“Enough is enough!” Bay Area workers go on strike

Striking city workers rally at Oakland City Hall. Photo by Mollie Costello.

Striking city workers rally at Oakland City Hall. Photo by Mollie Costello.

On July 1, the labor movement in the San Francisco Bay Area made its voice heard. SEIU Local 1021 and IFPTE Local 21 conducted a one day strike in Oakland, accusing the city of underestimating its revenue and trying to squeeze more concessions from the workers.

Local 1021 represents some 1,100 full time and some 1,500 part time workers. They work in the City’s public works division, parks and recreation, libraries, after school programs, among other places. Local 21 represents some 800 supervisors and engineers in City Departments.

On the same day, transit workers employed by the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) also went out on strike.  BART workers belong to two unions.  Some 1,433 maintenance workers, mechanics and professional staff are also represented by SEIU Local 1021, and the system’s 945 train operators and ticket agents are represented by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555.

The transit workers were out for four days until the California Secretary of Labor and mediators called for a 30-day extension of the current contract.  Sharp differences remain between BART and its workers.

City Workers fight back against austerity

Speaking at a noon-time rally on July 1, Dwight McElroy, President of the Oakland Chapter of 1021, said the City is not bargaining in good faith and is not offering a meaningful pay and benefit package. He ended his speech with the chant “Enough is enough!” He was referring to the fact that in the past five years his members had made concessions that had reduced their income by 25%.

(Photo by Mollie Costello)

(Photo by Mollie Costello)

Oakland recently passed its budget, which set aside 6 million dollars for wages and benefits for City workers. Although they were willing stop furloughing workers and give them a modest COLA, they wanted the workers to contribute to their pensions and health care costs – despite the concessions made by workers in their last contract. This is part of the neo-liberal austerity attack on the social welfare benefits won through collective bargaining in the past fifty years. Instead of revenue proposals that call for greater taxes from the rich, the approach has been to call for more contributions from the workers. It was a push back against this trend that drove the strike and the slogan “Enough is enough.”

A new round of negotiations have now begun, and the union continues to resist the City’s demands for increased health care and pension contributions.

Community Solidarity: A Key Factor of Support for City Workers

The vast majority of the members of Local 1021 are oppressed nationalities and women. For the past year Elizabeth Alexander, the union’s Political Director, has been working in coalition with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and Oakland Rising (a partnership of NGOs) around issues like foreclosure prevention and the City’s toxic swap deal with Goldman Sachs. In the recently concluded budget process these organizations supported the union’s demands for a COLA and the hiring of civilian complaint takers instead of police officers, who often tried to discourage people from making complaints.

Also active in supporting 1021 in the budget process was the Justice for Alan Blueford Coalition (JAB). JAB had received an earlier endorsement of its demand for the firing of the officer who had shot Alan. In turn, JAB mobilized for City Council meetings and testified in solidarity with the demands of 1021. On the day of the strike, JAB members joined picket lines in solidarity with SEIU at two police offices.

(Photo by Mollie Costello)

(Photo by Mollie Costello)

Oakland and San Francisco, Global Cities on the Bay

For years, both Oakland and San Francisco have been rapidly deindustrializing. More and more, the key workforces in these cities are white collar paper pushers, managers, scientists, programmers, technicians – and low-level service workers who serve their meals, repairs their goods, and clean-up after them. The economy of San Francisco in particular is heavily tied into global capital. San Francisco’s financial district is a key hub for the global currency market foreign, off-shore production flows and networks of outsourced services. And it’s a major base of operations for giant tech companies like Google and Facebook.

Beginning in the 60s, the Port of Oakland developed into a mega-port, especially with the arrival of the computer-driven container ship. Oakland is now a rail and transportation hub receiving and shipping goods inland to the east and out to the Pacific Rim countries. Warehousing, transportation services, health care services and governmental services are also major industries. As the county seat of Alameda County, Oakland is home to several state and federal office complexes. Many of these workers are Black and Brown and women.

Simultaneous to the deindustrialization of Oakland and San Francisco was the movement of (mainly white) residents to the suburbs south of San Francisco or east of Oakland – places like Livermore, Pleasanton and Burlingame. BART became the vehicle to get those mostly white collar and service workers to their jobs in San Francisco and Oakland.

The Response of Capital to the BART Strike

Beginning on the first day of the BART strike, Oakland and San Francisco print and electronic media began a barrage of editorials saying that workers were not being realistic. They claimed that the BART system was facing a 142 million operating shortfall over the next 10 years. The Bay Area Council, the united front business organization of the major capitalist enterprises in the Bay Area, complained that the strike was costing Bay Area companies 73 million dollars daily in lost worker productivity.

But the real damage was mis-information leaked to the media by BART. Saying that BART workers were the best paid workers in the Bay Area, making an average of $73,000 a year. A later post of SEIU 1021 said that the average salary is $63,000 but for a family of four to have a livable wage, in the Bay area, they needed to be taking home about $74,000 a year. On the other hand, the average BART Manager is pulling in close to $400,000 a year!

The “high salaries” of the BART Workers became topics of the day on the local talk radio shows. This mis-information cause some confusion among people who had initially supported the strike. Some people who had participated in Occupy Oakland tried to block shuttle buses transporting riders to the suburbs east of Oakland. BART workers and their community allies resisted that effort, which could have have antagonized potential allies of the strike.

A Community Solidarity Committee has been formed by some of the leadership from the Justice for Alan Blueford Coalition and SEIU to increase community support for City and BART workers. Clearly, one key task will be to beat back the lies about BART workers’ salaries. Community-labor solidarity is not built overnight but it can be done by patient work. And it will be the foundation for both the community and labor to win their righteous demands.

Tim Thomas lives in Oakland. He is a member of the Justice for Alan Blueford Coalition.

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