Why workers had to strike in Oakland

Don't blame union members for a cost-of-living crisis that they didn't create

I shouldn’t be surprised that the mainstream East Bay news media are, to say the least, unsympathetic toward the Oakland city workers’ strike. The Mercury News says the City Council has already given away too much, and the workers are threatening to “kill the goose that lays their golden eggs.”

We see this all the time these days. The workers get blamed for their pensions, they get blamed for costing the city money, and they get blamed for demanding that their income keeps pace with the cost of living.

Just to be clear: Even if the city were to give the members of SEIU Local 1021 the raises they are asking for, the unionized workforce in Oakland will be falling behind the increased cost of living in their city. In other words, the workers aren’t even asking to be made whole; they’re asking not to lag even further behind in one of the most expensive urban areas in the country. 

And it’s not their fault.

The Oakland workers didn’t ask for the Bay Area to become the tech capital of the nation. They didn’t ask for San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee to give a tax break to Twitter and other tech companies to attract more high-paid workers to a region that had no housing for them.

No: What’s happened is that cities that are basking in the new revenue from the tech boom – and that includes Oakland – didn’t budget properly for the impacts of that boom.

When you attract tens of thousands of high-paid workers to a region, and you don’t have the housing infrastructure in place to accommodate them, you drive up the cost of living, in this case radically.

The Yimbys argue that we need to build more housing, now, fast, build, build – but even if they are right (and I don’t think that model will solve the problem), it will be years before we begin to catch up.

Meanwhile, the workers who keep local cities running are getting screwed.

No, the Oakland workers don’t have a “golden egg” of pensions and health insurance. They have what everyone ought to have – decent access to health care – and that’s negotiated in union contracts. Pensions aren’t a gift from the taxpayers – they are deferred compensation. There have been many times in the past decade or so when local elected officials have offered better pension benefits instead of cash raises today; if the union members accept that, why are they to blame for the city’s financial problems? And most of their pensions won’t cover the rent in Oakland when they retire.

We have this extensive planning operation in the Bay Area, from city and county planning departments to groups like ABAG and MTC. They are supposed to look at future trends and prepare us for them.

But nobody – nobody, anywhere, unless I missed it and I’ve looked carefully – said that a region that encouraged a tech boom should set aside money to pay public employees enough to cover the increased cost of housing and increased living expenses that would come with that boom.

The Twitter tax break didn’t just cost SF $34 million a year. It cost tens of millions more in services for homeless people evicted to make room for tech workers, higher rent for nonprofits and city agencies, raises for public-sector workers, and other massive impacts that the people who are getting rich from the tech boom aren’t paying for.

And it had huge impacts on the rest of the region — but I never heard the mayor of Oakland, or the Oakland City Council, oppose that tax break.

We are now most likely the richest urban region in the history of the world. That wealth has gone almost entirely to the top one percent. On a national level, our Democratic politicians decry that; on the local level, they let it happen. In some cases, they encourage it.

So please: Don’t blame the Oakland workers for saying that they need more money to keep up with a crisis they didn’t create or ask for. If the city can’t afford to pay wages that keep pace with the cost of living, then city officials ought to be asking why the cost of living keeps going up – and asking how to make sure the people who are getting filthy rich at the expense of the rest of us can help pay their fair share.

I haven’t seen Mayor Libby Schaff and Mayor Ed Lee organizing the mayors of other big cities in the state to push the Legislature to allow city income taxes. I haven’t seen them leading the way on Prop. 13 reform.

I just see a welcome mat for tech companies – and no recognition of the economic impacts those policies create for everyone else.

It’s not fair to ask Oakland city employees to move 50 miles away and commute to work because they can’t pay the rent in the city that can’t survive without them. That’s why workers are forced to go on strike — and what the news media have completely ignored.

Full disclosure: Yes, I am biased in favor of labor. Always have been, always will be. I also edit the SEIU local 1021 quarterly magazine. Nobody at Local 1021 pitched the story to me, reviewed this story, commented for this story, or had any other influence over this or anything else at 48hills. My proud pro-worker bias is entirely my own.

27 COMMENTS

  1. It should be easy to get the actual stats on residence from Oakland City Hall. Just submit an online public information request broadly worded requested the residence stats. They have to respond within a reasonable period of time but can get a limited extension to research.

  2. Tim makes the standard ‘but it’s what I believe’ argument. In the 1980s, Washington Post columnist George F. Will echoed Tim’s words above when it was revealed that Will was taking money from The Toyota Motor Co. while also writing in his column about the need for freer trade with Japan. “So what? It’s what I believe.”
    The press should not take money from interest groups. But if they do take that money, they should openly reveal it every time they write on related matters.

  3. 49% of Oakland workers live in Alameda County, 77% live either in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, or San Mateo.

    43.8% live less 10 miles of work and 76% less than 25 miles from work. The percent that commute more than 50 miles is within the average for all Bay Area cities. Workers in Solano county or eastern or southern Alameda county have longer commutes. Some cities such as Cupertino and Sunnyvale have the lowest percent that commute more than 50 miles. It would seem that lifestyle choice more than housing prices determine how far one chooses to commute. Some are willing to make sacrifices to live close to work. Many rich people also have long commutes.

  4. Tim, you once again forgot to mention that you are on the SEIU payroll. You cannot report on this issue with any kind of objectivity.

    Mayor Shaaf said over the weekend: “We cannot spend money we do not have, particularly as we know our pension costs are escalating at least 49 percent over the next five years.”

    The pension costs are spiking because public-sector workers have sweet defined-benefit pension plans under which the city/taxpayers assumes all investment risks. Workers need to be switched to 401-K plans like the rest of us have. That would solve the problem.

  5. 25% of Oakland workers live in Oakland; 8% in San Francisco. In more expensive SF, 40% of SF workers live in SF; 6% live in Oakland. Again suggesting the housing prices don’t cause commutes. Interesting that 70% of SFUSD teachers live in SF. SF teacher pay is lower than most in the Bay Area, but apparently teachers prefer to live in SF even if they can’t afford to. I doubt very many live alone.

  6. SEIU is too big for their britches. if you review the website,they’re hiring activists to help fight for the rights of “low payed workers” The various occupations/payscales within the group is a red flag. I wasn’t able to find info on health or retirement benefits. there is a latino caucus, african american caucus,and an asian american caucus. this seems weird to me. I’m a retired union man,but not from this one. The higher number of part time work compared to full time sounds very sketchy as well. US citizenship required??

  7. Anecdotally, it makes sense that relatively fewer Oakland municipal employees live in Oakland than some of those other cities simply because of our high crime and bad schools.

    You never hear NYC muni workers demanding wages high enough for them to live in Manhattan or even Brooklyn.

    But we do have to at least match the compensation that neighboring cities pay.

    I don’t see any way to pay for those raises and the comcommitant increase in pension and post retirement medical benefit obligations without raising local taxes. Despite the author’s one-liner about how Oakland officials are responsible for the limited tax options, not likely the State Legislature or the other voters in CA will allow cities to impose local income taxes.

    Raising taxes for paying for raises to city workers also ignores the desperate need that OUSD has for more revenue.

  8. The data are from census bureau economic surveys. Link to source below. It does not break out City workers. There are breakouts for: Goods producing; Trade, transportation and Utilities; and all other services. I am assuming most City workers are in the all other industry category. For all other services it it 53.7% that live within 10 miles compared to 52.5% for all workers

    The data shows that higher income workers are more likely to commute than lower wage workers. Awhile back the Chronicle did a study showing that lower paid SF City workers are less likely to commute than higher paid City workers. The Chronicle did a survey of Valencia street restaurant worker. They are less likely to commute than the average SF worker. correction on above. 52.5% of SF workers live within 10 miles and for Oakland it is still 43.8%.

    https://onthemap.ces.census.gov/

  9. Source? Workers or City workers? I call BS on this from personal day to day experience with a cross section of SFCC workers for over a decade.

  10. Always for the unions are you? You were at the Bay Guardian at the zernith of Brugman’s union busting. There is no way Oakland city workers will ever have enough to live on here at this pont. Not unless taxpayers are willing to foot a bill for $126K minimum plus benefits which are in the 5 figures. Although unfunded the city is going to have to pay the piper soon.

  11. Well, you’re arguing that Bay Area taxes aren’t high enough and public employees aren’t paid enough – you’re a contrarian I’ll give you that. So the ol’ pensions are “deferred compensation” canard. Maybe that could have made a scintilla of sense twenty years ago or so – when public employees had relatively low salaries for their positions. These aren’t your father’s public employees.

    We have these pensions because public employees lobbied to put them on the ballot and by statute (concept began with SB 400 1999) telling us their costs would be borne by investment returns and not by taxpayers. It was a fraudulent claim – and we’ve only begun to see the destruction to our governance.

  12. so, is the issue wages or working conditions? both? this article does not mention SEIU’s argument that it’s not just wages, but the use of part-time staff which is an issue, amongst other non-economic reasons. The problem is that SEIU keeps changing it’s talking points, evidenced here by this article. It sounds like SEIU is the agency who is not willing to negotiate. Has the Union changed its stance at all?

  13. Tim the issue here s not a matter of opinion or bias. The issue is that you are being very well compensated for those opinions by the subjects you are claim to cover “independently.”

    If one were feeling generous, one would call that a conflict of interest. At worst — and probably to most reasonable people — your arrangement is flagrantly corrupt.

    It’s unfortunate that you can’t see that yourself. Yes, your opinions and biases are well known. This isn’t about your opinions. The fact that you’re on the SEIU 1021 payroll, and you don’t clearly disclose that, makes this a very different kind of thing.

    We can debate what to call it, but you’re not at all being honest about it, and that’s not what any journalist with integrity would call journalism.

  14. You are welcome to disagree with my positions, and to consider my work with SEIU — which I am proud of — in your analysis. But you should also understand that my political stands have changed very little in 35 years of doing this; everyone who has ever followed my writing and reporting knows my political positions, which have always been clear and out front and have never changed on the basis of anyone paying me anything. Unlike a lot of journalists, I am honest about this. Agree or disagree with me, but understand that my positions reflect more than three decades of work in this community and are pretty consistent through all of that time.

  15. I would normally be extremely supportive of a city strike, and I even came out to support in the streets in 2015. But that was before I found out that SEIU runs a two-tiered shop with differential benefits for workers at the city of Oakland. Though cost of living raises are important, its far more important for dues paying members who can currently be fired at will to get the same benefits others in the union do. These dues paying members–at last count 1300, and possibly more than half of 1021’s membership–went through the same rigorous process to be hired, were not adequately informed that their jobs were dead-ends, and were forced at the time of accepting the job to become part of SEIU. Every month, SEIU diligently collects their dues, but will do nothing to change the year/hour limits on their jobs, the at-will hire which means they can be fired for any reason–or to address the twilight world they exist in.

    SEIU did not organize amongst this group of workers, and hardly even notified them of the strike. 1021 didn’t put their issues forefront in negotiations, but rather buried their issues in a lawsuit, where the union would not have to deal with organizing and activating a huge group of precarious workers who have been taken advantage of by the city for years. That is because of rather than fighting for justice for these workers, SEIU 1021 is seeking to at best, convert some of their jobs into permanent jobs–probably a small proportion –while engineering the lay off of the rest of the 1300 precarious workers with a vague promise to waitlist them for new open jobs that come up. Surely, long after most of them have given up on ever getting a decent city job and have taken other work. Isn’t the actual case that 1021 abandoned more than half its membership at the city of Oakland, but seeks to use their dues and bodies to get benefits for the other half? The real truth about why SEIU didn’t lead with the issues of half its membership is that you can’t base a strike fight on the slogan “A LOT OF YOU WILL BE FIRED IF WE SUCCEED”

    I am glad you gave full disclosure, since you literally do outreach for the unjion in the form of journalism, you can go ahead and answer these questions. If you dare.

  16. I have an idea, let’s tie SEIU’s labor increase to 60% of the CPI of the Bay Area. That should truly fix the problem. How dare they ask for more than that! Those greedy City Workers! If 60% of CPI is good enough for greedy landlords, it’s good enough for City Workers!

  17. 50% of SF workers live within 10 miles compared to Oakland’s 43.8%. More affordable Concord 36.5% live within10 miles. For long distances, greater than 50 miles: Oakland 12.8%, Concord 15.9% and ever more affordable Antioch 13.7%. It would appear high rents don’t cause longer (distance) commutes.

  18. Tim, the problem is not that you edit the SEIU 1021 newsletter. The problem is that THEY PAY YOU $4000 a month (almost $50K a year) to do so. At any credible media outlet, that would disqualify you from writing about public sector unions altogether. Your “disclosure” here is sorely lacking.

    Tim, is that still your arrangement with SEIU 1021? Are they still paying you?

  19. Maybe if the cut the number of employees in half they could afford to pay those remaining higher wages. There are government agencies turning more to contracting out.

    Where is the evidence that employees must move 50 miles away. I recall a survey of SF workers. The lower paid workers lived in SF while the higher paid workers were more likely to commute.

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