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Labor Occupies Wall Street, But Democrats Go in Reverse

Andrew Cuomo Public Education

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

As the grassroots campaign against Wall Street grows, Democratic politicians are moving in the opposite direction. President Obama has secured the House Republican support necessary to pass three trade bills strongly opposed by organized labor and most Democrats.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who like Obama was elected with huge labor funding and ground support, took a particularly hard public line against the state’s second largest public employee union for voting down a concessionary contract; Cuomo seeks to avoid charges that he is “too beholden” to labor unions.

And then we have California’s Governor Jerry Brown. After being hailed at a recent labor event as the virtual second coming of Joe Hill, Brown vetoed a bill to facilitate the unionization of low-paid childcare workers. He also vetoed a measure that would have given San Franciscans the right to fund public services by voting to raise their own taxes.

With “allies” like these, no wonder labor unions decline while Wall Street’s power grows.

Amidst growing protests against Wall Street, leading Democrats remain more concerned with being viewed as “standing up to labor” rather than as boosting labor’s clout.

First, President Obama is aggressively promoting three trade bills (South Korea, Colombia and Panama) long opposed by most of organized labor. Obama is showing his corporate backers that he is willing to stand by them against labor unions, further exposing labor’s inability to hold the President they helped elect accountable.

Second, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has promised mass public worker layoffs after the Public Employee Federation rejected a concessionary contract whose savings were assumed as part of Cuomo’s state budget deal. Cuomo could have acknowledged that in tough economic times it is understandable why a majority of workers voted down the contract, and then given labor a face-saving way to reach what the workers could claim was a new deal. Instead, Cuomo made it clear that he would not go back to the bargaining table but would soon commence layoffs of 3500 state workers.

You don’t see Cuomo, Obama, or many Democrats taking that same hard line with Wall Street and corporate America. But many Democrats seem to relish showing voters they can act against the unions whose money and ground troops helped elect them; it earns them both media praise and campaign money from wealthy donors.

Jerry Brown and Labor

I recently attended a fundraiser for the UC Berkeley Labor Center where California Governor Jerry Brown was described as the virtual second coming of Joe Hill by California Federation of Labor head Art Pulaski. The crowd of union members, staff and supporters clearly loved Brown, who gave a very progressive speech touting solar power, the importance of union jobs, and labor’s key role in rebuilding the California economy.

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I was next to Brown when he was asked to sign a bill on his desk facilitating the unionization of childcare workers. Brown had not committed to sign the bill, but one would think that raising the incomes of the primarily female childcare labor force would be a good strategy for getting people out of poverty.

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But Brown was apparently swayed by the increased state costs caused by paying workers fair wages, vetoing the bill this week. He wrote in his veto message, “Today California, like the nation itself, is facing huge budget challenges. Given that reality, I am reluctant to embark on a program of this magnitude and potential cost.”

The childcare bill affects 40,000 workers, and was vetoed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger three times. Like the UFW card-check bill Brown vetoed earlier this year, it is the type of measure that Democrats thought a Democratic Governor would sign.

In addition to ensuring continued poverty wages for childcare workers who work out of their home, Brown also vetoed a bill by Senator Mark Leno that would have allowed San Francisco voters to approve higher vehicular license fees to fund vital public services. Brown’s message stated, “Before we embark on a piecemeal approach for one city, we should try to fashion a broader revenue solution to our state's fiscal crisis.”

But as Leno noted, the San Francisco measure would have no impact on the state budget. And there is no current plan to raise the vehicular license fee as part of a proposed state revenue measure in November 2012.

Brown ran for Governor in 2010 pledging to ensure that voters would have to approve all tax hikes. Yet when Leno tried to give San Francisco voters the opportunity to vote for a tax increase that would annually bring the city $75 million, Brown vetoed it. No wonder Leno described the veto as “nonsensical.”

Not everyone was upset with Brown’s vetoes.

The childcare veto was publicly praised by Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway and by Randy Thomasson, president of the conservative Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, seemed quite happy with Brown’s denying San Franciscans the right to vote to raise their vehicle fees.

As I wrote about Occupy Wall Street, many young people are bypassing electoral politics because Democrats fail to address social and economic injustice. Obama is clearly the worst offender, but when Democratic Governors in strongly Democratic states also seek to score points with union opponents at the expense of organized labor’s growth, it simply paves the way for a dispirited Democratic electoral base in 2012.

randy shaw

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.