Untied We Stand: The BART Strike Narrative Unravels

Aside from leaving commuters stranded, what is this BART strike really accomplishing?

What we do know is that it's definitely created momentum among all unions in the Bay Area. Along with a possible AC Transit walkout, there are striking concessionaires at AT&T Park, protesting security guards at Google, an embattled teachers union at City College, and Walmart workers attempting to unionize.

All of this union buzz has gotten public-sector workers' attention, but it's also managed to upset the rest of the working world in the Bay Area, experts say. Other Bay Area employees are angry at the benefits the transit workers are seeking: They see their own wages remaining flat and their work hours increasing while they're left footing the bill for BART workers who are demanding more — a lot more.

Meanwhile, across the country in a far less liberal town than San Francisco, the Chicago Teachers Union enjoyed the support of the entire community and other unions when it walked out seeking many of the same things — higher wages and better health care.

So why are we not seeing that same kind of support here? Why are Bay Area workers so against their union counterparts? It all comes down to money. But why, when the U.S. Census Bureau claims Silicon Valley as home to the nation's second-highest concentration of wealth?

Labor lawyer Bill Sokol attempted to explain the problem to a room full of San Francisco college students one evening by walking them through a simple wage exercise, challenging everyone to figure out what they were actually owed for a week's work.

Nobody arrived at the correct figure.

Perhaps the real issue is this: Instead of turning to class warfare where the poor and middle class demand more from the rich, our society demands more from the poor and middle class. "They might be able to own their own home," says Sokol, speaking about the average salary for a BART worker. "Is that something we should be angry about?"

To find out, we need to take a closer look at unions, their history, and what they mean to everyday American workers.

A quick history lesson tells us that Americans first unionized in large numbers during the late 19th century. Their numbers increased again during the 1930s when factories came into play, according to Bill Shields, labor and community studies chair at City College San Francisco. This movement continued when U.S. soldiers returned home from World War II to an economy where home ownership became available to everyone for the first time.

Unions won many benefits for the American worker during their heyday, including the 40-hour work week, the eight-hour work day, and health and safety regulations that ensure factory workers won't fall victim to anything resembling a Bangladeshi garment factory fire. By the 1950s, 35 percent of American workers enjoyed collective bargaining agreements, according to Shields.

It was during this time of phenomenal growth that the idea of the public-sector union first came into being. Their appearance complicated matters for the labor movement because the taxpayer ultimately pays public employee wages.

While these new unions were widely accepted, they were still outnumbered by private sector unions by about 4 to 1.

Then, in the 1980s, unions came under attack as America's neoliberal economic policy encouraged company owners, people who Karl Marx called capitalists, to outsource factory jobs overseas, says Shields. This was followed up by the extreme political positions taken by the Republican Party, which successfully framed the Labor Movement as interventionists who got in the way of capitalism, according to John Logan, Labor Department chair at San Francisco State University.

Today, less than 10 percent of workers in the United States have collective bargaining agreements. Which begs the question: Is the nation's labor movement still needed?

More than ever, says Logan. Unions are the last champions of the middle class in an era where Main Street is being sacrificed to preserve Wall Street.

With upwards of 30 million independent contractors in the United States, the outsourcing of jobs both here and overseas has become the status quo of business in America.

This phenomenal growth hasn't happened because this generation of American workers loves to job-hop, showing up at a new site everyday ready to bring in money for a different set of corporate execs before taking their pay and moving on. Rather, it's happened because corporate greed and a depressed economy have forced American companies to squeeze every last cent from their union-less workforce, says Logan.

As labor leader and journalist Sara Horowitz writes, "the union makes us not so weak."

Shields agrees, saying that 40 percent of American workers would unionize if there were no threat of reprisals like those faced by Seattle Subway restaurant worker Carlos Hernandez, who said he was fired after participating in the fast food strikes last month.

So if we're all in the same boat, why don't unions have more supporters here in the Bay Area? Some of this may be explained by looking at the difference between public- and private-sector unions.

When public-sector employees, such as BART workers, go on strike, they have a direct and immediate effect on their community. The question then arises: Why should the community support the union when the union has done nothing for the community, says Shields.

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