By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
And what do we learn from all this about Gray Davis, who from the point of view of the transit unions both giveth and taketh away? Davis has always had a penchant for balancing off the conflicting claims of rival constituencies, business and labor most especially. In the first few months of his term, Davis met privately with the state’s major union leaders, told them exactly what percentage of his victory margin, as he calculated it, they had been responsible for, and that they should not expect him to side with them at a rate significantly higher than that percentage.
But coming up with a general theory that predicts when Gray will support unions and when he will screw them is tricky business. Looking at the bills he signed and vetoed during the past few weeks of end-of-session legislating, you could conclude he supports the ones that give unions what they need institutionally, but not what they want ideologically. And that when big business takes arms against the unions on particular legislation, you can kiss that bill goodbye.
Thus, the governor signed a bill requiring public-school and community-college employees covered by union contracts to pay union dues. He signed a bill forbidding state contractors to spend money on campaigns to thwart union organizing drives, and another that allows firefighter and police unions to go to binding arbitration when necessary. But he vetoed two important bills that benefited no union directly and that the state’s business lobbies fiercely opposed: one that raised the maximum weekly unemployment insurance benefit from its current $230 to a princely $380 over a three-year period, and another that phased in over six years an increase in the maximum weekly workers compensation benefit. He also vetoed a bill pushed by the United Farm Workers, true-blue Davis supporters for decades, that would have made growers responsible for verifying that their labor contractors were licensed. The growers are traditionally among the biggest financial backers the Republicans have in California, but Davis has managed to squeeze megabucks from them during his first 18 months as governor, and is doubtless counting on some more.
It is the quintessence of Davisism, then, for the governor to sign a bill that answers the unions’ prayers contingent on the unions’ giving up their leverage in negotiations. In a single deal, he wins the gratitude of both management and those unions that didn’t need the leverage quite so badly as their peers, and public credit for trying to end the work stoppage. And just maybe — we won’t know until the next campaign contributor filings — some hefty checks from the unions trying to avert an MTA breakup.
For L.A. labor, it’s been a roller-coaster week. On Monday, with Silver’s declaration, it seemed the movement had abruptly reverted to its bad old days, when an injury to one was tough luck, bub. Silver had undermined, if only for a day, one of the signal achievements of L.A.’s new-model labor movement. In the past several years, the County Federation of Labor, under the leadership of Miguel Contreras, has restored a sense of solidarity, of mutual support, long missing from the city’s union movement. This spring, the picket lines of striking janitors were honored by the Teamsters and the Operating Engineers, two unions that previously had expressed no interest in whether the janitors lived or died. Over the past few months, the Fed has convened rallies that brought together doctors, actors, librarians, teachers and hotel maids, all vowing to support the others in their respective struggles. Since the drivers walked, the Fed has frenetically mobilized its member unions on their behalf — a task with which the transit unions, which pretty much keep to themselves, plainly needed the Fed’s help. And on Tuesday, when the mechanics stayed out, Fed staffers were plainly elated that all their solidarity work hadn’t been in vain.
Silver, by contrast, seems a throwback to an earlier epoch of union leadership. In both substance and manner, he comes off as an old-style New York labor boss. He made the decision to cross the lines without putting the question to a vote of his members, who — unlike their employers — had no inkling that they were headed back in. Silver’s a far cry from the kind of terrifying boss you find in On the Waterfront, but he’d fit effortlessly into any production of Guys and Dolls. Two weeks ago, pacing through the lobby of the Pasadena Hilton, he noted that the MTA, while meeting endlessly with the drivers, had passed up the opportunity to negotiate with him. “We’ve asked them to call,” he lamented. “We’ve asked them to write. Yet not a post card have I seen.”
Silver’s manner may be charmingly quaint, but his disdain for democracy has proved utterly — and in this case, happily — dysfunctional. No one was more flummoxed than his own mechanics by Silver’s announcement that they’d be going back in; not a post card had they seen even suggesting that such a course was contemplated. We do not know which sickened them more: the thought of crossing the drivers’ picket line, or being ordered to do so by administrative fiat. No matter. Blessings on them, either way.
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