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Why California Politics Is Different from the Rest of the Country

A glimmer of hope rests on the shoulders of a growing Latino population and innovative labor organizing.

What’s happening politically in California — the big state that used to be ahead of the curve in terms of innovation — may foreshadow a brighter future for liberal ideas, union growth and people power than many have predicted. California may be back to lead the way, after decades of shrinking budgets and cuts to education.

In the latest national bad news for unions, recent data from the Bureau of Labor statistics showed that the total number of union members fell by 400,000 last year, making the percentage of workers in unions 11.3 percent nationwide — the lowest level since 1916.

In stark contrast, California added 100,000 union jobs last year. Why is the state bucking the trend? One reason is the intense level of grassroots organizing by groups like California Calls, the statewide alliance of local organizations working to expand the electorate, which has led to successful initiatives – the first eliminated the California law that required a two-thirds majority to pass the annual budget, which gave a small number of Republicans the ability to hold up the entire process. Then in 2012, the highly unlikely happened: The State voted in support of Proposition 30, which raised taxes in the state, primarily on the wealthy, ending years of deadlock in Sacramento, and huge budget cuts.

Now in California there is a two-thirds supermajority of Democrats in both houses of the state legislature, along with Democratic governor Jerry Brown. Meanwhile, in normally blue states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan, there is currently full Republican control of state government.

Another factor contributing to California’s union success is foresight. Anthony Thigpenn, the chair of California Calls, explained: “The Social Service Employees Union (SEIU) understood a decade ago that low-wage workers could be organized effectively in California, and the increase of union jobs in the state is in part due to their early work.”

California is also not going the way of other states in attacking unions. As Kent Wong, director of the USC Los Angeles Labor Center, said: "The voters in this state passed Prop. 30, which raised taxes to reinvest millions of dollars to public education. That is a very different framework than other states, who instead of reinvesting, are blaming and targeting unions in order to balance the budget.”

But that’s not the whole story. In fact, many experts are attributing the state’s union growth to its Latino population that is more inclined to join unions. As  The LA Times reports: “After working hard to get here, many Latino immigrants demand respect in the workplace and are more willing to join unions in a tough economic environment, according to organizers.”

Danny Feingold, communications director for the nonprofit Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, reminds us that union organizers have also played a huge factor in organizing immigrant workers. He told the Huffington Post, “Certain labor leaders realized that the vast number of largely Latino immigrant workers could be a game changer for rebuilding the strength of unions.”

Growth in Latino union membership is happening elsewhere as well. Ruben Garcia, a labor law professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, told the L.A. Times that with a larger Latino demographic in the workforce, union membership may increase. “The big campaigns in the carwash industry in L.A., the janitors in Houston and the people who work on the Strip here tend to be an immigrant Latino workforce that's willing to stand up at the workplace, sometimes with great risks," Garcia said.

In fact, unions saw a loss of more than 500,000 white members in 2012, though they gained 156,000 Latino members. With the Latino population projected to double in the next two decades, the United States may well see an uptick in the labor movement. 

Still, the labor movement has suffered from recent anti-union blowback. 

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