Class in session

Sometimes, as the song goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. As far as the more than 4,000 Sacramento County employees who went on strike last week are concerned, that’s a tune to which they are no longer willing to dance.

No doubt, to many local citizens, the strike, coordinated by eight different labor unions, has been somewhat of a pain in the derriere. They fail to perceive the beauty of trash piling up on curbs, of extended queues for county services and of raucous employees lining city sidewalks instead of doing their taxpayer-funded jobs.

But where these naysayers see picket signs, we see a field of brilliant wildflowers sprouting out of the gray urban landscape. The metaphor may be a bit of a stretch, but there’s no denying the fact that after decades of lying dormant, what’s happening locally is part of a larger phenomenon: The working class is once again attempting to assert itself.

It’s no coincidence that the main issue at stake in the strike is the rapidly increasing cost of health care. During ongoing contract negotiations, Sacramento County managers have asked the unions to accept a plan that would require all employees to pay 20 percent of their health-care costs, with the county picking up the remaining 80 percent.

To many working-class Sacramentans who are already paying 20 percent of their premiums, that may seem fair enough. But for county employees who aren’t, the proposal amounts to a pay cut, which comes at a time when day-to-day living expenses are on the rise thanks to the spike in energy prices. Instead of rolling over, local unions have taken a stand, and in so doing, they have taken a stand for all working people, which is to say the vast majority of us.

It’s difficult to underestimate the importance of this fact. Who speaks for the working class? Certainly not the few who make policy and shape public opinion. Last Tuesday, on the day the strike began, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vowed to veto a bill that would have established a single-payer health-care system in the state, a story reported by The Sacramento Bee on page A-3. Immediately below the story, conservative columnist Dan Walters opined that the governor’s action posed no political risk, since opinion polls indicate health-care coverage is of little concern to Californians.

No mention of the role corporate-owned daily newspapers, such as the Bee, have in shaping that opinion. No mention of why single-payer might be an idea whose time has come. And no mention of the county workers striking against potential reductions in health-care benefits, reported on the front page of the very same issue.

Who speaks for the working class? In California, here and now, it’s mainly the public-employee unions. Last year, they defeated Schwarzenegger’s regressive package of initiatives aimed directly at teachers, nurses and other public employees. Last week, the battle was joined locally. While unionization in the private sector has been on the wane for decades, the public employee unions continue to lead by example.

Who knows? In the coming years, perhaps we’ll all be dancing to a different tune.