RETHINKING CALIFORNIA LABOR HISTORY
In the past year, California has declared itself a sanctuary state. It raised the minimum wage and expanded worker protections. It legalized recreational marijuana. Legislators declared they would not permit offshore oil drilling. They proposed making state taxes charitable contributions to keep them deductible with the IRS.
It might seem strange to activists under 40 to think that Los Angeles was the “citadel of the open shop” for almost a century. That the city that elected Rendon and De Leon had as mayor a conservative ally of President Nixon -- Sam Yorty -- and the country’s most active and violent police “red squad.” That Berkeley sent an extreme right-winger into the legislature who headed up California’s own “Un-American Activities Committee.” That the state was ruled by agribusiness with an iron hand, and farm workers who went on strike were beaten and murdered.
Arango credits California’s rebellion to its racial diversity and growing Latino population. There’s no doubt that state Republicans sealed their unpopularity in the days of Gov. Pete Wilson two decades ago. Their campaign for Proposition 187, which would have denied education and hospital care to the undocumented, convinced hundreds of thousands of immigrants to apply for citizenship just to be able to vote against the juggernaut.
But there’s another good reason for the state’s current politics: unions.
California has 2.55 million union members, more than any other state, But there’s another good reason for the state’s current politics: unions. The state’s labor movement has been able to translate its membership into a solid voting base, which has made these political changes possible.
The high proportion of immigrants who come to this land to work ensures that a sizeable number will bring along familiarity with, and often sympathies for, the goals of organized labor. In some cases, that will include histories of union involvement ... young workers of color, including a high proportion of immigrants, are the future face of the workforce and the electorate. Because the labor movement has understood this fact and designed its efforts around it, California’s unionization rate remains at 16 percent while the national average is 11 percent.”
From Missions to Microchip doesn’t just cover events, it describes the politics and political organizations of labor’s activists and organizers, especially on the left. Communists organized the great strikes in the fields. Los Angeles’s garment workers were organized by Socialists.
With a history so filled with contention and debate, strikes and their violent repression, and conflict over racism and left-wing politics, it might be counterintuitive to think that California’s labor movement would emerge strong and progressive. Yet this is what happened. From Mission to Microchip tells the story. Perhaps the lesson here is that left-wing politics, debate and class conflict are not harmful to workers and unions, but in fact the very things that help them find direction and organize.
That is a lesson that deserves to be in the classrooms where the children of working-class families lay claim to their own history.
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