Posts Tagged ‘unions’

Equity Week speech

November 10, 2013

[Given at SF State’s Malcolm X Plaza at an event organized by the local CFA chapter.]

Let me ask you a question, who washes your floor at home? If this work is kept up regularly you don’t have to think about it. If it weren’t done for a while you would eventually notice and then it would get to a point of intolerance—especially if you tired the four-second rule on a filthy dirty floor.

Second point. Drive by any auto sales lot and what do you see? The hoods are open. Why is that? Because when you buy a car you want to check to see if there is an engine in there and whether you are getting your money’s worth. So then, why would you purchase an education without looking “under the hood”?

Let me guide you “under the hood” for a moment. As you go about your current job of getting an education, think about all the work done behind the scenes, the mostly invisible work that’s done every day. Look at the park-like surroundings on campus. BTW—those workers and the ones who clean the classrooms start work at 4 a.m. What if it suddenly weren’t done? What if your classrooms were filthy, or your chemistry experiments were not set up, or you were given all the wrong classes, or the wireless went down? It might just interfere with your job, wouldn’t it?

The staff here enable the faculty to do their jobs. The staff enable you to focus on learning. As they cut staff and push more of the behind-the-scenes support work onto fewer of us, or onto your faculty, or hire high-priced, low-quality contractors, you are the ones who are buying a car with a lemon for an engine. We do our best but the CSU has been less than appreciative of both our heroic efforts and that of the faculty to keep SF State an institution of quality higher learning despite the obstacles.

Do me a favor. Don’t wait until after you graduate to look for and join a union. Join the statewide student union movement, CASU, now. We are told we live in a democracy, but at best it is of a very limited kind. Everywhere our society is structured in hierarchies, where power is concentrated at the top. The university is no exception. Unions, by the way, are a keystone to democracy because they can redistribute some of that concentrated power.

The floor washers thank you for your support. We are proud of what we do and you should take pride in improving yourselves through study. Now, go out and make a better world so that the toilet cleaners have hope, if not for themselves, at least for their children.

The history of this nation has been the struggle to always expand the limited democracy the framers started us with. The deck has always been stacked against working people. Just recognize the work we do for you and we will be empowered. Respect and support our union and we will be even stronger. Join your own union and then join up with the faculty union and the staff unions and then we can begin to put the demos back in democracy.

Remember, staff and faculty working conditions are your learning conditions and SFSU stands for Students, Faculty, and Staff United. Peace.


Regarding the Brown-Millionaire Tax measures compromise

March 22, 2012

By Russell Kilday-Hicks, CSUEU VP for Representation

“My practicality consists in this, in the knowledge that if you beat your head against the wall it is your head which breaks and not the wall … that is my strength, my only strength.”                        — Antonio Gramsci

As one of four statewide, rank-and-file elected officers of my union, the CSU Employees Union, Local 2579 SEIU, I recently returned from a meeting of our statewide Board of Directors, a body made of statewide and campus chapter rank-and-file elected officers.

Along with two other officers who, like me had participated in recent Occupy Education activities, we made the argument for support of the Millionaires Tax measure (MT). We lost, overwhelmingly. Even though in their hearts they supported the MT, their heads told them that it couldn’t win, that it would be an uphill struggle to get it on the ballot, and that from their perspective there were some serious flaws in its design. While I can see both sides of the argument, I am going to support their position.

I proposed in the Occupy Education GA on March 17 that we declare the Brown tax compromise a victory and move on. Here’s why.


I participated in the “99-Mile March to Sacramento for Education and Social Justice” and greatly value being part of that experience and the community we built. I believe in the power of the Occupy Movement (Occupy) to bring about significant social change that’s long overdue. It has given me real hope I haven’t felt for 30 years of activism. I also strongly support taxing the rich to fund a vibrant public sector, and to expose the obscenely unequal distribution of wealth in our society, the unbalanced distribution of power, and the farce both of these make of democracy,.


The time is right for a tax measure like this. But the MT is not getting the support it needs from some key organized groups, making its qualification for the ballot, let alone passage in November, an extremely long shot. We need to understand why. It is too simple to just say, “the unions are in Brown’s pocket” or, they are “too tied to the Democratic Party.”


One persuasive argument against MT is that even if the MT gets on the ballot and wins a majority vote (two pretty high hurdles), because it doesn’t address the ongoing structural General Fund deficit (the state’s income is less than mandated expenses), in the end, there could be no net increase to CSU funding. Whatever the CSU gets on the front end (from MT) could be cut on the back end (from General Fund dollars) in order to address other pressing social needs. CSUs and UCs are at least earmarked to receive funding in MT. Not so for child care and health and human services.


Another problem is that the funds set up by the MT won’t begin paying out until Sept. 1, 2013. What happens until then? Brown has promised to cut the CSU another $200 million (on top of the $750 million cut to this fiscal year) if his measure doesn’t pass. At least the compromise measure brings in funds immediately so some planned cuts can be stopped. It’s true these funds are from a regressive sales tax. But without some immediate infusion of funds the CSU and the people I represent will loose even more jobs than we already have. Since CSU can’t gamble on something passing in November, they must cut at the start of the 2012 fiscal year (and they just announced at the Board of Trustee meeting that up to 25,000 students could be turned away and about 3,000 staff could be laid off). If this happens, one of the ongoing threats to the union, dismantling and privatization of the CSU system, will have an easier time moving forward.


Now is the time to push for increasing taxes on the rich. Our tax system has been inherently unbalanced for the last three decades, and that problem has become even more severe in recent months with our “jobless recovery.” Neither do we need to debate whether or not Brown is part of the problem. He’s a solid corporate centrist who is not about to challenge the two-party system of privilege and inequality that is too often mistakenly called democracy.


The question here is what will best build the movement. I’m making a call for a tax-the-rich victory that will deliver much-needed funding more immediately and encourage an increasingly broad group to keep fighting. If we are going to choose electoral work as a tactic, we must get into the nitty-gritty details of how thing work in Sacramento, how to qualify measures for the ballot and figure out who will vote for what—and if we are in this for the long haul.  


We heard from the president of CFT some of the practical reasons why they compromised—primarily not enough support to even get it on the ballot—let along pass it in November—both financially and from activist/volunteers. The harsh reality is: there have been a number of recent, progressive ballot measures that have gone down to defeat. You may say this doesn’t matter because Occupy has changed everything, and I would agree to a point. This compromise would not have happened without Occupy. It has changed the debate and opened up new space for change, but has Occupy delivered millions of new voters, for example? This compromise measure needs to qualify for the ballot in record time. Even the compromise measure is an opportunity for Occupy to show its strength by shifting the tone of California’s politics and show our readiness to stand up against the anti-tax rhetoric.


Even if MT is still a viable option, successful passage could still lead to cuts in areas not protected by Prop. 98, and comes with the risk of carrying on the message that government and taxes are the problem, rather than the real issue (the strength of the Occupy meme), that the wealthy are in control. While Prop 98 is an important defensive measure against Prop 13 and the attack on education, as long as we have one public sector with guaranteed funding (as inadequate as it is still) while other crucial services for the 99 percent continue to starve, we will have a divided movement. We need to build initiatives that unite all public sectors serving the 99 percent: health and human services, and education from diapers (child care) to PhDs and life-long learning. Until we find a better way, some revenue dedicated to the General Fund is what we need.


It is unfortunate that Brown has not officially withdrawn his measure. I spoke with CSU Trustee Steve Glazer, who is spearheading the ballot effort for the governor, about the perception that if the old measure is not withdrawn then the compromise measure looks like a ploy to merely eliminate viable competition. He said he understood and will deliver that message to the governor. Glazer also said they are going to be challenged with keeping their governor’s business partners behind the compromise agreement.


In addition to appropriate criticism from the Left, it’s important to understand what the Right is calling this compromise. They portray it as Brown giving in to the unions. If we are really trying to build a mass movement we need to be strategic and keep the “eyes on the prize.” We must transform unions as a crucial ingredient for progressive and radical change. We must be careful that our critiques of unions don’t support those forces attacking the unions.


The fact that unions don’t feel supported enough by Occupy to take the chance on the MT should not surprise us. We are at the beginning of this movement. The unions need the support not only to survive, but to democratize internally, and allow more radical leaders to come into power. Let’s analyze why our natural allies continue to align with the likes of Brown (let alone the crazies on the Right) and give them the support and security they need to join us. Let’s broaden our discussions to those affected by other public sector areas, unionized or not. The public education sector has the strength of organization, dedicated students, and unions to lead this charge. As one of those unionists, I’m dedicated to Occupy for the long haul. I’m asking for your help. Peace.


Lessons from the cold war on labor

October 6, 2011

In the recent skirmish in the cold war against unionized public-sector workers, the results are mixed. Despite the positive spin applied to the two-out-of-five seat “victory” in the recall effort in Wisconsin, portrayed by the AFL-CIO and others as a huge win, it is unclear at this point how big it really was. Whether the effort to un-elect (in Republican-dominated, gerrymandered districts) some of the lawmakers who voted to strip union rights from state workers was worth the effort or, as some say, just a wasteful redirection of the broad support labor had in the moment that was better spent on a general strike, we need to figure out. The real victory may be down the road—if the coalition can continue beyond this effort. From this extra-election venture we see not only the limits of putting all our union eggs in the Democratic Party basket but also the inherent problems to electoral activism (as it hits the fail-safe, two-party-system lock on power). With some luck and a continuation of the gargantuan effort, a replication of the broad coalition that formed (outside of normal two-party limits and with goals that include but go beyond electoral) it may be our only hope for some lasting movement toward a better life for working people in America.

In Wisconsin, the Republican-leaning districts chosen for the recall effort were determined by how presidential candidate Senator Obama did in the 2008 national election. Special elections traditionally put most voters to sleep. This reduced turnout unfortunately tends to favor the more conservative vote. The challenge for the recall was matching the 2008 turnout to overcome the odds not only of a stacked deck of registered majority Republican voters but also the usual cynicism that keeps voters home: elections don’t really matter, so why should this one be any different? At 60 percent, turnout was actually better than a traditional special election and even better than most recall efforts, but was still lower in these districts than when the national presidential seat was the prize. The broad, statewide support unions had in the moment did not find expression in three of these five districts. We have to ask both what was missing here, and is an electoral effort what is needed?

But some key elements were missing. Part of the reason for only a partial victory was that the Democratic Party controlled the candidate picking and the message. Even though they had the most to gain by “flipping,” that is, replacing Republican office holders with those from their own party they distanced themselves from the one hot issue of the day: whether state employees had the right to be unionized, apparently in an attempt to counter the perception that unions control the party. And despite the president’s campaign promise to “put on his sneakers and walk the picket lines” for labor, surprisingly, the Obama administration also sat this one out. Oh, lest we forget, candidate Obama promised to sign the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) as well—if Congress sent it to his desk. Alas, that has yet to happen, although it did make it to G.W. Bush’s desk, not once, but twice, for his cynical, service-to-the-rich veto. That was no surprise. However, when Obama was sworn into office Congress had a Democratic majority in both houses. This historic renewal of the 1935 Wagner Act could have been history in his first month in office. Unfortunately, and here is the lesson, with Obama in and the possibility of the bill passing Congress a reality, a few key Democrats switched their votes from yea to nea, among them California’s Senator Feinstein. Following this vote, the Obama administration asked labor to put EFCA on hold until after the health care reform legislation became law. Today, health care “reform” (mostly a corporate handout with a few mild reforms thrown in for credibility sake) passed into law but the odds of passing EFCA are more remote than ever, as the window of opportunity seems to have closed (for another decade or so).

With all the effort unions put into electing Democrats across the country some might think labor would have more to show for it. Where are labor’s supposed champions? As President Obama was missing in Wisconsin, so is Gov. Brown missing the opportunity to fully defend California’s public sector. The best we can say is he isn’t outwardly attacking us. The reality is, despite Republican myth and Tea Party mouth-foaming, the Democratic Party is hardly the champion of labor or of working people in general. The party is firmly in the hands of corporate powers. These same powers lead (using divergent methods) the Republican Party and the so-called Tea Party Patriots by their invisible nose rings.

The cold war is getting hotter. As wealth disparity reaches new heights the powerful few are coming after the last holdout of opposition with any semblance of power—public employee unions. In the last 30 years especially, private-sector unionism (now at around six percent) is falling to the corporate-led backlash that has been hard at work since FDR’s New Deal. At 37 percent, the public sector is still unionized at post New-Deal-era levels. The larger agenda has been to attack and “shrink” the public sector, in order to “defund the left,” as if the public sector were “the left” but really to attack the base of the last vestiges of supports to the working class. With anti-tax rhetoric (the very underpinning of the public sector) now winning the day, it makes perfect sense to turn up the heat on public employee unions, the last defender, it seems, of the public sector. It also forces the question of continuing to fight for “progressive” crumbs tossed by the Democratic Party to maintain its “base” (public unions, public sector) or create something new and more powerful.

Beware the coming ballot. And beware the approach we take in our defense. We must clarify our goals and the strategy and the tactics needed to reach them. Elections are only one tactic in our movement to make life better for working people, and may not be the best one to put most of our energy into. Did the decision to switch from sit-downs, marches, and occupation take away from the coalition building and education “happening” that Wisconsin’s state house had become? Did the flipping of two seats in Wisconsin, and the effort to elect Brown, move us forward or take us back? What will a two-thirds Democratic majority in California yield without a movement with a progressive agenda pushing them away from the corporate?

If the coalition that flipped two Republican seats in Wisconsin can continue on and grow, and we can replicate this effort across the country and in California; if we can bring together public education at all levels from pre-school, to K–12, to the Community Colleges, CSU and UC—with all their students and parents and alumni, and combine that with health care and other social services, and then include the unemployed and the underemployed and connect with other movements like Occupy Wall Street and Refund California—if a broad coalition, the politics of millions, can create a dialogue centered on turning around the existing economy that’s structured to the needs of bankers (the “financelization” of the economy that happened in the last 30 years) into one that works for working people and re-create public spaces and raise voices that carry the message to protect and grow (using a real democratic model) the public sector—when that day comes, working people will have a fighting chance.

As “Solidarity Divided” author Bill Fletcher Jr. said to the Progressive Caucus at the recent California Democratic Party convention in Sacramento, the Democrats have to decide which it is: are they about merely gaining and exercising political power for its own sake or are they really committed to making things better for working families in America? The party’s mostly lip service “dedication” to working people is not reversing the latest trends. Labor, it seems, has to figure out the very same thing—are we about power, growth at any cost with top-down schemes that organize workers who don’t know the difference between filing a union grievance and complaining to a human resources manager, or can we be about building a union movement that embraces and empowers all workers, no matter if they are unionized or how they feel about labor? We need to decide. And soon.