By Stan Santos
(Editor’s note: This month, the Community Alliance newspaper welcomes our union brothers and sisters and begins carrying a regular labor column written by local union members, focusing on local labor issues and how local unions are benefiting the city, county and region. The progressive victory over Measure G in 2013 was brought about by a strong coalition of community groups, conservation organizations and labor unions. As a result of this historic victory, these groups have discovered that if they focus on the 80% of issues on which they agree, they can win elections and improve conditions for the 99%. Stan Santos of the Communication Workers of America and the Central Labor Council is our first “My Union Works” writer.)
Fresno is home to an organization that is unique to this community in its scale and reach. It is a body comprised of more than 50 separate affiliates, each with its own membership, structure and governance. It represents the needs and aspirations of more than 90,000 working persons and their families across four Central Valley counties. As such, it has immense potential, both human and economic and the ability to mobilize its resources around various issues facing the community. This organization is the Fresno, Madera, Tulare and Kings Central Labor Council (FMTK CLC).
What Is the History of the Labor Movement in Fresno?
The Fresno “labor movement” gained national attention with Cesar Chavez and the formation of the United Farm Workers in 1962. What is little known is the fact that between October 1910 and March 1911, Fresno was the focus of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or the Wobblies. Their fight to organize the huge unskilled labor force under IWW Local 66 had a militant base of farm laborers and railroad workers including many Mexican Americans. They were attacked by the Fresno establishment with ordinances banning street speeches and the refusal to rent meeting halls for gatherings.
This was the first attempt to organize the Valley’s unskilled workers but soon became the first fight for free speech in California. In the face of widening support for the Wobblies, the ordinances were revoked and the IWW organizing campaign was allowed to continue. A memorial marker is located in a planter, 100 feet southwest of the Clock Tower on the historic Fulton Mall. It is unclear the outcome of this effort; however, Frank Little, the IWW organizer who led this fight, was later lynched in Montana while organizing a miners’ union and strike.
In July 1974, almost 350 blue-collar members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees launched a strike against the City of Fresno. The employees included water and sewage plant workers, shop and park maintenance, and most prominent among them, the GMen (garbage collectors). Photos in the Fresno Bee show the images of African Americans, Mexican and White workers determined to defend their jobs with sticks and their bodies. Some picket signs evoked Martin Luther King and the striking Memphis garbage collectors with their affirmation, “I am a man!” On July 8, 1974, the first municipal labor action in the history of the City of Fresno ended, and the strikers returned to work with major concessions, including at least 10.7% increases in all categories, with some gaining up to 16.5%.
In 2012, labor and community activists gained voter approval for Prop 30, which placed tax hikes on the wealthy in order to fund education. By a similar margin, they also fought back Prop 32, which would have crippled the ability of unions to collect dues and engage in political campaigns.
In 2013, a determined coalition of labor and community activists beat back the attempt on the part of the Fresno mayor and the conservative majority of the City Council to privatize solid waste collection under Measure G. Recently, while fast-food workers in 50 cities struck to gain better wages, Fresno activists supported Walmart workers’ right to gain dignity in the workplace.
Fresno’s CLC Carries the Banner
Today, the FMTK CLC continues to carry the banner of labor under increasingly difficult conditions. Labor is under attack by establishment politicians, Chambers of Commerce, the courts and media conglomerates. The Citizens United decision has granted corporations the right to use their overwhelming resources in media campaigns and legislative initiatives meant to undermine the victories of past years.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that union membership was down in 2012 to 11.2% from 11.8% in 2011. More notable is the fact that in 1983, the first year data was available, union membership was 20.1% with 17.7 million union workers; in 2012, the number was 14.4 million. In California, fewer than one in five workers statewide was represented by a union.
However, most of the reported negative ratings are among Whites and older voters. Labor unions continue to gain support among voters under 30 and Latinos in a state where these demographics will provide key victories. And the work of the FMTK CLC moves forward, deepening the collaboration with environmental and community groups around issues such as high-speed rail and candidates that reflect common interests.
Why Is the CLC Important to the Progressive Community?
The living conditions and hopes for a better life for poor and working-class communities in the United States rise and fall with the strength of organized labor. In recent years, it has been discovered that the largest corporations pay their CEOs 400‒1,000 times what the average worker is paid. That applies to organized and unorganized shops, although at corporations such as Walmart and McDonald’s the gap is many times worse. And this gap has increased with the decline in influence of labor unions.
Historically, labor unions have fought and won key battles for minimum wages, health and safety standards and benefits for working people across the board. The rising tide of organized labor does lift all boats, as industries must pay competitive wages and benefits in order to attract workers. Labor has also been a staunch ally to the unemployed in opposing NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), CAFTA (U.S.-Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement) and now the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which have drained the United States of jobs and exports.
At each turn, corporations have used their campaign donations to determine the outcome of votes for free trade, banking and cutbacks in social benefit programs. This has also made unions the target of activist court rulings such as Citizens United, right-to-work laws (translated as right to withhold dues) and yearly referendums meant to confuse the public with names such as “Paycheck Protection.”
Organized labor can act with one voice and marshal resources with a multiplier effect. Coupled with grassroots organizing efforts, labor and progressive movements can achieve huge victories. Today, there is a heightened awareness of this critical moment in history. With its challenges and opportunities, this may provide the turning point in the struggle for economic and social justice in the Central Valley and the Golden State.
For more information on the FMTK CLC, visit myunionworks.com.
Stan Santos is an activist in the labor and immigrant community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.