The recent five-day tactical strike called by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) against the University of California is yet another example of the difficult road facing organized labor, particularly those unions who represent low-end or unskilled workers.
Before resorting to their symbolic walkout (which began on July 14 and ended one minute after midnight, on July 19), the 8,500 members of AFSCME’s Local 3299 had given their UC bosses ample opportunity to settle. In fact, the local had been working without a contract for almost a year. According to Local 3299 president LaKesha Harrison, although negotiations had continued, sporadically, for several months, little progress had been made.
It should be noted that AFSCME isn’t one of your traditional, fiery-eyed, militant labor unions (such as the ILWU or Hoffa’s Teamsters). This membership clearly wasn’t looking to strike. Indeed, the decision to hit the bricks had been postponed for months and was made, finally, out of a sense of desperation, when negotiations between the parties appeared hopelessly deadlocked.
It should also be noted that AFSCME wages are so shriekingly low, nearly three-quarters of the membership qualifies for food stamps or other government assistance. Think about that: Nearly three-fourths of these union families fall below the federal poverty line. Still, the AFSCME folks made it clear that they weren’t going after a gold-plated contract; rather, what they were seeking was a decent and equitable one—one that would take full-time workers off welfare.
To no one’s surprise, the UC regents didn’t see it that way. While college administrators have no problem justifying their $400,000 a year salaries, they can’t bring themselves to pay their own employees a wage adequate to keeping them off federal poverty rolls. As of this writing, with Local 3299 members having been back on their jobs for a month, there still has been no agreement on a new contract.
But this UC labor dispute has raised some larger questions, many of which don’t have easy answers. It’s been suggested, for example, that UC’s refusal to pay their low-end employees a living wage is more a sociological phenomenon than an economic one, that the impasse is, in fact, rooted in social hierarchy rather than simple dollars and cents.
Of course, because “class warfare” is so toxic a subject, any claim that hourly workers are being systematically exploited by corporate interests—particularly when those hourly workers are predominantly minorities and when those corporate interests are represented by a renowned and liberal institution of higher learning—is going to be met with denials, no matter how powerful the claim’s gravitational pull.
In 1970 a group of sociologists conducted an experiment that endeavored to gauge people’s general attitude toward social “class.” The experimenters set up two cars—a shiny new Cadillac, and a beat-up old Ford station wagon—at a traffic intersection. The drivers of both cars were instructed not to move when the light changed to green, but to wait for the car behind them to honk their horn.
They then timed how long it took for the motorist behind each vehicle to begin honking. The results were revealing. The experimenters found that the overwhelming majority of motorists began honking at the “poor” car almost immediately. By contrast, these same motorists waited, on average, more than twice as long before honking at the “rich” car.
So what did this prove? Admittedly, because the experiment was done pseudo-scientifically, it didn’t really prove anything. But if we wanted to extrapolate, we could say that it exposed people’s deep-seated contempt for those of lesser economic means and, by extension, those belonging to a “lower class.”
Instead of cutting the guy in the beat-up car a little slack, the drivers did the exact opposite. By honking their horns they engaged in the automotive equivalent of scolding, of chastising another driver, and, significantly, they did it far quicker to the “poor” person than to the “rich” one, thereby revealing a sense of class superiority.
Would it be too reckless to suggest that what was displayed in the traffic experiment is the same impulse underlying the public’s disdain for groups like janitors, housekeepers, nursing assistants and sanitation workers when they seek higher wages?
When people see striking janitors, who earn $9.50 per hour, marching in front of an office building, carrying placards and demanding $11 per hour, they don’t automatically root for these workers. Alas, rooting for the underdog isn’t an instinct; it’s an acquired trait. And for people who haven’t acquired it, the public spectacle of unskilled workers demanding pay raises is going to be annoying or disturbing. (Incidentally, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, at the higher rate of $11 per hour, computes to $22,880 annually.)
Yet, confoundingly, when these same people read about hedge fund managers making, literally, hundreds of millions of dollars in a single year through the exotic manipulation of currency, they don’t so much as bat an eye. While people are willing to give every consideration to an investment banker whose job they don’t fully grasp, they become harshly judgmental when it comes to people who work for a living—and who do something they can actually understand, such as mop office floors.
The reason the University of California won’t offer a higher wage to these AFSCME members isn’t because the UC system can’t afford it. The reason they won’t offer a higher wage is because they don’t believe these workers and their families deserve it. Put another way, in the view of the University of California these workers and their families deserve to remain poor. And if that ain’t class warfare, what is it?
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This commentary originally ran in Counterpunch.