Unions bank on CA for new gains
Across the country, union membership has long been in fairly steep decline. After a series of recent reverses, including a failed attempt to pass national minimum wage legislation in Washington, D.C., union leaders shifted to a state-by-state, city-by-city approach to advancing their agenda. And though their support has not grown much stronger, they have gained enough traction in California to put that state at the center of their struggles.
In an interview with Southern California Public Radio station 89.3 KPCC, one professor familiar with the strategy described an investment of energy with high stakes and, so far, low returns. Kent Wong, director of UCLA’s Center for Labor Research and Education, told KPCC there now are more union organizing campaigns in California than in any other state. Car-wash workers and home-care workers, the station reported, had been successfully unionized according to a model now being exported to other cities across the country.
The report goes on to detail unions’ broad-strokes plans to experiment and expand further in California: “One California organizing strategy has been to pitch union commitment to more than just a bigger paycheck.” That means aligning the union brand with so-called “broader social concerns,” including those relevant to “faith communities and neighborhood groups.”
The specific issues unions have planned to center on may not come as a surprise to many, however. Immigration and minimum wage policy have already been associated closely with a union agenda. With political power shifting away from unions, however, their aims may have shifted too, with a new stress on being strengthened by non-union partnerships.
Where possible, unions have made a determined push in California to protect their interests and make new inroads. Education has shaped up as a virtual ground zero for those activities. To begin with, teachers unions have followed Gov. Jerry Brown and state Attorney General Kamala Harris in challenging the ruling in the landmark Vergara case, which held unions’ teacher tenure protections to violate students’ constitutional rights. In a filing with the 2nd District Court of Appeal, the California Federation of Teachers joined the California Teachers Association in calling the decision “without support in law or fact.”
Meanwhile, this year the CTA identified charter schools for the first time as a focus of its strategic planning. Unions have made little progress, but the National Education Association — which counts the CTA as its biggest state affiliate — recently offered some support, sending its new president to two California charters.
Lily Eskelson Garcia dropped in on two small charter schools sharing a campus in Alameda, both of which are unionized. Although the first charter schools were unionized in Los Angeles and other cities back in 2009, as Education Week reports, an anticipated spike in further unionizations never materialized; in fact, the percentage of charter schools that have been unionized has declined by 5 percent from 2009 to 2012.
Turning against Democrats
In its fight to regain the initiative, the CTA has sometimes found itself playing defense against its own frequent allies. Eyebrows were raised in Sacramento early this month when the CTA joined Service Employees International Union to torpedo SB52, a major piece of campaign finance legislation known as the California DISCLOSE Act.
Backed by hundreds of left-leaning groups, the bill was opposed only by the conservative Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and labor unions. According to The Huffington Post, the CTA argued SB52 imposed costly reporting requirements that would hurt smaller campaigns — and, reportedly, that it would violate free speech laws. DISCLOSURE Act backers dismissed those concerns as farfetched.
California has handed unions at least one possible opening, however. Late last month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that FedEx had improperly classified its Northern California employees as “independent contractors.”
That gives unions a potential chance to hunt for members among a new group of workers. But with labor strategy in California hinging on the fate of embattled teachers unions, these kinds of small opportunities may be too few and far between to make a difference.
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