Lawmaker Asks Unions, What Happened to the Middle Class

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Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal

Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal and local labor leaders talk declining wages, shortage of jobs.

As the Occupy Movement continued to spread, Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal huddled with labor leaders Friday to discuss living wages, the decline of the middle class and the role of union representation in delivering good-paying jobs.

They gathered in the Port of Long Beach Administration Building for a hearing of the Select Committee on Ports, which Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, chairs.

“There used to be a lot of union jobs in Long Beach,” said Lowenthal. “Those jobs are what built the middle class. I want to know what’s in the way of bringing back middle-class jobs now.” 

The hearing did not follow the standard legislative practice of calling witnesses to deliver testimony. Instead, Lowenthal asked all the leaders to join in a free-wheeling, round-table discussion.

The leaders, representing laborers, longshoremen, electrical workers, warehouse workers, ironworkers and pipefitters, said they had been battered for decades by deregulation, globalization and weak government enforcement of labor laws. They blamed the corporate world’s growing dependence on temporary workers who have no expectation of job security, and who rarely make what would be considered a livable wage.

“Warehouse work used to offer good-paying jobs, where you could buy a house and raise a family,” said Sheheryar Kaoosji, research director for Warehouse Workers United. Now, workers are more likely to be temporary hires who earn minimum wage.

“Unions are nothing but good,” said Bobby LaFarga, business manager for Laborers Local 507.

Vivian Price, a labor studies professor from CSU Dominguez Hills, said labor unions need to recapture their voice and tell their own story, rather than allow anti-union forces to define them.

“The understanding of labor history has been lost, and it’s been lost deliberately,” Price said. “It has been deliberately buried by corporations that fear labor’s power.”

“It’s the chase for profits that leaves the communities behind,” said Patrick Kelly, secretary-treasurer, International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Assemblymember Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, whose district includes Port Hueneme, said California’s ports and its goods-movement industry are the “backbone of our economy.”

“Jobs, jobs, jobs, we say that in Sacramento all the time,” Brownley said. “But words are one thing and action is another.”

Labor leaders urged the legislators to take action on infrastructure projects which will bring employment and give California a more competitive future.

“We have a lot to take back to Sacramento,” Lowenthal said.

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