It was December of 2009. I had been leading the way, pushing for pension reform while speaking out against the local firefighters’ union. It’s probably not the best idea when your wife is a union organizer and you walk in union circles.
What happened next would be a huge wakeup call, at least for me. My former boss, when I worked in Sacramento, asked me if I would meet with some representatives from the California Labor Federation, as they had some concerns with my writing. My policy was and is that I’ll talk to anyone, and so across the street from the Capitol Building, I met with what turned out to be two representatives from the California Labor Federation.
It quickly became clear that this was not going to be a discussion. My view then, as it is now, is that there is a world of difference between fighting for the rights of people making less than $30,000 a year and protecting the salaries of those making $150,000 to $200,000 in total compensation. If we do not figure out how to rein in those salaries and create a working pension reform, we will have the Proposition 13 of pension reforms rain down on us.
They did not see it that way. They gave me slogans like “united we stand, divided we fall.” They told me that without the firefighters in 2005 on the labor lines, the governor’s reform package might have been approved.
But 2005 was different from 2009, and far different from now. In 2005, we were still in the post-9/11 bliss where firefighters were the heroes that rushed into the buildings to save people as everyone else fled for their lives. It’s taken a generation, but in many places in California, the firefighters have taken that moment of purity and that moment of good will and used it to line their collective pockets to the point of threatening municipalities across the state with bankruptcy.
The image I see today is not of collective heroes, but union fat cats, filing unfair labor practice charges for being forced to take part in joint training. I see former fire chiefs, who, along with a husband, are making over $200,000 per year in pensions, who are trying to obstruct a public report from coming out and, having lost, claim poverty to avoid court fees.
But it doesn’t have to be that. Indeed, we should not paint the entire labor movement on some bad apples. I still believe in the spirit of Labor Day, but the true spirit of people coming together to achieve collectively what they could not achieve individually – an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work.
Houston, Texas, November of 2006. I get a call from my wife asking me if it is all right if she flies to Houston, Texas, with some of her colleagues from SEIU (Service Employees International Union) and gets arrested. The Vanguard was in its fledgling stages and I was still in graduate school at the time, but I say that is fine. She explains that they will provide her lawyers and get her out pretty quickly.
In 2005 in Houston, Texas, the average janitor was earning an average salary of $5.25/hour, and some were receiving as little as $20 per day with no access to health care.
Media reports note, “The success of the Houston campaign was surprising due to the South’s history of resistance to unionization and hostility to labor.”
My wife had to deal with this full on. They would be arrested, but unlike most actions in California where protesters are booked and released, they were held in jail for three days. It took the work of outside negotiators, including then-Senator Ted Kennedy, to get them released.
It was a long ordeal that would force my wife to go back to Texas twice more and take a misdemeanor plea bargain.
Wikipedia notes, “On November 20, 2006, a few days after dozens of strikers and their supporters were arrested by Houston police while engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience, a tentative agreement was reached between striking Houston janitors and employers. The proposed settlement included many concessions from employers, and SEIU was quick to declare victory.” In the end, the action worked and, as a result, 5300 employees got higher wages and benefits.
In May of 2007, dozens of protesters entered Mrak Hall, sat down on the first floor and were illegally arrested during business hours for failure to disperse and trespassing.
When the protesters entered, they attempted to see then-Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, but access to his office was blocked, and he was not there.
The police officer came in and was sweating the whole time. He told them it’s an unlawful assembly, they have to leave and if they don’t leave in three minutes they will get arrested. So, of course, they all refused to leave because it was their intent to get arrested. So one-by-one they arrested each of the protesters, read them their rights and asked them if they understood. It took over an hour to arrest all of the protesters.
The police then kept them on a hot bus with the air conditioning cut off. They had the handcuffs on, with their hands behind their back. They stretched the tendons in the arms and they left the handcuffs on for several hours. They didn’t take them off until about 6:00 pm. and they had put them on around 1:30 or 2:00 pm.
The charges would eventually be dropped, as the district attorney’s office recognized that the arrest itself was actually illegal. It was a public building during normal business hours, and trespassing could only be applied if they had entered the building after hours.
550 food service workers, custodians and cooks were organizing to become university employees rather than Sodexho employees. The move would entitle them to higher pay and benefits.
An outsourced worker gets around $10.35 an hour, versus a starting minimum of over $12 hour and a max of up to $15.50 for a university employee. However, even more important are health care benefits. One of the workers told me she was paying over $100 for her health care package, while a UC Davis-employed worker would only pay about 5% of that.
On January 15, 2008, my work with the Sodexho workers gave me the opportunity to get a backstage pass to cover the representatives who were given the opportunity to meet and briefly speak with former President Bill Clinton, who had spoken at the ARC that evening in support of Hillary Clinton, running for the Democratic nomination.
The President spoke briefly with the workers and then posed for pictures. During the course of their conversation, he came out in favor of their efforts to become full university employees, earning equal pay and equal benefits.
In my time working the Vanguard, getting the opportunity to cover that moment still ranks among the highlights of my tenure.
Ultimately, the food service workers would prevail. The university announced that “the campus’s food service contractor, Sodexho, will continue to manage residential and retail food operations on campus, but an estimated 175 to 200 nonmanagement Sodexho employees will be eligible to transition to University of California employment.”
It was a great victory for hundreds of the lowest-paid workers in the system.
The true spirit of Labor Day is not blindly supporting everything that is labeled as union or labor. Supporting people who make $150,000 to $200,000 is not the same as supporting those who are fighting paycheck to paycheck for decent wages and benefits.
In fact, I believe the cause of the former undermines that of the latter. So, as you go about your day off today, remember that there are still struggles out there worth fighting for, and do not allow the greed of some to blind you to injustices of the many.
—David M. Greenwald reporting