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City Budget Opinion Short Changes Workers

Friday October 17, 2003

Usually when folks speak of being strong supporters of labor I discern an echo of the mantras “I’m a uniter, not a divider,” and “fair and balanced reporting.” With supporters like that, who needs enemies? The Berkeley Budget Oversight Committee’s analysis, though expansive, is shallow and misleading. Several of the statements are factually inaccurate or thinly veiled attacks on labor, charities, and the less privileged.  

Follow the bouncing ball as I try to make sense of the Oct. 14 letter from the BBOC. It’s the same pattern as the call for war on Iraq: First, scare the audience with the specter of an imminent disaster; next, try to convince the audience there is specific proof even though the evidence is dubious or inadequate; divide the audience between those reasonable would-be victims that agree with your story, and those dead-enders who are evil; then tell the audience there is only one tough but necessary solution; finally, prepare an excuse for any disappointing aftermath by pointing out the lack of perfect knowledge. 

Many of Berkeley’s public service workers, like myself, used to, but no longer live within the city limits only because we cannot afford to buy a home here on the salaries we make. We economic refugees live in Oakland, Emeryville, and beyond only because we can’t afford to live in Berkeley. However, we do buy cars, food, clothing, entertainment, gardening and building materials in Berkeley, just like residents. 

Homeowners should disbelieve the contention that Berkeley’s taxes are too high when compared to Hayward, Emeryville, and Oakland; the truth is you get what you pay for. San Francisco living does not bear the same cachet as life in Daly City. Like San Francisco, Berkeley is beautiful. It has clean streets, good public schools, art and music, restaurants, well-maintained parks and waterfronts that the other towns can’t hold a candle to. The handicapped and seniors seem to live better in Berkeley than in neighboring towns. When out-of-state friends visit me, they notice that violent crime and social desperation are less prevalent on the north side of Alcatraz Avenue. They wander around Berkeley for hours yet never seem to yearn for a stroll down A Street. Sure, you could live in a city where taxes are lower, but expect that your quality of life will be lower too. I’d gladly pay more taxes to have my sow’s ear more resemble a silk purse. 

Labor costs are repeatedly cited as a problem, while misleadingly omitting the fact that labor is what delivers services. Inevitably, some of the deliverers get hurt doing their jobs. It might save the city a lot of money if the injured simply evaporated when hurt, but long ago the state decided that it might not be so bad to help them live to work again. While again scapegoating labor, and downplaying the effect of Prop.13, Enron, and W., the writer fails to mention that Berkeley’s labor force does not determine workers compensation law. State law is made in Sacramento, not on Milvia Street, and it is a little disingenuous to repeatedly lump in tales of workers’ compensation abuses and expense with disgruntlement about fairly negotiated wages that remain lower than those of other jurisdictions. 

They write about “overcompensated city employees,” but I’ll be damned if the letter names one, or specifically states the manner or amount of overcompensation. Is it the meter maid who gets spat on and crushed by cars? Maybe they meant the sewer maintenance guy who risks infections from hepatitis as he toils in the wet, cold, dark streets. The mental health worker who tries to calm the Telegraph Avenue denizen who has had too much of a bad thing could be one of the overcompensated, but probably not as likely as the animal control officer with the abandoned pit bull snapping at her leg. In fact, if you follow the pointed finger, you’ll only find a scapegoat being targeted. Perhaps, like weapons of mass destruction, merely stating the existence of the thing is proof enough. 

Though the “prior labor contracts” may have caused envy among ex-mayoral aides, wiser brothers and sisters may recall that Berkeley city workers were paid less than the workers in other jurisdictions. Unlike the closeted regressives, labor union members actively support fairness for all workers. It is our desire that all workers and non-workers enjoy a good living standard, regardless of their skills or education. The so-called envious workers are actually fine, but struggling people—due to lack of experience, marketable skills, social status, or a decent break—are relegated to low paying jobs with few fringe benefits. They all know the truth we workers share: Achieving an unimaginable dream begins at schools that prepare people for higher paying occupations, though even that is not always enough. The BBOC solution seems to be to reduce the standard of living so that no worker is envious. It sure worked during slavery. We workers generally welcome change in the economic relationships long established outside of Berkeley’s city limits, but inciting dissension within the workers’ ranks will not make the erroneous analysis any truer. In true regressive form, the BBOC solution includes hiring a new expert audit team that would receive a cut of the money fund (maybe they deem the existing audit team is among the “overcompensated.”)  

Lastly, we are threatened with what? Recall? Revolution? Arnold? The serious budget problems deserve better analysis and more thoughtful, comprehensive solutions than the knee jerk reaction proffered by the BBOC.  

Patrick McCullough is an employee of the City of Berkeley and an Oakland resident.