensions for teachers and administrators. This is what’s behind merit pay for teachers and charter school reform that Schwarzenegger is proposing.
Here’s what The Bee’s Dan Walters said earlier this month:
The rapid expansion of unions representing state and local government and school district employees offset the decline of private sector unionization in the 1980s and 1990s, so much so that the entire labor movement in California became dominated by the public worker unions. And by their nature, the California State Employees’ Association, the California Teachers Association and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association were much more politically motivated than private sector unions had been.
Walters does a great job of breaking down how union domination of public payrolls has corrupted the state’s political process with money and loyalty tests like the one waged at the beginning of this legislative session with over state School Board nominee Reed Hastings. That cozy relations – union money from state employees for union-friendly legislators — is also what Gov. Schwarzenegger is aiming at with his redistricting plan.
And at the heart of the fight that Schwarzenegger and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom will wage against the public employee unions is a simple fact of California political life: The state’s self-employed entrepreneurs, newly rich and just beginning to flex their political muscle, see unions as irrelevant, unnecessary and, borderline criminal. There are few things Progressive libertarians dislike more than unions and they way they’ve ruined the state’s school system. It’s not hard to make them think unions are responsible for everything else that’s wrong, too. In San Francisco, Silicon Valley and L.A., these folks – they’re the ones who pick “none of the above” when it comes time to register to vote – are going to side with “downtown,” not the unions. Same thing in statewide reform measures.
So let’s go national. There is perhaps – although that’s not what he meant by the story – no better illustration of the simmering conflicts than Matt Bai’s profile of SEIU’s Andy Stern in the Sunday Times magazine. It’s an attempt to profile the most interesting and the most controversial union man around. Remember it was Stern who said at the beginning of the Democratic National Convention that it might not be such a bad thing if John Kerry lost?
But it seems sadly clear that Stern for all this talk about the need for new ideas hasn’t worked out the answers the unions need for Progressive libertarians, with their emphasis on self-made fortunes, personal motivation and business-like, bottom-line orientations. These are the people who put George Bush in office. They are the folks who are leaving the Democratic Party. Here’s the few paragraphs that sum that up.
The big conversation going on in Democratic Washington at the moment, at dinner parties and luncheons and think-tank symposia, revolves around how to save the party. The participants generally fall into two camps of unequal size. On one side, there is the majority of Democrats, who believe that the party’s failure has primarily been one of communication and tactics. By this thinking, the Democratic agenda itself (no to tax cuts and school vouchers and Social Security privatization; yes to national health care and affirmative action) remains as relevant as ever to modern workers. The real problem, goes this line of thinking, is that the party has allowed ruthless Republicans to control the debate and has failed to sufficiently mobilize its voters. A much smaller group of prominent Democrats argues that the party’s problems run deeper — that it suffers, in fact, from a lack of imagination, and that its core ideas are more an echo of government as it was than government as it ought to be.
Virtually everyone in the upper echelons of organized labor belongs solidly to the first camp. Stern has his feet firmly planted in the second.

Yes, but how? And to what end? One idea comes from Richard Florida’s insistence that there be a dedicated and sustained attempt to increase not just the pay but the status of the nation’s service jobs. Those jobs – manicurists, janitors, gardeners — aren’t the same as the police, teacher and machinist jobs that launched today’s lawyers, doctors and computer scientists on their path to spectacular upward mobility but they are, says Florida, likely to provide the next generation of scientists, engineers and other “creatives.” To make sure that happens, the people in these service jobs – the hotel workers San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom joined on the picket line, for instance – need better wages but better working conditions. They – and their jobs – need more respect.
Even Bai, the NYTimes writer, seems to let this point slip past. But it’s an important one. Stern is trying, however. How far he gets in resolving the tension between a nation of wealthy folks who are self-employed, who can withstand the ups and downs roller coaster of the new economic reality and those who work as their domestic and service employees – whose economic safety is more fragile — remains to be seen. It may indeed rescue the Democratic Party. It may – perhaps more importantly – provide a way for Progressive libertarians to make room in the cut-throat economics for more expansive, more inclusive social policies.

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