In summary

Workers are fed up and feeling empowered because of widespread dissatisfaction with working conditions.

Get California news in your inbox, for free.

By David Huerta, Special to CalMatters

David Huerta is president of Service Employees International Union, United Service Workers West.

Most Californians understand that the economy is not working for them.

A recent statewide survey revealed disturbing pessimism about the state of things. Nearly two-thirds of us believe that children growing up today will be worse off financially than their parents. More than two-thirds believe the gap between rich and poor is growing wider.

While there is not a lot of hope among many, there is this: 78% believe it is important for workers to organize so that their employers don’t take advantage of them.

We are seeing that on an ad hoc basis in a phenomenon some are calling the “great resignation.” A record number of workers quit their jobs in 2021, spawning a worker-driven labor shortage.

Job levels have not returned to pre-pandemic levels not because there is a shortage of low-wage jobs, but because of widespread dissatisfaction with the conditions that come with those jobs. Workers are fed up and feeling empowered.

We are seeing it also on an organized basis in a surge of work-stoppages that has been termed by some “Striketober” and “Strikesgiving.” From John Deere to Kellogg’s and beyond, workers are asserting their interests in a way not seen for decades. 

Here in California, fast food workers are rallying to end unsafe working conditions and pushing for higher wages during the “Fight for 15” campaign, which includes advocating for passage of Assembly Bill 257, dubbed the “FAST Act,” which would require franchise owners to meet industry standards on working conditions, wages and working hours.

Also this year, more than 20,000 janitors across the state in my union fought for and ratified a new contract. It provides many with a fully-paid, family health care plan, a $20 per hour minimum wage and employer contributions to a pension plan that will provide them with the retirement security they deserve. This puts their compensation far above what a comparable non-union janitor earns in California. 

Americans are taking note of worker progress. The Gallup organization, which has since 1936 periodically polled Americans on how they rate labor unions, found in September that support for unions is now at its highest point since 1965. Support is particularly high among young adults and those with annual household incomes below $40,000.

Seeing all this, those who are satisfied with the status quo are beginning to push back, asserting that organized workers somehow have too much political influence.

But if you’ve watched what’s happened in Washington, D.C., or even Sacramento this year, you know that the evidence is otherwise. It wasn’t labor lobbying that scuttled attempts to lower prescription drug costs by allowing Medicare to negotiate prices, and it wasn’t labor that blocked paid family and medical leave for workers, and it hasn’t been labor that has kept billionaires and big corporations from paying their fair share of taxes. Corporate lobbying did all that.

Working people united in unions have, however, played a significant role in advocating for actions that have helped families weather the COVID-19 crisis – stimulus checks, increased support for child care, supplemental unemployment benefits, a federal eviction moratorium and more.

There have been periods in our history when dissatisfied workers have successfully pushed for change. There were periods, such as after the World Wars or coming out of the Great Depression, when working people made great contributions to society and then insisted that they be rewarded.

For the essential workers – Black, Latinx, Asian, white – whose sacrifices made it possible for us to get through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is another such time.

To move our economy forward so that it works for all of us, workers need a stronger voice, not a muffled voice.

It will take collective resolve to bend the arc of inequality, to close the gap between rich and poor, to re-create a thriving, racially inclusive middle class that can again have faith that children will fare better than their parents.

That’s the union agenda. Californians are on board.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions: commentary@calmatters.org