Will Legislators Choose California’s Past or Its Future?

Lee Carey
Press operator at the Los Angeles Times

This week, legislators in Sacramento decide whether to cast a vote for California’s past or its future.

Labor unions inserted a provision into a cap-and-trade bill (AB134/SB119) designed to smooth a unionization effort against the automaker Tesla. As a unionized California employee of a dying industry–printing the paper edition of the Los Angeles Times–I can say with confidence that this would be bad for the state’s workforce.

For readers who are browsing this article online, the demise of a newspaper’s print edition should come as no surprise.  I’m one of 75 original pressmen at the Times printing plant; there were over 1,000 pressmen employed across three printing plants when I started working at the paper in 1981. Our shrinking base of print subscribers over that time period led to a reduction of advertising revenue and workplace opportunities. We have gone from three printing facilities to one in my time here, and we are being asked to do more with fewer press operators.

When my colleagues and I were first approached by the Teamsters union, a little over a decade ago, the workplace was receptive to its pitch. But I was skeptical of the union’s ability to deliver on its promises. I remember well the 1991 closure of the General Motors plant in Van Nuys, where over 2,000 employees lost their jobs. Rather than saving the workforce, the union–in that case, the United Auto Workers (UAW)–contributed to its demise with rigid work rules that raised the cost of production.

A decade before that, the same union’s demands forced the same company to close it plant in Fremont; some years later, its demands helped close the plant again after a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors called NUMMI.

Not everyone has this institutional memory, and in my workplace enough people believed the union’s promises about workplace improvements. It won an election in 2007 by just six votes. Within a few months, my colleagues had buyer’s remorse. After promising us the moon, the union couldn’t even deliver an increase in pay and benefits.

I’ve been working ever since to decertify the union and remove it from the workplace. The union has spent enormous sums of money and done everything in its power to make that virtually impossible–even though it has lost support from much of the workplace.

I’ve never considered myself anti-union. If a union is doing its job–indeed, if my union was doing its job–I’d happily pay dues to voluntarily support its work. But our current labor law helps protect ineffective unions from accountability, and gives employees like myself little recourse other than to shut up and pay up.

My story should stand as a cautionary tale to other California employees who are considering whether to bring a union into the workplace. It’s also a warning to state legislators who are considering whether to do new favors for a union that’s failed twice in Fremont. In remarks recently at the Commonwealth Club of California, Senator Dianne Feinstein acknowledged that “some of our state laws…keep companies out—I’ll just be blunt about that.”

Legislators can’t profess to value middle-class jobs while enabling a labor environment that pushes them out of the state.

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