California, Labor and the Coming Fights

Sacramento Central Labor Council leader lays out a path forward

By Dorothy Mills-Gregg

Unions across the country are facing attack under the incoming presidential administration, but California and Sacramento in particular remain places that protect and fight for working families. Locally, the head of those efforts is Fabrizio Sasso, the executive director of the Sacramento Central Labor Council. Under Sasso’s leadership, the Council has been at the forefront of regional efforts to improve the economy, raise wages, build alliances and elect local leaders who will fight for the values of Labor.

Sasso sat for an interview with the Union Labor Bulletin on Dec. 16 to discuss where Labor needs to focus, in Sacramento and across the country, to protect workers in coming years.

He discussed the impact that eliminating fair-share fees and prevailing wage would have on the economy. He also talked about so-called right to work efforts to bust unions and how that messaging misled voters in the election.

Meanwhile, California is still going through a Labor renaissance, and Sasso highlights the need to keep the state on track.

Union Labor Bulletin: Before we get into how we got here, exactly where is “here?” What is the current state of where we are?

Fabrizio Sasso: We’re in a mode of getting ourselves prepared for what might be coming down the pipeline. So Labor’s had to evaluate how we’re doing things, how effective we are.

And I think for the most part, in California, we’re doing very well. This year’s been a phenomenal year for Labor. Up until the election, we were calling it the Labor renaissance in California. And then the election happened, and it was like we’re sliding down the slide and hit the cheese grater at the end.

So, what we do know is that the selections that Donald Trump has made are not a good sign that he’ll have any kind of Labor-friendly administration.

I think a lot of us woke up the day after the election punch-drunk with what had happened. But right now what we’re doing at this moment is looking at the programs we have operated and have run – what’s their effectiveness. And how we can better communicate with our members through a more cohesive message and strategy that are more inclusive of all the unions that are affiliated with the CLC.

Our allies and our unions are all going to work on this together.

Just like on a job site, where you’re afraid to stand up to your boss by yourself. But when you do it as a group, you have a lot more power and you feel comforted that your brothers and sisters on the job site are going to stand with you.

ULB: So what are you bracing for?

FS: There’s going to be an attack within every sector of the work force.

We’ll take the public sector first. There was the Friedrichs case of last year and I think there are 27 other cases coming through to the Supreme Court. When Scalia died, we thought that was the end of Friedrichs and the fair share fee issue.

Then Trump won. What do we do now? Because that Supreme Court’s going to be changed for a couple generations.

We’re expecting some of those circuit court cases to eventually make their way to the Supreme Court, and we could see fair share fees go away for public sector unions.

We can assume that a lot of people would opt out of paying for fair share fees if they were eliminated. That would weaken the union and drive down wages, benefits, pensions – things that we think help keep the economy working. It would be a very devastating thing not just for families, but also for the economy as a whole.

National right to work is another threat. We think that’s something that Congress will probably do early on. We’re trying to figure out ways to push back legislatively in California. That would have a devastating effect on just about every union.

We could see the elimination of prevailing wage. We have a lot of folks who make well, well above prevailing wage; that’s because they’re skilled craftsmen. They wouldn’t be able to compete with cheaper Labor.

A move towards charter schools and vouchers threatens education.

Now we have an education secretary who is pro-voucher and pro-charter. And that’s really meant to bust unions. It’s as simple as that. Charter schools are meant to bust unions. Independent charter schools are meant to press the reset button on a contract and not even allow teachers to unionize, which is terrible.

ULB: Could you expand on the impact of right to work? How would that impact unions?

FS: Have you seen the Labor movement in Wisconsin?

Wisconsin was one of the areas in the United States where the Labor movement began. Wisconsin and Michigan. And when Wisconsin became right to work, there was a massive decline in union membership, and that economy’s been suffering ever since.

And the right has done a really good job of messaging a false message of “trickle down” economics and unions are bad for you. Then, they point the blame back to working people.

Saying, “It’s your fault that you’re like that. It’s your union’s fault.”

And, a lot of people don’t realize that you are the union. Without you, there is no union.

They have done a tremendous job messaging this, going further back than my lifetime. It’s been a long-term plan of theirs to kind of undermine these democratic systems that had been working for middle-class folks and those working for a living. They’ve turned it around to consolidate power into large corporations, or the very wealthy, and now we see the effects of it all.

We’ve seen a decline in overall wealth for middle-class Americans, wages have been stagnant for a long, long time, and income inequality is at an all-time high. And that parallels the decline of membership in unions.

People are listening to this message, and then they become indoctrinated with this message. And somehow, eventually, because they’re not hearing an alternate message, one that’s consistent and as loud as the message they are receiving, they are conditioned to automatically assume that this is the truth. And that’s why we have seen such a decline in union membership.

ULB: So then how, talking about all that history, how would you say that impacted the results on this election?

FS: You’re being hit with a barrage of “government is bad. It’s not working. The reason why your life sucks is because of government. Because we can’t do things right anymore. We can’t win.”

You’re not pointing the blame to the right source.

And people believe that Democrats aren’t going to stand for working people.

Then Trump comes in and says, “Yes, everything’s terrible. And, I’m going to fix it. Our economy’s bad. I’m a businessman. I know how to make money. I’ll save your jobs. I promise you I’ll save your jobs.”

Well, when people are left hopeless, and someone’s telling them I’m going to help you out, yeah, of course you’ll believe them. Who else can you turn to?

A lot of them don’t know the real causes of their situation. They don’t understand that not having a union at their work place causes them to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. They don’t try to unionize because they’ve been indoctrinated since their childhood that unions are bad; you should just work harder, and government’s doing this to you.

If you don’t have time to really understand these things or you’re not exposed to the problems’ causes, you think this is just the natural state of things. So, you blame what you’ve been told to blame.

The point is that the right has done an effective job messing with people’s heads, and we just haven’t done an effective job counter-messaging them.

ULB: You mentioned before this election, you felt that you were going through a “Labor renaissance.” What was that?

FS: California’s a different animal all together, right? We’re doing things right in California.

Look at some of the victories in the past couple years and what we were able to accomplish as Labor in California. We’ve got the best work place protection in the country, the highest minimum wage in the country. We have more rights for workers, the ability to collectively bargain. We have better pension systems, better healthcare. All of these things that have helped working people and people who are low-income. All these things happened because Labor was there to do it.

Covered California happened because of California Labor and our partners throughout the state. Minimum wage happened because of Labor. Overtime for farm workers happened because of Labor. So we are setting the standard for the rest of the nation.

California Labor has done such a great job in elections in California. We have a Labor-friendly legislature. We have a friendly governor in California. We knew our friend would win in the senate, Kamala Harris. We’ve got a lot of Labor-friendly Congressional leaders in California. We were able to pass Proposition 55 on extending the income tax on higher-income earners.

We were able to hold off any attacks against Labor, whether it’s with pensions or halting infrastructure projects like Proposition 53. We have it down here, and we can show other states how to be stronger, how to mobilize people.

So California’s making other states stronger and we lead by example by the things that we do here. This year was a great year with $15 minimum wage, which our union Labor council was right at the center of it all.

What I love about our Labor council is that we’re in Sacramento and our activists know not just city hall and county governments, but they also know how to work that building. And, you don’t get that in other councils. We’ve got hard-core, badass activists.

Because we like a good fight and we show up, I think we’ve been instrumental in moving a lot of this agenda forward. We’re always there. As a progressive council, we’ve shown the area, the region, the state that we can play an important role and they can too.

California Labor has done a phenomenal job making sure that we’re fighting for the right things, that we’re doing good things, and we’re showing people the way.

So the Labor renaissance, that was a real thing. And I think it still is – in California. We’re just shifting strategies.

ULB: In the idea of shifting strategies, moving forward to the elections in two years, you have the Congressional elections, local elections within Sacramento, then you have the governor’s race. What are your plans for that?

FS: I think we’ve got some very interesting races ahead of us. With the governor’s race, we’ve got a few declared candidates who have relationships with Labor in one way or another. I think it makes it a tough choice when you have good choices and you know they’re all good candidates. It’ll be a fight, but a fight over which one is the better. A fight over the better of two goods instead of the lesser of two evils.

Congressional races are going to be determined by how much the Trump Administration’s plans for this country are carried by our Congressional leaders. There are concerns up and down the valley, particularly around the Affordable Care Act. It’s a very economically depressed area so these folks will have to be ready to hold their Congress members accountable.

There’s a very real threat to democracy at the local level, and Labor is going to be there to ensure democratic systems work for all people and not just the powerful. So locally, we see some threats, like the at-large voting system in Elk Grove, West Sacramento, Citrus Heights and Rancho Cordova.

These are systems that disfranchise a lot of people. So we’ll mobilize, knock on doors and ask people what they think of the system and if they feel they are being represented.

We lobby. We picket. We strike. We are very good at just being organized. And that is the key to all of this. We’re constantly organizing. We’re raising people’s voices, empowering our members, empowering the community, empowering our allies. Working together, fighting the good fight and pushing back on these threats.

None of this happens if nobody cares. You know what happens when people stop caring? Trump happens.

Put on your shoes, let’s go outside. I’ve got some picket signs and a bullhorn. And trust me, people are scared of you when you do that.

ULB: What do you think people should do? What should they do if they’re afraid?

FS: Go back to your union and say, “I’m ready to fight. What’s the plan?”

If they don’t have a plan, make the plan up yourself, and they can always call me and we’ll all fight together.

If they’re afraid, they have to be ready to fight. It’s organize or die. If our unions die, our economy collapses.

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