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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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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. 

“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 theNew 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, toldthe 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.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. 

 
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