Bay Area Union leaders: Labor revolt likely to spread “Let’s fight back. And this time, let’s win.”http://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Union-leaders-Labor-revolt-likely-to-spread-4638629.php
Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle
BART electrician and SEIU member Jose Riggio hands out flyers to BART passengers at the entrance to the 12th Street Oakland City Center Station downtown. BART union members have authorized a strike on Monday if an agreement is not reached in contract talks by midnight Sunday.
By Carolyn Jones and Demian Bulwa
June 30, 2013
Labor strikes may wreak havoc across the Bay Area this week, but this is only a glimpse of the chaos to come, say union leaders representing tens of thousands of municipal and transit workers in Northern California.
After five years of pay cuts, furloughs and reductions in vacation, sick time and pensions, union members who work for cities, counties and special districts say they’re fed up and prepared to walk off their jobs, even at the risk of losing pay or getting fired, labor officials said.
BART and city of Oakland workers are threatening to strike Monday. Workers at the East Bay Regional Park District and AC Transit could follow soon. Three unions at the University of California are planning protests this week.
“We say to any locality, if you try to (impose) more concessions, you’ll get a strike. And we will fight indefinitely,” said Pete Castelli, the director of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which is leading the threatened walkouts at BART and Oakland.
“This is a watershed moment for labor,” he added. “We lost our way a little during the downturn, but now people are angry. And it’s a lot bigger than just us.”
Local 1021, one of the largest public employee unions in the Bay Area, is behind much of the labor revolt, thanks to its aggressive new leader and a high-profile victory against the Port of Oakland in November.
In that case, port officials were offering cuts in benefits and no raises. In response, workers staged a one-day strike two days before Thanksgiving, effectively shutting the port at one of its busiest times.
“Within two days we were back at the bargaining table. We got raises, all the takeaways removed and cash bonuses,” Castelli said. “We won.”
Others inspired to strike
The union’s success inspired workers at other public agencies to move ahead with strike plans. And the tidal wave is only beginning, Castelli said.
Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle
SEIU member and Bart electrician Kenny Fong hands out informational fliers to passengers in front of the 12th St. City Center Bart station in downtown Oakland, CA Thursday June 27th, 2013.
Solano County workers’ contract is set to expire next year, followed by San Francisco, where Local 1021 represents 15,000 workers.
“Get ready, San Francisco,” he said. “If you’re over there across the bay watching Oakland right now, be forewarned: You’re next.”
Local 1021 represents more than 54,000 workers at six Bay Area counties, as well as dozens of cities, school districts, courts, public hospitals, water districts and other agencies across Northern California.
Its members include social workers, janitors, nurses, typists and other mid- and lower-level employees.
Those people – as opposed to higher-paid managers – bore the brunt of the cutbacks during the economic downturn, Castelli said. Many saw their paychecks shrink, and as a result lost their homes or suffered other serious financial setbacks.
Piece of better revenue
But now that revenue is slowly trickling back to the public coffers, in part due to a rebounding real estate market and the passage of the Proposition 30 tax increase, workers want their due, Castelli and labor experts said.
“The economy hasn’t picked up so much that they can necessarily expect to recoup everything,” said Katie Quan, the associate chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center. “However, there is a notion that employees – and especially public employees – did suffer a lot as budgets got squeezed. Since they feel they took the brunt of the cutbacks, they feel they deserve a good share of whatever can be distributed when revenues increase.”
Risk alienating residents
The risk of going on strike is alienating and inconveniencing everyday residents, who are essentially paying public employees’ salaries, Quan and others said.
“Nobody’s unsympathetic to people’s desire to get pay increases. We all want that,” said Paul Junge, who directs public policy for the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
“But I think it would be a mistake to say that only government workers have had hard times or made sacrifices over the past few years,” he added. “Thousands of businesses have failed, thousands more have seen their profits and revenues decline, thousands of employees have lost their jobs in the private sector, or seen their hours cut back. Times have been difficult for more than government workers.”
The public should remember that Local 1021 members are part of the Bay Area, as well. They’re neighbors, friends, relatives – all of whom pay taxes and contribute to their communities in myriad ways, he said. By paying them decent salaries, the entire community benefits, he said.
Castelli is not fazed by the backlash. The Bay Area is a cakewalk compared with his first job organizing workers at textile mills in the South.
“Every campaign there was combat warfare. Everyone hated us,” he said. “As late as 1995 I was called a Communist. I said, ‘No, actually, we’re pretty much American.’ ”
He cites Harry Bridges, John Lewis and Mother Jones as his inspirations. His guiding principal: that Wall Street stole billions from everyday workers, and it’s time to pressure authorities, as well as the public, into shifting wealth to the middle class.
“I don’t believe it’s right what they did to this country,” he said. “Let’s fight back. And this time, let’s win.”
E-mail the writers at carolynjones, dbulwa
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