Sneak Peek I: On Writing California Labor History

 This installment of the California labor history series is excerpted from the newly released book, From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement by California Federation of Teachers Communications Director Fred Glass. Available for purchase via the University of California Press website. We are pleased to present excerpts in a series beginning with this issue!

Preface:  On writing California labor history

No time seems more fitting than now to consider the relevance of California labor history.  For labor politics, states are where the action is.  In states that have elected conservative legislatures, the first order of business has been to roll back worker rights and laws—often in place for decades—that enabled working people to call themselves “middle class” by virtue of their ability to organize collectively on their own behalf.

In Wisconsin, public employee unions no longer have the right to bargain the terms of their members’ employment.  Former automobile worker union stronghold Michigan now has a “right to work” law forbidding unions to collect dues from workers whose jobs are protected through contracts negotiated by those unions, but who decide to opt out.

In California, however, unions have led successful campaigns—most recently in 2012—to defeat similar anti-union measures.  And despite the reputation of the golden state as an anti-tax stronghold, the labor movement also steered to victory an income tax increase on the wealthy in order to fund schools and services starved for decades.  The two campaigns reverberated with one another; class themes emerged as the electorate voted to defend worker rights and demand that the rich pay a fairer share of taxes.

When we ask, “What’s the difference between California and these other states?” we begin to see why now might be a good time to learn about our state’s labor history.  California has been famous for its “exceptionalism” since the Gold Rush: fine weather, vast riches in its extractive industries, its edginess on the Pacific Rim, and the recurrent eruptions of various “Gold Rushes” that validate the sense that Horatio Alger eternally calls California “home.”  But what seems exceptional often turns out to be but variations on a theme.

In 1978, it seemed exceptional when the state’s voters passed Proposition 13, which rolled back property tax rates and set a 2/3 supermajority bar for legislating tax increases.  The action reversed decades of the New Deal consensus that the role of government is to provide services for the common good, and replaced it with an experiment in low taxes, small government, and the joint demonization of public employees (providers of services) and people of color in poverty (recipients of services).

But within two years, the elevation of native son Ronald Reagan to the presidency showed California was just the wedge state for a national program tilting the playing field away from “the most good for the most people,” to big business and the rich.

California may be ahead of the curve, but probably only a bit farther down the same track.

One major difference between California’s unions and those in other states has been the embrace of immigrant workers on a scale, and with tactics, unseen elsewhere.  Labor’s voter education and mobilization programs aimed at lower propensity voters have come on the heels of organizing outreach to concentrations of immigrant workers.

Unless older white workers begin reproducing at a more rapid rate—an unlikely development—younger workers of color, including a high proportion of immigrants, are the future face of the workforce and the electorate.  Because the labor movement has understood and acted on this fact, California’s unionization rate remains at 16% while the national average is 11%.

Other factors play a role; but this is central.  More than any other state, California incessantly recomposes its working class with waves of immigration.  True in 1850, it remains true today.  Employers who wish to defeat labor know that exploiting potential divisions in the working class always provides their best opportunity for success; and a diverse working class has historically made such an outcome not just possible but typical.  But conscious efforts by labor to demonstrate the common interests of all workers to one another, can supply—and often has—the necessary antidote, preserving or even expanding worker rights and share of the economic pie.

California labor history has plenty of both types of stories.  It is my hope that in this series, learning about the defeats will give the reader lessons to mull over, and the victories a renewed understanding that “the union makes us strong.”

Next up in the series: A History of the California Labor Movement