David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
California Labor Prepares to Defend Affirmative Action
by David Bacon

LOS ANGELES, CA (10/15/95) - When students walked out of classes at UCLA last week, protesting the UC Regents' attacks on affirmative action, campus unions were right beside them. With their own bitter experiences of discrimination at the university, UC workers not only sympathized with and supported the students, but had reasons of their own for being angry. Beneath the academic atmosphere the university discriminates, according to Carmelita Pascua, a lab assistant at UC Berkeley. "Women and people of color hold most of the lower-paid jobs at UC," she declares.

At UCLA, striking students were not only joined by campus unions, but were supported by a wide group of other labor organizations. The big hotel union, HERE Local 11, sent its chief officer, Maria Elena Durazo, to speak. Representatives came from the janitor's union, SEIU Local 399, as well as from the steelworkers and autoworkers. In Berkeley, Jack Henning, head of the California Labor Federation, addressed a crowd of over 4000 students, along with Katie Quan, manager of the garment workers, local labor council chief Owen Marron, and campus union activists.

Union support for the affirmative action battle in the university system is part of a growing move by California labor to get ready for the all-out battle it expects over the California Civil Rights Initiative. The deceptively-named initiative would abolish all state affirmative action programs, and is expected to make the November 1996 ballot.

"Unions are part of the broad coalitions being formed to defeat this attack," says Kent Wong, director of UCLA's Center for Labor Research and Education, who, along with Durazo, was invited to address the October 12 rally. Wong is also president of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), the national institute within the AFL-CIO which brings together Asian-American and Pacific Island activists in unions.

"Most unions have civil rights departments," Wong explains, "which historically have been led by African-American unionists. These folks understand very well that they are the target of the attack on affirmative action, and they've built a structure within the labor movement which can be used to bring unions into action against it. That's starting to happen now." Wong noted that the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, which brings together African-American union members, has called a statewide meeting of AFL-CIO organizations representing Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Latinos and women this week, to discuss how to organize unions for the year-long campaign it anticipates.

This year a national assault on affirmative action began in California, following on the heels of the anti-immigrant Proposition 187. Two rightwing academics, Thomas Wood and Glynn Custred, began the process, announcing their intention to place the California Civil Rights Initiative on the ballot. Similar legislation was introduced into the legislature.

California's governor, Pete Wilson, seized on the proposal and made it the centerpiece of his failed campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, in the same way he used Proposition 187 while running for reelection as governor. He first abolished those state executive orders which enforce certain affirmative action programs, and then sued himself as governor to overturn all state programs entirely. Finally, he called on the Board of Regents of the University of California to overturn affirmative action in hiring and admissions. Last August, students, community and labor activists surrounded the San Francisco building during the meeting in which his proposals were adopted, and over a thousand people went into the streets afterwards in protest.

By this past summer, every Republican presidential contender had made their own proposals for doing away with affirmative action. Bills to end it have been introduced into the legislatures of Oregon, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Michigan, Washington, Georgia, South Carolina and New Mexico.

On the surface, proponents of these measures contend that the kind of discrimination which gave rise to affirmative action programs no longer exists. Instead, affirmative action programs, they say, cause "reverse discrimination" against whites and men. "From Richard Nixon's 'Southern Strategy' to George Bush's 'Willie Horton' ads," Wong says, "conservatives have successfully used 'wedge' issues, particularly those with racial subtexts, to court undecided voters who would normally be opposed to the Republican Party's pro-corporate and anti-worker agenda."

UFW vice-president Dolores Huerta puts it bluntly: "They're trying to chop up the Democratic Party," she declares. "You peel away all the Latinos with 187, and then you go after affirmative action and peel away the rest of the minorities. You knock off the women and the people of color, and what have you got left?"

In fact, racist inequality in the workforce is increasing, not decreasing. According to the Department of Labor, African American family income hasn't risen since 1969, while the income of white families has gone up by 9%. In 1993, an African American man earned a median wage of $392, a Latino man $352, and a white man $531. Women earn less than men in each racial group. Unemployment nationally in 1993 was 12.9% for African Americans, 10.6% for Latinos, and 6% for whites. While 12% of whites live in poverty, 33% of African Americans and 31% of Latinos live below the poverty line.

At the UC Berkeley rally, California AFL-CIO leader Henning condemned the attack on Black people in particular. "African-Americans are the special object of an assault which includes Proposition 187 and overall anti-immigrant hysteria," he said. "Make no mistake about it. This attack is directed at Black people first. Historically in this country, it has always been so, since the first people were taken from west Africa, and were brought to what could hardly even be called a settlement at the time. But what happens to Black people is later made the pattern, and brought to bear on Asians, Latinos and others."

Asian American workers are often held up as the "model minority," and opponents of affirmative action even state that they also are victims of "reverse discrimination." But whole industries rely on the exploitation of Asian American labor, in conditions dramatized by the recent exposure of the slave-like imprisonment of garment workers in Los Angeles.

Wong and others are disturbed by the efforts to pit one minority against another. He notes that during the campaign around Proposition 187, efforts were made to convince African-American workers that immigrants from Mexico and Central America were taking their jobs. "Now the same effort is being made in relation to Asians," he says. "We're being told that if affirmative action is abolished, Asian-Americans will have greater access to jobs and education. Fortunately, there is widespread support for affirmative action among Asian community leaders, based in part on a long legacy of discrimination against Asians."

Antonio Edayan, a Filipino American firefighter in Oakland, California, says that "before affirmative action programs, there were no Asian firefighters in our department, despite the fact that we are a significant percentage of the population here in the city and we always have been. It took over 20 years, even with affirmative action, to bring the number of Asians up to 5% of Oakland's firefighters. Would we have achieved this without affirmative action? I don't think so. And ironically, when the department had to get rid of its weight and height requirements, which were used as a barrier against women and Asians, a lot of smaller white guys got into the department along with us."

As in many fire and police departments around the country, winning and keeping an affirmative action program has been a big fight. The department only adopted one as a result of court order. In the late 1980s, the Oakland firefighters union filed a court action to abolish it, and the national office of the International Association of Fire Fighters encouraged local unions in many areas to file "reverse discrimination" suits. Because they felt excluded and attacked by the union which supposedly represented them, minority and women firefighters in Oakland formed their own organization, a course also taken by minorities and women in fire and police departments in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and across the U.S.

In other unions, however, affirmative action programs have won more support from the membership and structure over the years. Robert Bryant, an Oakland electrician, also remembers that "when you go back to the 1960s, there were no minorities in our union. But now we have an Asian worker on our executive board, our local secretary is African American, and we have minorities and women teaching classes in our apprenticeship program. While there's still a ways to go, I think it speaks well of our local that we've made some progress."

Like Edayan, Bryant also notes that affirmative action benefited more than just women and minorities. "It broke up the old boy network," he remembers, "which excluded even some white workers before, since jobs were just passed on to children and friends of union members." Nevertheless, "I see the possibility of all of this being pushed back, in the current political climate," he says.

As part of the growing effort to make the resources of unions available to the campaign against CCRI, the Labor Committee for Affirmative Action in Alameda County has organized a conference on November 11. According to Josie Camacho, chair of the local APALA chapter and activist in the labor committee, the conference will "examine the experience of affirmative action in unions, and acknowledge the diversity of our members' historical and ongoing contribution to the labor movement." The conference has been officially sponsored by the county labor council and numerous other labor bodies.

In a dramatic contradiction to the widespread image of racism in the construction industry, Barry Luboviski, the new head of the Alameda County Building Trades Council, expects that body to endorse the conference as well. "If we have no ties to the community, we're dead," he says. "A commitment to affirmative action is part of building those ties, which help us fight on issues like prevailing wages and union jobs. Our moral position is based on our interest in our own survival as unions."

A program to defend affirmative action nationally will also be discussed in New York in October, when the AFL-CIO's support institutes, including the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and the Coalition of Labor Union Women hold a joint meeting before the AFL-CIO convention opens.

Lillian Galedo, director of Filipinos for Affirmative Action and a leader of California's Filipino community, sees that the authors of the attack on affirmative action "recognize that there is a desperate anger among many people, over the decline in their standard of living and at falling hopes for a secure job and future. But rather than using this anger to force political and economic changes to solve real problems, these opportunists use it as a weapon. A weapon to divide, to win power, a way to force people to fight over diminishing jobs and falling wages, instead of addressing their real causes.

"We have all become subject to technological changes and a volatile global economy. Ending affirmative action will not save jobs leaving the country, or eliminated altogether, because of corporate greed and changing economic relationships with other countries. Ending affirmative action is aimed at giving an advantage back to those who benefit from inequality and racism, during this economic transition. We can't let that happen. We must defend affirmative action, so that when the dust settles on these economic changes, we will not be at the bottom."

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