From my comfortable perch in (relatively) union-friendly L.A., it's more than amazing to watch public employees in Wisconsin and now Ohio battle to retain the right to collectively bargain. In the last twenty years we've all gotten used to unions giving back things, even on this coast, in the form of wage freezes, layoffs and the like; we've gotten used to traditional union benefits being singled out for takedowns every time a state budget crisis looms, and the crises have been looming all over the country for years now. But the confrontation now is alarmingly different. Public employees are being asked not to cut their benefits or trim their pensions, but to give up the right to be in a union at all. This is not an ask on the part of legislators and governors, it's a declaration of war, and the response of mass protests by public employees in Wisconsin and Ohio's capitols are perfectly appropriate to me--these teachers, home care workers and others are in a battle for their very lives. They're also battling to stay afloat as members of the middle class, which has been steadily drained by economic policies and practices entirely unfriendly to unions and the pro-worker agenda they historically carry. How all these bare middle-classers got set up as American fat cats while Wall Street tycoons and financiers have walked away unscathed, even enriched, after pulling the rug out from under so many of us, is one of the more remarkable feats of the coporatocracy that continues to paint itself as democracy's best hope. More remarkable than that is the fact that people continue to buy it.
Make no mistake, the full frontal attack on collective bargaining is also an attack on people of color. Unions, especially in the public sector, are what eventually gave black people a stable foundation on which to build an economic identity and a sense that work could not be taken away capriciously. After generations of having no safe place in a labor scene that saw blacks as wholly expendable, if not downright undesireable, unions provided that place. They grew the black middle class almost overnight, from the '60s onward, and in no big city was that middle class more prosperous-looking than in L.A., the land of new fortune and reinvented stature.
My father, a former probation officer and consultant for the county Human Relations Commission, was a public employee for 37 years. My mother worked for L.A. Unified. My husband has been teacher for the district for nearly 30 years. None are wealthy, or are going to be, but the stability their work has afforded me and still affords me now is gold. If the anti-union hysteria being manufactured by Republican cynics comes west, I'm putting on my battle gear and getting in the streets. It's the least I can do for those whose labor made me believe in the idea of a democracy at all.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.