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Untied We Stand: The BART Strike Narrative Unravels 

Wednesday, Oct 23 2013
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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.

Even those who believe in the labor movement as Logan does can be frustrated by public-sector unions that go on strike and leave the public stranded like the 400,000 commuters BART trundles around everyday. The difference is that he can sympathize with their struggle while most people simply don't. And that's because most people can't relate their own financial struggles to the larger labor movement, says Sokol.

"Our culture teaches us nothing about how to protect your rights," says Sokol. "No one is going to get paid making sure you know what your rights are."

And Bay Area unions aren't helping.

Union outreach here in the Bay is limited to some scholarship and student programs that don't do much to engage the community at large. Most of their efforts go into expanding the labor struggle by allying with worker centers like Gordon Mar's Jobs with Justice and the San Francisco Progressive Workers Alliance, according to Shields. These AFL-CIO sponsored centers have sprung up around the country and represent workers who need protection the most, like migrant farm workers, domestic, and formerly incarcerated workers. This approach has succeeded in Los Angeles, where labor leaders have succeeded in uniting with the immigrant rights movement.

But California, like the rest of the nation, isn't simply a red or blue state, but one of a growing number of purple states, says Joe Berry, labor educator and author of the book Reclaiming the Ivory Tower.

This difference in political beliefs may be one reason the labor movement hasn't done so well here in the Bay, where another group of workers is attempting to thrust itself into the public eye — and this one isn't responsible for moving 400,000 people every day. They're Walmart workers.

Workers at Walmarts locally and across the country have been staging efforts since Black Friday 2012 in an effort to unionize. They've formed the group OUR Walmart and have held rallies and protests, but claim that Walmart has hindered their efforts and retaliated against them by disciplining and firing their leaders. As more attention begins to fall on the fact that Walmart's low wages and lack of employee health care means a de facto subsidization by American taxpayers, workers like Dominic Ware have begun to fight back.

Ware, who has been at the heart of the controversy, a strike leader and visible Walmart opponent, was fired for his absences while protesting against the commercial giant.

As Ware discovered, however, the labor fight isn't so simple. Unionizing, or gathering workers together to negotiate as a group, isn't always easy as relationships get stratified and every group tries to promote its individual interests, according to Berry.

One of the big tests for unions is how the public responds to them. This is a lesson the Chicago Teachers Union learned well, and they learned it before they went on strike. The group devoted countless hours to reaching out to its community as part of a grassroots effort to fight what it saw as the privatization of its school system.

In San Francisco, people are largely unaware of what the transit workers are even fighting for. Is it higher wages or better health care and for whom, workers or managers?

"Maybe BART workers should have conducted more outreach," says Shields.

In the end, it might simply come down to a lack of communication.

About The Author

Coburn Palmer

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