Over Labor Day weekend, I spoke with Firefighter Erik Baskin about his experience leading the SLO City Firefighter's union, the IAFF Local 3523. He said that unions have been losing ground politically since he joined two decades ago, even though a recent Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans approve of them.
Erik explained why unions wield less power now than in the past. "Citizens United and the right-wing agenda are killing us," he said. "Corporations like Walmart and the Koch Enterprises now spend millions on a single political race. They back candidates who are anti-union, and, as powerful as we once were, we can't keep up with that kind of money. Our political donations come out of our own pockets."
Erik also lamented the fact that rookies increasingly question whether to join the union.
"Often, it is a crisis that pulls us together," he said.
I thought about Erik's comment the next day while attending the Democratic Party's Labor Day picnic in Arroyo Grande. Images of Rosie the Riveter, the event's theme, were emblazoned on posters hanging in nearby trees. Rosie seemed a fitting guest. She served as the symbol of women joining the workforce to build tanks and aid in the fight against the Nazis. Nearby, kids colored pictures of Rosie while their parents hummed along to a live rendition of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Our Land."
As I served tri-tip and beans to 400 happy picnickers, U.S Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) and other volunteers at my side, I wondered if any of us could ever fathom the sacrifices early labor activists made on our behalf.
Workers have been fighting—and dying—for humane working conditions since the Industrial Revolution. In the United States, the first labor organizers were killed by our own federal troops. More were killed in Chicago's Haymarket Square while demonstrating for an eight-hour workday. Thirty Pullman employees died protesting unfair pay and living conditions: Those workers were required to pay rent to live in company-owned houses, even when Pullman cut their pay. They couldn't make ends meet. The company had engineered a cycle of poverty that was impossible to escape.
As recently as this last century, poor children worked 70 hours per week in mines and textile mills. More than a hundred teenagers and young girls died in a sweatshop fire in New York. Matchstick factory workers' jaws grew deformed and eventually rotted from exposure to toxic chemicals.
Today, children of immigrants living in the U.S. on work visas are unprotected by our child labor laws. Postal workers and teachers skip meals and water so they can time bathroom breaks according to arcane workplace restrictions. Former company towns, like Flint, Michigan, poison citizens with lead-tainted water.
What explains industry's profound disregard for workers? Greed. The fallacy of the so-called "free market" is etched into every labor activist's gravestone. The only real trickle-down is the tears they shed. But when profits disconnect from people, people can absorb only so much cruelty. Eventually, there is a backlash.
As soldiers were marching to break up the Pullman boycott, a Methodist minister said it best. He called government leaders "pliant tools of the codfish-monied aristocracy who seek to dominate this country," having abandoned "the rights of the people against aggression and oppressive corporations."
Let's not delude ourselves that labor unions are a thing of the past. Indeed, the type of union that we need now is something larger, something country-wide. Even with two incomes, families can't earn enough to make ends meet. Investment groups are buying wide swaths of real estate and forming new versions of the company town. The current minimum wage ensnares people in poverty. Most of us—conservatives, liberals, and independents—are subjugated by the aristocracy.
Unions should serve as the new model for how we face the punishing inequities that we all feel. We need to walk alongside our labor leaders and union members. They've been in the trenches for hundreds of years and know how to organize.
During our talk, Erik also mentioned a hot-button topic for many Californians: service year-based pension benefits. "The problem is, pension incentive calculations are complicated and don't fit in a sound bite," he said. "Unfortunately, most firefighters struggle when they retire, because our health care benefits stop at retirement. The pending California health care-for-all bill, SB 562, would be fantastic for middle-class workers like me."
I know I'm not alone in wanting a battalion of experienced firefighters to help me in an emergency. Plus, pension incentives prevent costly turnover. I asked what our community can do to help.
"Next year's midterm elections are key," Erik warned. "We need to stick to basics. Labor and the middle class are hurting. Let's get candidates who help people, even if we need to go up against the Koch Brothers. Human dignity is the right answer, always." Δ
Kristine Hagen is a member of the SLO County Democratic Party and the SLO County Progressives Democratic Club. Send comments through the editor ator write a letter to the editor and email it to .