By Jim Miller
It seems like a million years ago now, but back in my Labor Day column, I gave a shout out to Fred Glass’s seminal new labor history of California, From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement. As Glass notes in his introduction, his history of working people in the Golden State is much broader than a narrow chronicle of unions:
California labor history doesn’t begin and end with union membership. Forming and maintaining unions is one part of a broader story, repeated countless times–in coastal seaports, the Central Valley farms, the southern oilfields, and the Sierra foothills, in financial high rises and bungalow classrooms—of workers’ journeys from isolation and powerlessness to community, strength, and hope. Their toolbox contains unions, to be sure, but also lawsuits, legislation, election campaigns, community murals, songs, demonstrations, and a mountain of dedication by ordinary people to shared ideas of fairness and social justice.
To learn more about this story and what about it is most important, I am pleased to present the third and final installment of my three-part interview with Fred Glass, author, teacher, union member, and long-time Communications Director for the California Federation of Teachers.
The entirety of this interview was conducted before the election which brought disastrous news for the American labor movement that will surely be dealing with a multiple-front assault from the Trump administration and an unchecked Republican Congress bent on imposing right to work nationally, overturning Obama’s pro-labor executive orders, threatening the very existence of public sector unions in particular, and stacking the Supreme Court with anti-labor judges for a generation. In light of this dire outcome, I contacted Fred to see what he thought of labor’s chances of surviving the onslaught in California. The interview ends with that answer.
JM: You cover some quite recent history in the book, some of which I was involved in and was interested to see memorialized. What do you think the significance of the March for California’s Future was and how was it connected to the Millionaires Tax campaign and the compromise that resulted in Proposition 30 and the current campaign to extend it with Proposition 55? Why is this recent story an important one in the history of working people in California?
FG: The March for California’s Future helped move the progressive tax agenda forward at a time when the idea had not yet fully jelled within the rest of the labor movement. At this point, in spring of 2010, the California Federation of Teachers and California AFSCME were the two leading advocates within labor for tax policies that would ask corporations and the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes to fund public education and vital public services.
Recall that this was a year and a half before the Occupy Wall Street movement had exploded onto the political scene. The march moved for six weeks from Bakersfield to Sacramento, and every step of the way it demonstrated that its slogans (“restore the promise of public education,” “a government and economy that work for all Californians,” and “fair taxes to fund California’s future”) reverberated with towns and communities devastated by the Great Recession. It helped cohere the coalition of public sector unions that passed Prop 25, which reduced the two-thirds supermajority requirement in the state legislature to pass a budget to a more democratic simple majority, and which unlocked the infamous “gridlock” of California’s legislature. The March and Prop 25 then gave unions the confidence that they could ask the public to vote for a progressive tax, which came along two years later.
The Millionaires Tax coalition—CFT, the Courage Campaign, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and California Calls—was a classic labor/community alliance. It called for a purely progressive tax on millionaires to restore California’s education system from years of cuts. Its power came from being in the right place at the right time with the right ideas. Although it was badly outgunned financially and isolated from the rest of the labor movement by Governor Brown’s more regressive tax proposal, this coalition built a movement that forced the governor to negotiate a compromise measure that ultimately passed, as Proposition 30, by a substantial margin statewide in 2012. It saved the public sector from ruin.
Because the compromise measure was a temporary tax, labor is having to do it again this November with Prop 55, to extend Prop 30’s tax on the wealthy for twelve years. (Prop 30 also had a small regressive sales tax, which is being dropped by Prop 55.) I think Prop 55 will win, because there is a recognition by the public that California is in better shape today than it was prior to Prop 30. The idea that the richest Californians need to pay their fair share of taxes resonated in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, and continues to reverberate through the idea of the one percent versus the 99 percent, reinvigorated by the Bernie Sanders’ campaign. The labor movement is fully on board Prop 55.
While the revenue from taxing the rich to support schools and services is extremely important, perhaps even more significant is that Prop 30 proved that if the traditional California Dream was broken, the way to fix it is not by creating scapegoats through racism or xenophobia, as occurred so often in the past, but by re-leveling the playing field for working people in chasing that dream.
[Note: Proposition 55 passed overwhelmingly in November almost entirely due to the resources and political ground game of the labor movement. It was a key progressive bright spot in the darkness that was the tilt to the right elsewhere in the county]
JM: What do you see as the future of labor in California?
FG: The challenge labor faces as a movement—in California and elsewhere—is to reinvigorate its ability to address inequality in the workplace. Even with its diminished density, organized labor represents about two and half million dues-paying members in California. That’s a significant force that can be and is mobilized each election around political action. Unions provide money for the radio and TV air wars of progressive political candidates and ballot measure campaigns. Not as much as the billionaires can—the rich and corporations outspend unions by large factors in politics—but a big chunk of change nonetheless. And unions also provide an important ground game as well, phone banking, getting out the vote, doing the “people power” things I detail in my book in various campaigns over the decades.
But the bottom line for unions is their ability to represent workers in the workplace. If labor law is not reformed to allow workers in the private sector to organize again, that shrinking percentage might well disappear entirely. And public sector unions will not survive over the long term without a robust private sector labor movement.
Unions will need to figure out how to address the changing contours of the economy and technology. Automating jobs out of existence is going on all the time, as is the outsourcing of jobs to cheap labor havens. Unions need to educate their members to be active in explaining to the public how labor works on behalf of a different vision of society than big business does. Labor needs to publicize its support for progressive tax policy, for higher minimum wages for all workers—to demonstrate that unions do not simply represent their own members’ interests, but the interests of a more just society, a better future for California. And that by supporting an even playing field for labor, through labor law reform, the public would be supporting a better future for all.
JM: Is there anything else you would like to add any key issue that I’ve neglected to ask you about?
FG: The inspirational thing, to me, about California’s labor history is that it allows us to step outside the box we find ourselves in most of the time in the mundane minutia of everyday life. When I was a kid I loved science fiction. What I liked about it was being transported to alternative worlds, alternative realities, situations that had enough similarity to my own life and my own world to be able to identify with them, but with a twist or a difference that could change everything.
Labor history is not so different from that for me. We are transported to another time when working people were confronted with challenges that at bottom are not so different from our own, even if they are dressed in different style clothing and driving cars without computer chips, or maybe driving teams of horses instead of cars and trucks. Workers still had bosses that tried to starve their souls along with their bodies for profit. But maybe the difference is that workers were able to find a way to work together that we are not thinking about or using today—like organizing a union. And the difference between science fiction and labor history is that labor history actually happened, working people actually did sometimes win those battles with their bosses, and created the world we live in today.
JM: Since we originally had this conversation, the election of Donald Trump along with Republican control of both houses of Congress is a stark challenge for the American Labor Movement. How do you think labor will fare under Trump and will California labor have a better chance than unions elsewhere? In sum, is there hope?
FG: My crystal ball is growing dark on this one. It’s safe to say we are going to have a much harder row to hoe. The National Labor Relations Board, which oversees private sector unions and employers, will now turn against labor. Congress will probably pass some form of national Right to Work legislation. The Supreme Court will, with its new appointee, revisit anti-labor cases like Friedrichs v. CTA and rule in favor of gutting labor rights. All of these things will adversely affect California and Californians.
That said, we have some protection in a relatively pro-labor state government. But the national changes will mean a plunge in membership and resources all over the country, including here. We can hope that with a greater union density than the national average to start with the falloff in membership won’t be as catastrophic. But more important than hope is what unions in California do about it. If we put in place strong internal member education and organizing programs, reach out to build closer ties with community and civil rights and immigrant rights advocates, and work together to create a powerful mass movement unafraid to take strong collective action in defense of what we all have in common, we will end up OK. That’s a big if, but it’s both possible and necessary.