Calbuzz Dustbin of History: DiFi’s First Labor Squeeze
Hunger-striking union protesters unhappy with Senator Dianne Feinstein’s lack of support for labor’s top priority bill in Congress picketed her San Francisco office this week — while Chamber of Commerce lobbyists insisted to her in Washington there can “no compromise” on the legislation.
For those who watched her formative political years, Feinstein’s stance, squarely in the middle of the controversy over labor’s bid to make it easier for workers to join unions and get contracts through the Employee Free Choice Act, is a familiar one. As a city politician in 1970s San Francisco, an era of constant and sometimes violent labor strife, DiFi repeatedly tried, without much success, to thread the needle between what Marx called “the fundamental contradiction” between workers and bosses.
Today the Calbuzz Dustbin of History sweeps us back to 1974, when DiFi was president of the Board of Supervisors and positioning herself to run what would become her second (failed) campaign for mayor the next year.
One of the year’s biggest local stories (along with the racially motivated “Zebra murders” and the kidnap of Patricia Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army) was a strike by city workers represented by the Service Employees International Union, whose members had received tiny or no pay increases in a new contract passed by the board. Aided by thousands of sympathetic transit union workers, the SEIU strike kept San Francisco in turmoil for nine days, snarling traffic, stranding commuters, closing hospitals and resulting in raw sewage being dumped in the Bay.
DiFi and her supervisorial colleagues caved in and came up with $4.5 million in new compensation and benefits for SEIU to settle the strike, but it fueled a backlash among homeowners outraged over skyrocketing property tax bills (anger that soon enough would be channeled into passage of Proposition 13).
Trying to tap into the anti-tax, anti-labor mood in preparation for her mayoral bid, without totally alienating the political potent unions, Feinstein put on the ballot a measure called Proposition L, to bypass contract negotiations by pegging public employee salaries to other large cities and counties, but also reserving the city’s right to award sweetheart fringe benefits.
The unions denounced Prop. L as a union-busting tool, while conservative pols (there were some in S.F. then) and homeowner groups opposed it as more the same, over-generous City Hall giveaways gussied up as reform.
Presaging last week’s protest at her office, SEIU at one point organized a “female only picket line” in front of Feinstein’s Pacific Heights home, bashing her both for Prop. L and for crossing a picket line at SF General Hospital during the strike. Maxine Jenkins, a powerful local union leader of the time, got to the heart of the problem labor often had Difi:
“While Dianne casts herself as the representative for women’s issues…and rides on the back of the women’s movement, she is unworthy of support from women, as she works against the basic survival needs of the city’s poorest working women and represents instead wealthy members of the Chamber of Commerce. The lowest paid city workers are women…Contrary to popular belief, women do not work for pin money or luxuries for themselves and their families.”
On election day, Prop. L went down to defeat, beaten by the strange bedfellow alliance of labor and anti-tax voters. That foreshadowed what would happen to her campaign for the mayor next year, when she finished third, squeezed between a liberal and a conservative in the middle of the road (where Jim Hightower famously said the only thing you find are “yellow stripes and dead armadillos”).
In the current EFCA fight, Feinstein is the only California Democratic member of Congress to not support the bill; at the same time, she has rejected the Chamber of Commerce push to oppose any such legislation.
“I am working to find common ground between the needs of both business and labor in order to reach a bipartisan solution,” she said this week, in a prepared statement released by her office.
The more things change…
DiFi has always been too MOR for this state, on too many issues. In this case, she is also naive if she thinks there is a compromise that will give even “half a loaf” to both sides. There can be no denying that federal labor law is broken and employers regularly take advantage of that when resisting union campaigns and collective bargaining negotiations. Simply put, the cost and consequences of violating the law are just not substantial enough to make it worthwhile for employers who don’t care about workers’ rights to comply. That is the reality, and has to be the analytical starting point, which of course, the Cs of C of the world will deny forever. Until DiFi gets over the idea of (dis)pleasing everyone and realizes there is a right and a wrong on this, she will continue to be pressured. It would be fitting and just for labor to mount a campaign to knock her out of the box, and take Arlen Specter with her!