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Striking Home

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect, political editor of LA Weekly and a columnist for the Washington Post.

At its conception, Los Angeles was not dedicated to the proposition that its residents could achieve, through their collective efforts, a rough equality. The men who shaped and promoted the city -- most particularly, Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, the turn-of-the-20th-century publisher of The Times -- blanched at the very thought of Angelenos banding together to that end. Unions were anathema to the city fathers; at times, they’d have had you believe that L.A.'s very raison d’etre was as the open-shop alternative to heavily unionized San Francisco. To businessmen planning a move west, they had a simple message: Labor was cheap, and the cops, private and public, would keep it that way. When you added in the weather, why would anyone moving west come anywhere but here?

Fortunately for Los Angeles, its fathers were overtaken by its sons. With massive federal funding, great factories arose here during World War II. For decades after the war, L.A. had the largest concentration of aerospace factories in the land, along with the second-largest concentration of auto and tire plants. The nonunion bastion of the West suddenly became home to hundreds of thousands of unionized auto workers and machinists, and they built an entirely new city, one with a thriving middle class.

Indeed, the most explosive growth in postwar Los Angeles took place around the giant aerospace factories. Miles of new single-family tract homes sprang up in Long Beach and Lakewood around Douglas Aircraft, as they did in Burbank around Lockheed and in the South Bay around North American and other aircraft plants. Unionized aircraft workers could afford those homes, just as the unionized auto workers of Detroit had been able to buy such homes a decade or so earlier. Detroit had had the greatest concentration of single-family homes of any American city until Los Angeles surpassed it, and both cities owed this distinction to the income levels of their factory workers.

And that was the basis of postwar L.A., in all its sprawling glory. The T-bird that the Beach Boys made famous tooled around a new kind of city, a horizontal city, made steadily more horizontal by the home-buying habits not just of professionals but also of a working class with money in its pockets.

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Don’t think this wasn’t about unions, both here and across the nation. The years from 1947 to 1973 were the only extended period in our history when working-class incomes rose as steeply as upper-middle-class incomes. Not coincidentally, these were the only years when more than a quarter of the U.S. workforce was unionized. And they were the years when America became something new under the sun: the first nation in history with -- by the yardstick of consumption, anyway -- a middle-class majority.

These were the years, too, of the California dream. With incomes rapidly rising, Govs. Earl Warren, Goodwin Knight and, above all, Pat Brown invested a willing public’s money in freeways, schools, aqueducts and public universities that were the marvel of the world. The idea of tax revolts was alien to the state.

But that was all so very then. Over the last quarter-century, L.A. has deindustrialized twice: first, in the ‘70s and ‘80s when high-end civilian-goods factories, especially auto plants, moved away; second, at the end of the Cold War, when local aerospace collapsed. L.A. still retained a large manufacturing sector, but its workers were largely nonunion immigrants, and its employers hired them to keep wages low. The city also developed a huge service sector, but the same employer preference for low-wage jobs that dragged down manufacturing work was even worse in services. By the mid-'90s, one state Assembly study concluded that 40% of the county’s households had annual incomes below $20,000. And the people in those households weren’t buying new homes.

We have lost something in Los Angeles, something huge: a decently paid working class. The change may be sharper here than elsewhere in the country, and more visible too since the racial composition of our working class has changed more dramatically than elsewhere. But the loss is national as well. For most of the 20th century, the largest private American employer was General Motors, and GM always paid its workers enough -- with the United Auto Workers’ prodding -- so that they could afford to buy new GM cars. Today, the largest American employer is Wal-Mart, which pays its workers so little -- an hourly average wage just under $9 -- that its workers can’t afford to shop anywhere but Wal-Mart, and buying a new car, much less a new home, is completely out of the question for most of them.

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GM closed down its last L.A. plant in 1992, and now the city’s decent-paying retail jobs are under assault as well. Shouting, not without some reason, that the coming of Wal-Mart to Southern California puts them at a competitive disadvantage, the leaders of four giant food chains -- Ralphs, Albertsons and Safeway’s Vons and Pavilions stores -- are endeavoring to roll back the health benefits of their unionized workers and to pay their new hires wages closer to Wal-Mart levels than to what they now pay. It’s hard to roll back health benefits beneath the Wal-Mart level, as management at the Arkansas-based behemoth makes workers contribute so much toward their benefits that most of them must go without. A recent study of emergency room patients in Las Vegas, for instance, discovered that far more employed patients worked at local Wal-Marts than anyplace else. The difference between the wages of cashiers at Ralphs and cashiers at Wal-Mart is similarly stark. The first might make $18 an hour, the second $8.

Faced with the threat of a radical reduction in their living standards, grocery workers at Vons and Pavilions struck, and Ralphs and Albertsons launched a lockout, affecting 70,000 workers across Southern California. More than eight weeks into that conflict, no resolution is in sight.

If you can’t recall the moment when the citizens of Los Angeles, or the United States, opted for a world of lower incomes and less security, you’re not alone. The erosion of workers’ rights to form unions and the growth of corporations’ ability to globe-trot in search of ever-cheaper labor and lighter regulations have not been part of any party’s platform as such -- though the second is the inevitable consequence of both major parties’ support for free trade. This shifting balance of power, however, has created a world in which low-wage workers’ lives are poorer than they were a generation ago, in which 24% of the American workforce now makes less than $8.70 an hour, according to a new report from the Russell Sage Foundation.

Wal-Mart is both the leading metaphor and No. 1 economic force in this downward spiral that Southern California’s grocery clerks are seeking to arrest. In the U.S., Wal-Mart has driven 25 regional retail chains out of business or into bankruptcy; they were unable to compel their suppliers, as Wal-Mart routinely does, to pay the poverty wages required to sell products so cheaply. As pickets circle the markets in L.A., Wal-Mart is threatening to leave its suppliers in Honduras and Bangladesh -- ruining those nations’ already impoverished economies -- for the even more exploitable workforce of China, where Wal-Mart already has 3,000 suppliers. It is threatening its suppliers in southern China with a move to western China in its constant quest for wage levels approaching zero.

Reversing this economic freefall will take the work of a worldwide movement, of an entire generation. It requires reshaping global trade accords so that they are as serious about enforcing workers’ rights as they are about respecting intellectual property. It requires changing America’s dysfunctional labor laws so that companies such as Wal-Mart can’t block their workers’ attempts to form unions. It requires, in the assessment of some of the nation’s most innovative labor leaders, a single-minded focus from the entire labor movement on unionizing Wal-Mart, just as, in the ‘30s, the CIO focused on unionizing General Motors and U.S. Steel.

And it requires Los Angeles to unite in support of its supermarket workers. Theirs is a battle, really, over what kind of Los Angeles we all will live in. Will it be one where a broad stratum of workers can afford to buy homes, approve bond measures for decent schools and send their kids to college? Or will it resemble a new-age version of L.A. before World War II, where the hard toil of construction, factory and service workers availed them virtually nothing?

Safeway, Ralphs and Albertsons are putting Los Angeles on a slippery slope to a past that no one should want to revisit. Whatever it may do for your soul, siding with the grocery workers is a good first step toward saving your city.


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