San Francisco Union Story: Who Can Save Workers Pension Money?
By Charles Walker
This story is about union leaders in San Francisco, the fabled city by the bay, who are as dependent on labor-friendly politicians as are union bureaucrats anywhere in the country. This story is about those union officials and their political bedfellows, who together have been using their considerable muscle to gang-up on union members who work under contracts mutually negotiated by the union tops and the politicians. This is about twenty-nine unions that have agreed to have their members temporarily give up pension benefits to help the city close a $175 million budget gap, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle (June 18). A union worker, grossing $30,000 yearly, would lose about $825, according to a union estimate.
And by the way, the politicians are some of the most liberal types in the Democratic Party. They say so, and so do the union officers who have regularly and vigorously endorsed them.
The citys Democratic mayor, the admittedly high-living Willie Brown, is promising no lay-offs for a year and a one percent wage increase for unions that agree to the pension concession. Aside from the unions that have caved in to the mayors demands for the mid-contract concession, there are a few holdouts. So the tough-minded Willie Brown is threatening to fire workers in those unions that dont dig into their take-home pay to make their pension contributions. For example, the Laborers Union called a membership meeting to hear Mayor Brown make his case and then re-vote the proposal, after they first voted no. I can barely afford to live here now, a gardener told the press.
Despite a pitch that was liberally sprinkled with heckles and hisses from some unionists, the members voted by about two to one to give Brown and their officials what they wanted. Admittedly, Brown had a compelling argument: But I can tell you thischances are you wont have a job when I leave, unless you vote the right way on this, Brown reportedly told his rank-and-file opponents. Brown could cost workers $30,000,000. To date, Brown has taken the union members for $12 million and expects to pick up another $5 million from unions that have yet to vote. Four Service Employees International Union (SEIU) locals have refused to give Brown the pension money, despite Browns announcement that hell cut 61 [SEIU] laundry workers at a city facility for the aged. Should the SEIU unions eventually agree, city officials say the savings would reduce the citys budget deficit by another $13 million.
San Francisco is the center of a metropolitan area that has enormous wealth. And much of that wealth flows through investing, banking and insurance behemoths that have had a corner on the capital market, at least since the 1906 earthquake and fire. The tycoons Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, A. P. Giannini and the like may be gone, but their fortunes are still daily fattened by interest and dividends, rents and commissions. In fact, the citys corporate bosses generally are doing very well indeed. So well, in fact, that on the basis of ability to pay, the citys financial elite should be at the head of the line for making up the citys budget deficit, not the citys gardeners, laundry workers and typists.
But the politicians dont see it that way and thats no surprise. If there is a surprise, its that the union officialdom isnt telling the mayor to go after the well-heeled financial class because thats where the real money is. Nor are the unions taking their beef over the mayors threats to cut their members jobs to the streets. SEIU Local 250 president Sal Rosseli, one of the holdouts, reportedly said, Were very hopeful to work with the mayor and [Board of Supervisors president] Tom Ammiano to resolve this in a fair way for residents and public employees. Rosseli has offered the city a counter-proposal. He proposes that Mayor Brown and Board President Ammiano cut the so-called performance bonuses of the citys managerial bureaucracy.
Wont raise taxes on corporations
No doubt the unions can and should make a case for eliminating civic bureaucratic waste and patronage perks. Surely the unions can and should make a strong case for protecting their members living standards by taxing the wealthy in order to close the budget gap. But the unions leaderships seemingly have no interest in annoying the citys prosperous class. And thats simply outrageous.
All these unions or their national offices from time to time tell their members that Americas corporate elite controls an enormous percentage of the nations wealth and how shameful that is. They routinely protest corporate welfare and more recently they rightly condemned Wall Streets accounting scams. Clearly, its hypocritical or worse for union leaders to knock the Wall Street moguls and their San Francisco counterparts one day, only to keep mum when their silence smacks of complicity in the fleecing of their memberships.
In 1992, John J. Sweeney, the then-newly elected president of the AFL-CIO, said that, Twenty years of declining wages and disappearing benefits are taking their toll on American life. Theres a free-floating anger among hardworking people for whom the American dream is turning into a handful of ashes. But those declining wages didnt just evaporate; the workers lost wages wound up in someones bank account. The New York Times reported (Feb. 7) that wealth in America is more highly concentrated today than at any time since 1929, citing research by professor Edward N. Wolf, a New York University economist. The same article reported that taxes for wage earners were increasing at the same time that taxes on the wealthy were falling.
The union leaders, including Rosseli, should explain to their members why theyre not mobilizing that free-floating anger into the streets in defense of their ranks pensions. They should explain why theyre not leading as if theyre mad as hell and determined not to take it anymore. They should explain why the political clout at city hall they thought they earned with their union endorsements, money and precinct work wont buy their members $825 for their pensions.
Theres a moral to this story: The moral is that the union members wont get what they deserve as long as they dont take matters into their own hands. Thats why many workers formed unions in the first place: To take matters into their own hands. The union pioneers understood that the welfare of their families was too important to leave in the hands of the bosses. As the San Francisco pension sell-out proves, workers need to update their thinking. Their welfare is too important to leave in the hands of the bosses, their political stooges and the union bureaucrats.