By Jim Miller
Last year my Labor Day column, “Happy Labor Day?: The Jury is Out,” began by starkly pondering the potentially devastating effects a bad Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association ruling at the Supreme Court might have had not just on public sector unions but on the labor movement as a whole. Later, in the same column, I looked more hopefully at the potential for organizing contingent workers, like those involved in the Fight for $15 movement.
The twelve months that followed that column brought good news for labor on multiple fronts. First, with the long, strange journey of the Friedrichs case that came to the Supreme Court with a good chance of passing before everything was turned upside down by Justice Scalia’s death, a 4-4 split decision that was a victory for unions, and finally the Court’s refusal to rehear the case.
As California Teachers Association president Erin Heins put it last May, “The Supreme Court today rejected a political ploy by the wealthy corporate special interests backing this case. Now it’s time for senators to do their job and appoint a successor justice to the highest court in our land.” Thus, for labor, the Friedrichs victory, as sweet as it was, will only stand as long as Donald Trump is not appointing judges to the Supreme Court.
This win was followed by the California Supreme Court’s rejection of the Vergara case designed to gut teachers’ due process and tenure rights. As with the Friedrichs loss, this was another blow to plutocrats bent on busting public sector unions and “disrupting” public education in the service of private interests. As Capitol and Main observed:
The case, which was financed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch through his one-man “grassroots” organization, Students Matter, became a cause célèbre for education privatizers and charter-school activists, many of whom shared Welch’s wealthy background and education-as-business philosophy.
For Labor Politics, States Are Where the Action Is
So as other states like Scott Walker’s Wisconsin and Sam Brownback’s Kansas continue to move backward with regard to public sector unions and education, California serves, as it frequently has historically, as a much-needed counterbalance and an instructive example. Fred Glass, in his seminal new history of California labor, From Mission to Microchip, puts it this way:
[N]o time seems more fitting than now to consider the particular contours of California labor history. In the wake of recent events, it’s clear that for labor politics, states are where the action is. In states that have elected conservative legislatures, the first order of business has been to roll back worker rights and laws—often in place for decades—that enabled working people to call themselves “middle class’ by virtue of their ability to organize collectively on their own behalf.
In Wisconsin, public employee unions no longer have the right to bargain the terms of their members’ employment. And the Badger State, like former automobile worker union stronghold Michigan, now has a “right to work” law forbidding unions to collect dues from workers who opt out, yet whose jobs are protected through contracts negotiated by those unions.
In California, however, unions led a successful campaign in the 2012 election to defeat a similar policy placed on the state ballot by anti-union forces. And despite the reputation of the Golden State as an anti-tax stronghold, the labor movement also steered to victory a measure to increase income taxes on the wealthiest Californians in order to fund schools and services starved for decades. The two campaigns reverberated with one another; class themes as the electorate voted to defend worker rights and demand that the wealthy pay a fairer share of taxes.
And this year, California seems poised, once again, with Proposition 55’s extension of taxes on the wealthy, to fund education and healthcare for poor children and to affirm the need for progressive taxes to invest in the future of all Californians.
With regard to contingent workers, while there has not been a successful effort to organize fast food workers into a union, the Fight for $15 campaign scored a huge victory here in California, pushing a historic wage increase through the California legislature in lieu of a ballot measure. It was, as I wrote back in April, a big win for workers:
Time to give credit where credit is due. It was not the noblesse oblige of individual politicians or the Democratic Party that brought us the $15 dollar an hour minimum wage, it was the labor movement. Surely, the governors of New York and California and their fellow Democrats in those statehouses deserve credit for listening to the cry for economic justice and having the good sense to do the right thing, but the historic victory of the Fight for $15 that we have just celebrated would never have come to pass without the bold vision and prolonged struggle of working people standing together and demanding what many called impossible.
This impossible victory is even sweeter when one considers that it was largely due to the efforts of thousands of nameless activists, many of them immigrant working class women and men of color standing up to the powerful forces arrayed against them. It was a win for the folks who will surely be the future of California labor and that is a good sign.
Fred Glass again notes:
More than any other state, California incessantly recomposes its working class with waves of immigration. True in 1850, it remains true today. Employers who wish to defeat labor know that expanding and exploiting potential divisions in the working class always provide their best opportunity for success; and a diverse, heterogeneous working class has historically made such an outcome not just possible but the usual run of events. On the other side of the coin, conscious efforts by labor to overcome working-class divisions and to demonstrate the common interests of all workers to one another can supply—and often has—the necessary antidote, preserving or even expanding worker rights and share of the economic pie.
So here’s to wins for all workers in the days to come, hopefully starting with the Governor signing the Farm Worker overtime bill which was just sent to his desk as of this writing. This and so many other things remain to be done.
Happy Labor Day, Fellow Workers and Friends, California style.