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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.

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“Our still-struggling economy, weak laws and political as well as ideological assaults have taken a toll on union membership and in the process have also imperiled economic security and good, middle-class jobs,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

In 2012, private sector union workers fell to 6.6 percent from 6.9 percent in 2011. In the 1950s, this number peaked at approximately 35 percent. As for the public sector, union membership fell to 35.9 percent from 37 percent in 2011. In fact, the slash to government jobs resulted in more than half (234,000) of the union job losses last year.

States with new “right to work for less” laws, like Michigan and Indiana, as well as states that limited bargaining rights like Wisconsin, had a dramatic drop in union membership.

William Spriggs, the AFL-CIO’s chief economist told the New York Times: “Our labor laws do not favor unions organizing.… It would be one thing to say we’re bellyaching, but the Republican Party is really being vindictive against unions, and employers campaign very hard against workers unionizing.”

But from the Walmart rallies to the Chicago Teachers Union strike, workers have proven last year that they will fight back. And union members see clear benefits. In 2012, union members made, on average, $943 a week, compared with $742 for non-union members. Organizers say another key to resistance is framing workers’ rights in a larger context. 

David Johnson, organizing director of the California Nurses Association, which added five new hospitals last year, told the Huffington Post: "To be successful in organizing unions in the United States in 2013…there has to be a broader vision set forth so that people see unions and the labor movement as an answer to the corporate domination and the Wall Street greed that has devastated our country."

The California Nurses Association, an affiliate of National Nurses United, has also played a large role in why California has seen an increase of union members. In fact, CNA has continuously increased membership over the last few years as it advocates for a more just society.

RoseAnn DeMoro, the executive director of National Nurses United, said the union is committed to advocating for an end to poverty and is therefore against any cuts to Social Security and Medicare. DeMoro  said, “This is a good time to draw the links between income, healthcare, and Social Security and Medicare, perhaps the two most effective anti-poverty programs ever enacted in the U.S.”

However, the changing nature of work for many and the transformation of the economy in key ways, while meaning fewer union members, does not need to mean further reductions in worker influence. Today there is more independent contracting, more entrepreneurial small businesses, innovative models of ownership and operations — all which does not necessarily mean that a lower number of union jobs must translate to worker powerlessness.
Glenn Spencer, vice president of the Workforce Freedom Initiative of the United States Chamber of Commerce, told the New York Times that as workers today are frequently switching jobs, unions have less appeal.
But some organizations, such as the Freelancers’ Union, have  adapted to this changing nature of work. It is estimated that 30 percent of the U.S. workforce is freelance and temporary workers, and the Freelancers’ Union offers some protection to these precarious workers. The union is a non-profit organization based in Brooklyn and has more than 80,000 members in New York and 150,000 members in other states. The union has its own for-profit insurance company -- the Freelancers’ Insurance Company -- and has put in place a retirement plan for independent workers.
Make no mistake: unions are crucial for protecting the rights of many Americans and for keeping hundreds of thousands out of poverty. They are the most endowed and skilled counterforce to raw conservative power as well as frequently stiffly resisting the corporate privatization model that is a centerpiece of the Obama administration, especially in education. 

But times are always changing. With increasing right-wing attacks on unions as well as a changing workforce, unions must come up with new ways of organizing. California’s bucking of the national trend of declining union membership gives labor hope. If union organizers nationwide can harness the growing Latino population as well as frame workers’ rights as a means to a more equitable world, they may be able to be a stronger force in helping hundred of thousands of Americans stay out of poverty.

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