Friday, May 06, 2011

Labor Representatives Under Attack, Seek Queer Democrats’ Help


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO, right to left: Lorena Gonzalez, Eric Banks, Michael Zucchet

“I never imagined there would be such a coordinated attack” on the very right of workers — especially those in the public sector — to organize unions and collectively bargain over wages, benefits and working conditions, San Diego/Imperial Counties Central Labor Council head Lorena Gonzalez admitted to the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club at their April 28 meeting. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s so-called “budget repair” bill and the spectacular protests against it made national headlines, but it’s only the tip of opening wedge by the Republican Party and radical-Right activists and think tanks to wipe out organized labor in the U.S. once and for all, Gonzalez acknowledged.

“There are over 700 bills [in state legislatures] that target the rights of workers to organize, bargain collectively and collect dues,” Gonzalez pointed out. What’s more, the attacks on unions and their members keep coming even though, as she explained, “everywhere I’ve seen, unions have acknowledged the economic problems and have agreed to givebacks.” Nonetheless, Gonzalez added, “the Right is using the current fiscal crisis to attack the whole institution of a union.”

And they’re doing it not only because they’ve historically been opposed to the very idea of organized labor, but because they see it as a way of putting the Democratic party out of business. As Gonzalez pointed out, of the 10 largest political action committees (PAC’s) that donated to candidates in the 2010 election, seven were corporate PAC’s that gave only to Republicans. The other three were sponsored by public-sector unions ¬— the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU). “The Republicans in Rust Belt states attacked the only funding source for Democrats,” Gonzalez said.

According to Gonzalez, the attack is coming from traditional union strongholds in Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio not only because those have been especially hard hit by the de-industrialization of the United States and corporations’ mass exporting of blue-collar jobs abroad, but because “these are always the swing states” in Presidential elections. The strategy, she said, is to eliminate the ability of public-sector unions to fund political campaigns, thereby ensuring that the Democrats can’t raise money to compete politically — and thus making sure that President Obama is replaced by a Republican in 2012.

Gonzalez portrayed the Republican attack as aimed not only at unions but all other progressive programs and institutions, including Planned Parenthood, and said that even in states like California that still elect Democrats statewide, “they’re working city by city. In San Diego they’re using a municipal approach to take away union rights. You’re seeing it in the politics of [City Councilmember and probable Mayoral candidate] Carl DeMaio.” She talked about the so-called “compromise” DeMaio and current Mayor Jerry Sanders reached to put an initiative on the local ballot that will abolish defined-benefit pensions for new city workers and force them into 401(k) plans instead.

DeMaio and Sanders have both said that this initiative will put city workers in the same position as people in the private sector who have 401(k)’s. In fact, Gonzalez said, it will leave them worse off because in 1981 then-Mayor Pete Wilson offered the city workers’ unions a deal: if they would allow themselves to be taken off Social Security, the city would fund their health care for life. Gonzalez said the DeMaio-Sanders initiative would “take away the right of any city employee to have a secure retirement,” since they would have neither a guaranteed pension nor Social Security.

Though DeMaio and Sanders are promoting their initiative as a cost-saver for the city, Gonzalez said, “It won’t save a dime … It will actually cost us more because the people coming into the city workforce won’t be paying into the current pension fund.” The initiative will also ban any raises for city workers for the next five years, Gonzalez noted. “The city employees last got a raise in 2005, and this will leave employees in 2018 making less money than they did in 2005,” she said. “This would mean there would be no reason to join a union that can’t protect you in the marketplace.”

Gonzalez was part of a panel discussion with two other union leaders: Eric Banks, president of SEIU Local 221 — which represents workers with the County of San Diego — and Michael Zucchet, former City Councilmember and current general of the Municipal Employees’ Association (MEA), which represents most of the city’s white-collar workers. Banks talked not only about the County but also about the California state budget, from which Governor Jerry Brown and a Democratic-majority legislature has already made $12 billion in cuts — many devastating to college students, senior citizens, people with disabilities and other social-service recipients — and will now likely have to find $14 billion more to cut since no Republicans in either house have been willing to supply the two-thirds vote to put a proposition on the ballot to extend the emergency tax increases passed in 2009.

“We’re looking at cuts with no tax increases,” Banks said. “In the years since 2008 we have cut $46 billion in the budget, including education, services to the poor and elderly, and HIV services. This year we had a governor who had a realistic idea about the revenue question, and he said, ‘Let’s take it to the voters.’ We actually supported the governor’s proposal [to balance the budget with] equal cuts and revenues. It’s no surprise that we haven’t been successful. In Sacramento, ideology has won out over rationalism. … In a blue state, a small number of Republicans are keeping a stranglehold on the state.”

As for San Diego County — where workers have to deal with an all-Republican Board of Supervisors whose personnel haven’t changed since 1994 — Banks said that despite having $2 billion in unallocated revenues, the Supervisors are demanding givebacks in wages and pension benefits. Indeed, all three speakers talked about how successful the Right has been at state, county and city levels in demagoguing the issue of workers’ pensions and making it seem as if it’s public workers and retirees that are bankrupting government and forcing cutbacks in services. “The County is stating they have to lower their pension obligations, even though we [employees] made our contributions and they didn’t. The County pension fund is 84 percent funded, the best in the state,” Banks said.

“Carl DeMaio has proudly proclaimed he wants to make San Diego ‘the Wisconsin of the west,’” Zucchet said. “In San Diego, this has been going on quite a while: using real economic issues to attack the underpinnings of the labor movement and the Democratic party. I would say Wisconsin is the San Diego of the Midwest.” According to Zucchet, the long-term Right-wing propaganda campaign against San Diego city workers and their pensions began in 2001 with an editorial campaign by Bob Kittle, then editorial-page editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Kittle, said Zucchet, “would take almost any issue and turn it into an attack on unions. When I ran for City Council in 2002, the U-T said, ‘Don’t vote for Zucchet. He works for a union and he’s controlled by the unions.’ Our polls said it wasn’t on anybody’s radar back then, but Kittle was ahead of his time.” Another villain in Zucchet’s scenario was former city attorney Mike Aguirre, who despite his progressive reputation on other issues started a legal battle to break the city’s pension contracts with its unions that the current city attorney, Jan Goldsmith, has continued. Indeed, Zucchet said at the beginning of the meeting that the reason he was no longer a member of the San Diego Democratic Club was they had endorsed Aguirre for re-election in 2008.

“San Diego has been living this a long time, and unions have so badly lost the P.R. battle that even in ‘double-D households’” — families in which both adult partners are registered Democrats — “people would say that the most important thing to do is keep those ‘corrupt union bosses’ out of the city treasury. There are probably even people in this room who think all city employees make six-figure salaries and retire on $1 million a year.”

“I’ve had some frustration with Democrats,” said Banks. “They listen to the echo chamber [from the Right-wing media monopoly in San Diego]. We’ve had the best results when we go to the people. I won’t talk to the North County Times anymore. The party needs to be better at holding people accountable to us.”

Like Gonzalez, Zucchet pointed out the little-known fact that San Diego city employees aren’t on Social Security, and he reported that a Superior Court judge recently issued a disastrous ruling for the city’s workers and retirees. The judge said that the lifetime health benefits the city’s workers were promised for voting themselves out of Social Security aren’t “vested” — which means they’re not protected by contract and therefore the city can cut or eliminate them any time it chooses.

“Our average worker makes $52,000 per year and the average pension is $31,000 per year,” Zucchet said. He also said that “the most egregious cases” — the six- and seven-figure pensions that get reported over and over in the local media as if they’re typical — are not for front-line workers but for people in executive positions, “including deputy city attorneys,” he ruefully noted.

“I’m tired of hearing that we’re the ones who broke the economy,” Banks said. “There are people who clerked for the Sheriff’s Department for 40 years and would retire on $26,000 a year. We have people whose job it is to take children out of abusive homes, and many of our members cannot afford to get by. One of our members is living with her daughter in one room of their house and trying to rent out the other two rooms. The County refuses to backfill [restore] any cuts Sacramento is making. Instead, the County sued the state and pushed the services to the city. They’ve cut over 1,200 positions and they’re touting all the awards they’re winning for great public services.”

What’s more, Banks added, the cutbacks are “not just an attack on our workers.” They’re an ideologically driven assault on social services a growing number of Republicans and other conservatives believe shouldn’t exist at all. “They’re attacking core values like education and HIV/AIDS services,” Banks said. “The County has a ton of money in the bank and has the lowest fees [for businesses], and they have the worst record in getting federal and state money” for infrastructure, economic development and social services.

Questions from club members ranged from former club president Gloria Johnson asking why Queer people still shop at the ferociously anti-union Wal-Mart (Gonzalez admitted that many local union members also shop there) to longtime member Patrick Dowd talking about the Right-wing monopoly in local media and how that hurts unions’ ability to present their side of these issues. “Unlike Los Angeles or San Francisco, we don’t have an infrastructure that supports progressives,” Dowd said. “We don’t have a decent media, and that’s why we’re in the dark. We don’t have anything, so how do we inform the public when we don’t have any media outlets?”

“This is a one-newspaper town, and it’s not just that it’s a conservative newspaper, it isn’t a robust investigative newspaper,” Zucchet said. What’s more, he added, the local radio and TV stations are so “lazy” they don’t do their own reporting; they merely read the U-T every day and repeat its agenda on the air.

“I don’t take the Union-Tribune,” said Gonzalez — but she acknowledged that the unions’ rotten public image in San Diego is largely their own fault for failing to organize. “We can’t continue to blame it on other people — developers, the downtown business community, the U-T — because it’s our responsibility to organize. We have to work harder in the immigrant community. We have to work harder in the African-American community. As organizers, we have to go into the community and make the case. In San Diego, 41 percent of registered voters are Democrats and 29 percent are Republicans — so how come we can’t elect a Democratic Mayor and a progressive City Council?”

“San Diego has two things Carl DeMaio has taken advantage of, and we’ve been slow on the uptake,” said club member Linda Perine, who’s currently heading the Queer community’s effort to affect the redrawing of City Council districts. “Carl works very hard and he meets with all the community planning groups and business improvement districts. It doesn’t take a lot of money, but it takes hard work and research, and you have to tailor your message to each group. There’s a clear methodology to defeat this, but it requires a lot of work.” Perine noted that when the Gay & Lesbian Times went out of business, DeMaio’s partner Jonathan Hale launched a Web publication called Digital News Service to promote his agenda — “and that’s something we can do as well.”

“Carl is effective,” Zucchet added. “He is totally fucking relentless. He does this 18 hours a day and he’s been doing it for 10 years. He’s intellectually dishonest and he’s right out in every neighborhood with robo-calls inviting people to meet him. He’s doing a better job [organizing San Diego] than anyone, Republican or Democrat.”

“The labor movement cannot do it alone,” Gonzalez said. “We need help, and we need community members. … We have a very real choice right now. We can sit down and take it and watch the labor movement die, or we can stand up and fight, take the power and demand change. Do we have the energy and power to do something, or are we going to sit back and watch ourselves die?”