Crossing the line

State of the unions: There are demonstrations in front of the Capitol just about every day that the Legislature is in session. People shout about this issue and that, or rally their troops to lobby legislators, or stage other acts of political theater.

So when the District Council #16 painters union members ringed the grounds with picket signs reading “Unfair,” it probably seemed to most like just another day at the big top.

Even once you investigate why the union painters were mad—involving claims that nonunion River City Painting Inc. was unfairly awarded the $2 million contract to repaint the Capitol—even a journalist experienced in all kind of governmental minutiae glazes over amid talk of technical discrepancies in the pre-qualification stage during the project bidding process. It’s easier to focus on the bottom line that River City came in $1.3 million under the union bid, even while paying prevailing wages, and think that’s the final word on this story.

But we can make this about the details of awarding state contracts, or we can make this about symbolism, that most powerful of all literary devices. Because there is some powerful symbolism involved when the Capitol—which is strongly controlled by Democrats—is being repainted by nonunion workers, is picketed for doing so and business goes on as usual.

There was a time when a picket line was a powerful force. If you supported labor you didn’t cross a picket line, period. It wasn’t about whether you agreed with the issue, or anything other than supporting unions.

In fact, it is the strength of the picket line that ended up stopping work at the Capitol for a few days, because the scaffolding and ironworkers subcontracted by River City wouldn’t cross the picket, even if our supposedly pro-union political leaders did.

Labor unions have no inherent power. Their strength is derived from organizing workers, and popular and political support for the notion that such organizations should be imbued with the power to make demands and stand up to the employing classes.

Traditionally, that means having the power to picket, strike or boycott, and to have political leaders that are willing to support you and legalize your tactics simply because unions represent huge blocks of voters.

But as the strength and membership of unions waned over the last century—for reasons too varied and complex to list here—somehow the people and votes that unions represented got replaced by the members’ dues money they lavished on the political system.

In the absence of popular support, unions are forced to exert their influence solely through political donations and paying expensive lobbyists, becoming one of the main enablers of the pay-to-play political system that—ironically—works against the interests of most working people.

Unions worked hand-in-greased-palm with the major political parties to kill campaign finance reform in California. The California Teachers Association derives its power from spending more on institutionalized political bribery than any other group. Even smaller unions like California Professional Firefighters maintain serious clout at the Capitol because of its willingness to generously feed the machine.

Yet on a day when the Capitol was ringed in a picket line, business went on as usual, with Democrat politicians, staffers and lobbyists crossing the line by the thousands simply because there was work to be done, principles be damned.

Bites doesn’t really care whether last week’s picket line was justified. But the fact that it was so easily ignored by the Democrats in power shows that they care more about the unions’ money than the unions’ members.

A rose: An observant reader of last week’s column recognized the name Tyrone Slothrop, and not just as the Critical Mass participant who got his foot run over by an angry motorist.

The reader recognized Slothrop as the name of the main character in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, a surreal tale of a man chased through World War II Europe because of the fact that he gets erections right before bombs hit and it could be the key to a sinister plot.

Yup, sounds like an anti-establishment Critical Masser to Bites. But for the record, contrary to his e-mail identity, the guy’s real name is Glenn Fuller. At least Bites thinks it is.