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Blue The Nation | August 31, 2014

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If You’re Only Liberal on Social Issues, You’re Not a Liberal

If You’re Only Liberal on Social Issues, You’re Not a Liberal
Jonathan Nathan

The San Francisco Bay Area, which is where I make my home, is a well-known Democratic Party stronghold. The Democrats, and to some extent progressives in general, own California politics, but it’s especially strong here. You will not meet an avowed Republican. Instead, you’ll meet what we’ve all politely agreed to call a “moderate.” A “moderate,” in San Francisco, is the other end of the spectrum from a “progressive.” A “progressive” is everything the Koch Brothers are afraid of. A “moderate” is someone who likes gay people and thinks women should be able to do what they want with their bodies, but hates the social safety net. In other words, a San Francisco progressive is what liberals are supposed to be. A San Francisco moderate is just a fiscal conservative, a Republican who’s not a total asshole on things it’s easy not to be an asshole on.

But “moderate” is, to some extent, a politico’s term. Most San Franciscans and residents of the various Bay Area communities would not call themselves “moderates” any more than they would call themselves “progressives” in the way the term is used above. Most people here would say they’re liberals, Democrats, and yes, progressives, but only because they don’t really know what any of those things actually mean. So of course everyone here is fine with marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose. And everybody thinks there should be more bike lines and everybody loves to recycle. It’s all very nice.

I suppose I was only partially stunned, then, to watch how quickly all these nice progressives turned into rabid, rock-ribbed Republicans when the employees of BART, or Bay Area Rapid Transit, voted to go on strike. Suddenly they had skin in the game. Suddenly they were being asked to find an alternate route to work. Suddenly they were hearing rumors that BART fares might go up because the workers–the nerve!–wanted cost of living increases and to not lose their pensions. Oh, can you imagine the pearl-clutchery?

I’ve encountered acquaintances who posted signs and walked precincts for the No on 32 campaign, who waxed fulminant about the importance of organized labor, who damned the Koch brothers’ anti-union campaigns in the strongest possible language, suddenly get awfully hard-nosed about the BART workers. You know it’s a completely unskilled position, they babble nonsensically about the folks who safely guide hundreds of thousands of Bay Area lives to and from their destinations every day. Sacrifices have to be made if BART is going to be able to make capital improvements, they bloviate, as if payroll dollars could ever even put a dent in what the agency needs to build the San Jose extension, or to expand and modernize its fleet. Why should they have it better than anyone else in a recession, they whine about people who haven’t had so much as a cost-of-living adjustment since 2008.

And here’s the thing: not one of them actually cares about any of that. Nobody was bitching about how much the BART workers made relative to the average Bay Area salary two weeks ago. Nobody was talking about whether the positions were skilled or unskilled. No one even knew about BART’s plans for capital improvements except for transit nerds like me! They don’t care about those things. They’re just pissing and moaning because it’s harder to get to work for a few days.

When you get down to it, they’re not liberals. Not a one of them. They’re not progressives either. They’re moderate, centrist, middle-of-the-road, don’t-rock-the-boat-as-long-as-I-get-mine Democrats. Ten years ago, they were the people who said they favored civil unions instead of gay marriage and thought they were being magnanimous. They’re still the people who say they believe in a ban on “partial-birth abortions.” They like the sound of “reforming” the social service systems. They think we should “cut government waste,” even if it turns out that “government waste” really just meant Medicaid the whole time. In the cities, they talk about neighborhoods being gentrified as if it was a good thing for the people who used to live there.

Oh, they’ll be right out there with you when the issues are easy, and when it’s easy to take the liberal position. They’ll stamp and scream about marriage equality in the middle of the Castro, or WeHo, or Chelsea, or Boystown. They’ll sing the praises of Wendy Davis and Planned Parenthood with all the confidence of people who’ve never even had to think about abortion on a personal level. They’ll put up a No on 32 sign in their windows, but just watch them talk about how right-to-work might not be such a bad idea after they’ve had a couple drinks.

And they’ll ride BART to and from work, or parties, or bars, or restaurants, or the airport, or wherever they have to go, day in and day out, for years on end. They probably won’t ever even notice or think about the people who drive their trains, who endeavor to keep them safe, who help them when their tickets and Clipper cards don’t work, who wave them through the emergency door when they’re too drunk to find their wallets but they need to get home, who clean up the messes they make, and who make this region function a little bit better by doing crappy, thankless jobs that garner a lot more negative feedback than positive. They won’t think about those people at all.

Until those people ask for just a little bit in return.

  • hep_sf

    possibly the best thing i have ever read on the internet.

  • http://scottrossi.tumblr.com scott rossi

    holy shit. this is AMAZING

  • jony_bo

    BART employee salaries, for reference (note that BART employees do not pay into Social Security so witholdings are muchy lower than comparably paid private sector workers): http://www.mercurynews.com/salaries/bay-area?Entity=Bay%20Area%20Rapid%20Transit

    Since when is it “liberal” to blindly support unions, particularly when the union workers’ salaries are paid by higher fares/taxes on working families struggling to get by? This strike is merely holding average working class commuters hostage (the well off have other ways to get to work) so relatively well off BART workers can make even more money. Nothing liberal about that.

    • JonathanNathan

      1) The Mercury News? Why don’t you just cite the Chronicle, as long as you’re using conservative rags to support your case?

      2) The workers have been taking it in the neck for almost five years now with no cost-of-living/inflation adjustments. They’re not “well off.” They’re lower middle-class at best, and you want to piss and moan about whether or not they deserve to be able to strike to stop their bosses from raiding their pensions? You do get that the strike was as much about pensions as it was about wages, right?

      3) You can think you support workers’ rights. But when the chips are down and it actually affects you, you don’t give a damn about what the workers are worth. What they deserve. What they do for you.

      • jony_bo

        1) Huh? BART salaries are public record. Salaries are salaries and facts are facts, not sure why source matters here. If you have another source that contradicts the figures provided, please provide it.

        2) Yes I get that the strike is in part about pensions. Currently, BART employees contribute 0 to their pensions, they are being asked to contribute 0.5%. This is waaay less than Social Security withholding and their pensions will pay out significantly more. This strikes me as a very reasonable ask and definitely doesn’t qualify as “raiding their pensions.”

        Also median and mean BART salaries are much higher than median /mean salaries across the country. BART workers are solidly middle/upper-middle class by any reasonable definition. Most (myself included) would be quite happy to make a median BART salary and receive a fraction of the benefits. This strike is nothing more than taking from poor/lower middle class commuters through increased fares to line the pockets of relatively well off BART employees.

        3) Yes, I do support unions and workers’ rights. Unions have played and continue to play a hugely important role in improving the lives of workers in this country and protecting workers’ rights – 40 hour work weeks, overtime pay, worker safety standards, etc. etc. The list of accomplishments is long and we are all better off thanks to unions.

        However, this doesn’t mean I will blindly support every union 100% of the time. That’s not liberal, that’s just shutting off your brain. Honestly, I have to ask you, would you ever go against a union in a dispute? What if BART median salaries were $250,000 instead of $75,000 and they were demanding raises to $400,000? At what point does it stop being about workers’ rights and start being about pure greed?

        400,000 workers rely on BART to get to work. Do these workers not matter? Or somehow matter less than the BART workers? I wonder how many workers lost their jobs because they were unable to make it to work this week. I don’t believe that holding these blameless people hostage and using them as leverage is something that deserves my support.

        • JonathanNathan

          “Also median and mean BART salaries are much higher than median /mean salaries across the country.”–Apples and oranges, buttercup.

          “Yes, I do support unions and workers’ rights.”–You talk the talk. You don’t walk the walk.

          “Honestly, I have to ask you, would you ever go against a union in a dispute?”–Given that a defeat for any union is a defeat for all workers, it would be highly unlikely. You don’t seem to grasp the importance of symbolism.

          “What if BART median salaries were $250,000 instead of $75,000 and they were demanding raises to $400,000?”–What if guns were made of chocolate? I don’t deal in ridiculous scenarios.

          “400,000 workers rely on BART to get to work. Do these workers not matter?”–Again, this is the crux of the matter, for those who don’t support the workers. Somehow, because BART workers are public employees, they have less of a right to strike. If it inconveniences me, fuck ‘em.

          “I wonder how many workers lost their jobs because they were unable to make it to work this week.”–Zero, because every employer knew that there was a BART strike.

          “I don’t believe that holding these blameless people hostage and using them as leverage is something that deserves my support.”–Translation: I don’t believe the BART workers have a right to strike for any issue whatsoever because it makes my life more difficult.

          • jony_bo

            “Given that a defeat for any union is a defeat for all workers, it would be highly unlikely.” Yikes, this is telling. Unions, like any organization, are not perfect and strikes are not all equal. It’s unfortunate that you’ve decided to turn off critical thinking to blindly support unions 100% of the time. Hopefully you are in the minority.

            “What if guns were made of chocolate? I don’t deal in ridiculous scenarios.” The situation is already a bit ridiculous. BART workers are paid good salaries, have excellent benefits, contribute next to nothing to their pensions, have rock solid job security and yet are demanding even more. They didn’t strike because they were mistreated or underpaid, they did it simply because they have a lot of leverage and wanted more. The vast majority of workers across the country would gladly take their jobs at less pay and would almost assuredly provide better service.

            “Again, this is the crux of the matter, for those who don’t support the workers. Somehow, because BART workers are public employees, they have less of a right to strike. If it inconveniences me, fuck ‘em.”

            From a legal perspective, certainly public employees have (at least in California) and should have the right to go on strike. This doesn’t mean that doing so is always moral or something that should be supported by thinking people. The situation is fundamentally different than an auto workers or steel workers strike. When certain public employees (e.g. BART employees, police, firemen, etc) go on strike, there is a huge cost to society as a whole. Many blameless individuals are harmed. As such, it should truly be a last resort when all else fails, rather than a tool to extract $$$ from the very commuters that pay their salaries.

            Oh, and I was told by my employer that I had to make it to work, strike or not or I would have lost my job. I’m sure many others were in the same situation, and given the massive disruption it is highly likely that some workers were unable to make it to work, and as such lost their jobs.

          • JonathanNathan

            “They didn’t strike because they were mistreated or underpaid”–Says the person who only knows about the strike whatever the Chronicle and the Merc News publish. You’re clearly unaware of the workplace safety issues.

            “As such, it should truly be a last resort when all else fails, rather than a tool to extract $$$ from the very commuters that pay their salaries.”–Are you under the impression that the BART workers strike constantly or something? They’ve been sacrificing for years so your fares could stay low and you thank them for that by demanding that they keep sacrificing.

            “Oh, and I was told by my employer that I had to make it to work, strike or not or I would have lost my job.”–Sure you were.

          • jony_bo

            I would love to “sacrifice” the way BART workers have “sacrificed” over the years. High pay, early retirement on full pensions, sweet benefits, rock solid job security. Where do I sign up? Oh that’s right, if you don’t have friends in the union you don’t stand a chance at getting one of these cush jobs.

            The only thing that will come of this strike is that the gap between relatively well off BART employees and relatively poor commuters they serve will widen. Fares go up and BART employees get richer, hooray.

            All labor disputes are not created equal. Sadly I fear that blind support for this strike will work to alienate the majority and discredit the entire labor movement :(

          • JonathanNathan

            “Oh that’s right, if you don’t have friends in the union you don’t stand a chance at getting one of these cush jobs.”–There it is. One of the most common roots of anti-union sentiment: “I don’t have the spine to unionize my workplace so I’m jealous of people who benefit from unions!”

      • GreyFedora

        I’ve also glanced at the salaries database referenced above. It doesn’t really compare apples to oranges. Many of the positions listed are higher paid management, which skews the average.There are also quite a few senior police officers. I couldn’t find the salary of the cop on the beat.

        The front line supervisory positions listed seem to pay an average of 85K on the check, with a hell of a lot of overtime, (I’m assuming front line supervisors are represented because of the OT amounts)

        BART Contributes about 10K Medical, and 8K employer pension and 401K contributions. So, if you assume a worker bee makes about 10% less than a front line supervisor, figure about 77K base.

        I didn’t include overtime, lump sum payments, or non-cash income, as the chart was from 2011.

        After 3 or 4 pages, I actually found a couple line workers: a Power and Mechanical Worker whose base is $44.3K, or about $22/hour. This worker had $8.6K in OT, similar medical, pension, and 401 K as the supervisor.

        I also found a train operator, his base was $63.1, or $31.60/hr. He also earned a hell of a lot of overtime, his medical was $20K, and about the same pension and 401K.

        The graph is also incorrect in that it includes employee contributions to retirement plans as compensation, but its usually only a couple thousand per year.

  • brmull

    This is a great post. I don’t reflexively support all strikes. I like to learn more about them first. But what I’ve read about BART workers’ situation seems reasonable. BART workers are lucky in the sense that they are high profile and can get the public’s attention.

    Non-union workers should instead think of themselves as belonging to a really crappy union that has zero power to negotiate with their employers. That kind of puts it into perspective: What are they going to do to make their lives better, rather than try to beggar thy neighbor?

  • Bastet

    To anyone who would oppose unions, Please, please, please read this. New Zealand broke down unions in the 90′s and now the minimum wage is $13.75c. This is $4.50 PER/HR below the living wage in this country.
    Living wage ($18.25 in NZ) is calculated at the minimum needed to function in society based on a 38 hour week. The poverty rate here has dramatically increased since the breakdown of the unions and its only getting worse. Do not let this happen in your country.

    • Roger

      Are you kidding? Have you ever lived somewhere that is not New Zealand?

      NZ is a fine place to live and work, and I would argue that the poor in NZ are 100x better off than the poor in USA (I have lived in both countries); your argument doesn’t actually support the existence of unions at all.

      • Bastet

        I am not even originally from New Zealand, let alone never having lived anywhere else. American housing, electric, landlines, mobiles, internet & food are all cheap as chips comparatively. The USA also has places like Walmart for small items that NZ cannot even begin to compete with. Big ticket items like cars are less expensive by a truckload. NZ has no tax free threshold and only a 3 tier taxation system compared to the USA’s 5 tier system. Goods and services tax is 15% in NZ and 8% in the USA. There is no tipping in NZ. The hourly rate is it. The average Kiwi is on the bottom tier taxation rate of $0-$40k handing over 24% income tax.

        Honestly, I’m finding it hard to believe you’ve even had a holiday here, let alone lived here.

        • Roger

          Haha Ok… Goods are expensive in NZ, but you’re forgetting that our minimum wage actually covers us pretty well and getting and maintaining a life on the dole is easy as all hell. The middle tax bracket is the only one that’s actually higher than the US (as far as I can remember), and we don’t have to worry about state (or city) taxes on top of that (for salary or GST). School, healthcare etc are all covered by these “high” taxes.

          Don’t get me started on tips, waiters in NZ are guaranteed 13 an hour which is, what, double what it is in the US? Are you red or blue? Tips are a far right-wing type of pay; a high wage with no tips guarantees that you get a decent income no matter how bad you are at your job.

          Now, the reason I am not living there at the moment is the fact that there’s no upper class and the middle class is also pretty fucking meh. This is, of course, the result of the high cost of living and a total govt priority put on feeding the lower class.

          • Bastet

            It sounds like you haven’t been here in many years. I lived here previously, left for 7 years and returned 6-7 months ago. Full-time work barely covers expenses (and Im paid higher than minimum wage). I’m in Wellington which is near double the cost of anywhere in the south island but not as expensive as Auckland. When I got back, I was shocked at how radically it had changed. Cheap rent here is $350-$400 per/wk for a 1 bedroom; $500 and up for a 2 bedroom. And for that you can expect an apartment, no garden, neighbors above, below, left, right and across the corridor. Add to that power bills monthly that resemble a US quarterly bill. People on the dole are rapidly moving to the Hutt or further out because unless they share a room they can’t afford to live here.

            Honestly, if its been a few years since you’ve lived here, expect to return to an extremely different place. The minimum wage has not come close to matching inflation and without unions, it simply wont ever do that.

            Left or right? I’m a swing voter. I believe in health, welfare, education and elder care (left values) but I also see a need to protect small, locally owned businesses that keeps the currency circulating in the local economy while providing jobs (centre right values).