BART strife, N.Y. mayor's race speak to unease
San Francisco Chronicle, October 29, 2013
By Harley Shaiken
Hyper-inequality is both squeezing Americans out of the middle class and sparking a backlash from "California to the New York island," as Woody Guthrie might say.
Now anger and apprehension about the future of the middle class are turning to visible action on both coasts and places in between, from the New York mayoral race to the BART union negotiations. While many Americans initially blamed themselves for their problems - a familiar approach in tough times of "blaming the victim" - more people are seeking to change a dismal reality that isn't working for them.
Bill de Blasio, New York City's public advocate, recognized what the big squeeze was doing to New Yorkers when he decided to run for mayor a year ago. In fact, he made fighting inequality the center of his vision and the core of his platform, pointing out that "nearly 400,000 millionaires call New York home, while nearly half of our neighbors live at or near the poverty line."
He emphasized that "we cannot resign ourselves to the mind-set that says rising inequality is a necessary byproduct of urban success." Instead, he maintained "we all benefit when the middle class is growing" and he credited unions as essential to create the path to the middle class for working Americans. De Blasio calls his program One New York, Rising Together, and it has propelled him from an also-ran candidate a year ago to a commanding lead as the Democratic nominee in the final stretch of the mayoral race today.
Closer to home, the cratering of the middle class was a key issue at the quadrennial AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles in September. "The people I talk to don't say, 'I'm middle class' so much anymore," President Richard Trumka said in his keynote talk. "They say, 'Middle class? That's what my parents were.' "
In California, the percentage of middle-income families has slid to near-record lows during this recovery, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
"What makes somebody middle class in America?" Trumka continued. "A good job - a job that pays a living wage, with health care and retirement security, a safe job, a job that leads somewhere. It's that simple."
And, in the Bay Area, the future of the middle class was at the core of the turbulent, at times traumatic, BART negotiations. While BART management was focused on billions of dollars needed for future capital improvements, workers and unions wanted to ensure they remain part of the middle class.
Many angry commuters blame BART workers for two four-day strikes and considerable apprehension in between. The context, however, is critical. While BART workers kept an antiquated transit system running and contributed to a current operating profit, they have not had a raise in five years. Sliding out of the middle class was a fear that ran through the negotiations and, ironically, also is a deep concern of upset Bay Area residents.
In previous decades, when unions won gains, even non-union workers cheered. Why? Because raising the bar here would set the standard for everyone. Today, the response often is "If I don't have it, why should they?" If BART workers had gotten less, it doesn't mean others would get more. In fact, they might well wind up with even less themselves.
The challenge is to extend decent jobs - in the Bay Area and nationally - not throttle them. That's the key to decent jobs, a vibrant middle class and a healthy economy.
Harley Shaiken is a professor at UC Berkeley who specializes in labor issues.