Court workers take the lead: Bay Area unionists gear up for contract fights

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After eight years of no pay raises and continuous short-staffing, the court clerks and janitorial staff at the Santa Clara Superior Courts were fed up.

In August, over 300 workers walked off the job. In wealthy Silicon Valley, the clerks and janitorial staff at the Superior Courts have suffered continuous short-staffing and no wage increases since the 2008 recession, even though the cost of living has risen 26 percent. Their 8-day strike was fortified by building community support, especially amongst attorneys, and a resolve to stay out until their demands were met.

This small independent union, the Superior Court Professional Employees Association, primarily made up of women and people of color, shut down 11 facilities, showed the judges who really runs the courts, and won a pay raise in both years of their contract.

Inspiring others. The court strike will resonate with other unions that have contracts expiring in 2016-17. The University of California service and patient care workers (AFSCME 3299) and clericals (Teamsters 2010) — thousands of workers statewide — are organizing for their bargaining fights. In the Bay Area, this includes UC Berkeley and UC Hastings College of the Law where this author works. In San Francisco alone, union contracts expiring in 2017 cover public school teachers (United Educators of San Francisco), clerical staff at City College and other city and county workers (in SEIU 1021), and Muni bus drivers (Transit Workers Union Local 250-A).

Bay Area workers are disgusted with prohibitive housing costs while corporations get tax breaks. They are fighting for wage increases, an end to contracting-out, and pension protections. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1021 strategy is to “link arms with San Francisco residents, elected leaders, and community allies to amplify our united message of expanding and restoring public services.” Teamsters 2010 is demanding a 25 percent pay increase over five years.

AFSCME 3299 pledges to strike “for as long as it takes.” A main issue is contracting out which it bluntly describes as union busting. With 600,000 fewer public workers overall since the Great Recession, AFSCME is tackling ever-increasing privatization, which creates a dual tier where workers doing the same job are not paid the same. This undermines solidarity in the bargaining unit by pitting workers against each other.

Public workers lead. It is no surprise that the people of color and women working for local governments, school districts and public transit are the most militant. The least paid fight the hardest. And providing services to the poor and disenfranchised creates solidarity with the people they serve.

Public-sector employees make up 49 percent of unionized workers, which is significant because they are only about 16 percent of the total workforce. They are a powerhouse for the labor movement, and therefore critical to halting worsening working conditions, racism and sexism, wages and health benefits, and job insecurity. Organized workers have hard-won rights that prevent their bosses from changing working conditions without negotiating with the union. Unions now represent only 11 percent of the total work force, but they have the power to stop vital production and services. That most definitely scares the ruling class.

The good news is that more rank-and-file unionists are pushing to meet the attacks head on. The bad news? Too often standing in their way are their own labor leaders who prefer to defend the status quo. Last year, for example, national labor honchos were prepared to accept defeat, without a fight, in the Supreme Court case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The lawsuit, based on the ultra-conservative “right-to-work” assault on union membership, threatened the very existence of public employee unions. The Freedom Socialist Party called for organizing a union march on the Supreme Court and got local and state union resolutions passed for that strategy. But national labor leadership ignored this rank-and-file initiative. It was only the death of Justice Scalia that gave unions a temporary reprieve.

Strike! A winning strategy. While pre-bargaining boldness is a positive start, it needs to be backed up by action. As the Friedrichs case showed, public worker unions are in the crosshairs. Labor must fight back. Bay Area unions can be victorious with a plan that puts strikes on the agenda, prepares members for other potential job actions, and brings unions and community activists together in action.

One of the first things unions could do is to pull resources out of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid to work on unions’ survival. Instead of spending millions of dollars and hours on this former Walmart board of directors member, they should invest in a strike fund.

All unions with expiring contracts should strategize together to plan joint actions. If necessary, a general strike should be on the table. Both San Francisco and Oakland share a worthy history of having held the last general strikes in the United States, in 1934.

Unionists need to build community backing for their issues. This includes students, transit riders, parents, faculty, social justice organizations, unorganized workers, radicals, and other unionists. Of special importance is reaching out to people impacted by the job actions. Management always pits public service providers against service recipients to hide the fact that good working conditions mean better service.

The Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012 and the East Coast Verizon strike this spring prove that workers can win. Working people everywhere, in a union or not, are sick to death of being priced out of their homes, retirements, healthcare plans and education while head administrators get top dollar. Organized labor has the power to shut down cities and counties. Now is the time for the union movement to show its might and take the offensive.

Nancy Reiko Kato is an activist in AFSCME 3299 at UC Hastings College of the Law. Send feedback to

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