Supporting unions helps all workers

Pub date July 30, 2013

EDITORIAL The San Francisco Bay Area has traditionally been very pro-labor, from the days when legendary longshoreman leader Harry Bridges led the San Francisco General Strike of 1934 to the modern era when labor unions have lent the muscle and money to myriad progressive reforms that San Francisco and California have proudly exported to the rest of the country.

But sadly, that sense of solidarity seems to be changing during these times of widespread economic anxiety, declining union membership, increasing urban gentrification, and a divide-and-conquer political climate created by both major parties. Too often, Bay Area residents are indifferent or even hostile to the plight of the working class.

We’ve seen it in the public reactions to the labor contract impasse and strikes at Bay Area Rapid Transit, whose unions staged a four-day strike that ended July 4 and which could resume again after a 30-day contract extension and cooling off period ends on Aug. 4. If the strike resumes — which seems likely at this point, disrupting commutes on a non-holiday workweek — the public’s anger and finger-pointing could be even worse than last time.

We heard similar resentments expressed in reaction to last week’s cover story (see “Striking Out,” July 24) about the stadium concession workers at San Francisco Giants’ games, who have been without a contract since 2010 and are even denied tip jars to supplement pay that is actually less than San Francisco’s minimum wage in many cases.

The common criticism is that these workers should just be glad to have a job, regardless of pay and benefits. And when it comes to the full-funded pensions of BART workers, critics rightfully point out that few of us enjoy that kind of retirement security.

But that criticism turns the real problem on its head. We all need far more retirement security than we have now, a reality that will hit hard in the coming years as the so-called “silver tsunami” breaks, leaving families and society to care for baby boomers who run out of retirement savings (which could happen quickly given that three-quarters of Americans aged 50-64 have less than $30,000 in retirement savings).

Bay Area residents should be supporting our brothers and sisters in organized labor, helping them so they can in turn help us, as SEIU Local 1021 and other unions are trying to do on the issue of retirement security for all (last year’s approval of SB1234 in California was a good start, but far more is needed).

When unions win good contracts, it generally increases wages and benefits in the region, even for non-union jobs (the opposite is also true, that wages stagnate when unions lose these fights), so it should be in our enlightened self-interest to support BART and Giants workers. Particularly during these times of economic uncertainty and woe, it’s important to overcome our resentments and stand in solidarity with our fellow workers — for their sake, for our own, and for the long-term best interests of our region and country.