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We're Fighting Over Scraps

The current debate in the Bay Area over whether public employees deserve modest pay raises is a Republican wet dream. Plus, the downside of the Prop 8 decision.

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Despite last week's Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage, conservative Republicans have to be smiling right now in California. Their decades-long campaign to keep taxes low for big corporations and wealthy individuals and to starve government of resources is working beautifully. So much so, that, even in the liberal Bay Area, traditional progressive constituencies — Democratic-elected officials and organized labor — are locked in a bitter fight over limited public funds, resulting in strikes, walkouts, and ugly feuds, and no one is seriously talking about the real problem we face: the devastation of the middle class and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor.

Instead, the arguments du jour concern whether BART station agents and train operators deserve modest raises after years of pay cuts, if Oakland librarians and Head Start coordinators should pay more toward their retirement plans, and whether AC Transit bus drivers and East Bay Regional Park District rangers deserve to earn enough money to afford a home or a decent apartment. In short, we fight over scraps.

And for many of us, these types of petty arguments are seductive. After all, a substantial portion of Bay Area residents haven't had a pay raise in a long time — or worse yet, haven't been able to find full-time work, despite the recovering economy. As such, it's easy to feel jealous or resentful of others, particularly public employees demanding raises, and to think, "Why should they get more, when they already have better benefits and retirement plans than I have?"

But that kind of thinking — that kind of infighting among Democrats — is exactly what the Right Wing wants. The resentment and jealousy that many people are feeling toward public employees because of the BART strike and other labor disputes breeds more resentment and distrust of government, which, in turn, breeds the anti-tax sentiment that conservatives desire. It's an insidious feedback loop: Keep taxes on the wealthy and corporations low, starve government of funds, watch workers strike, and then see middle-class Democrats get angry at public employees so that they'll vote against raising taxes.

In California, this scenario has been replayed over and over since the 1970s. In the Bay Area, we've seen it again this week in the various labor-management disputes involving BART, the City of Oakland, AC Transit, and East Bay Regional Parks. Last fall, it was at the Port of Oakland. In each case, the fight has been over a relatively small amount of money in the overall scheme of things. In each case, there's been a public backlash against public-employee unions. And in each case, middle-class workers have publicly declared that the wages they take home are simply not enough to pay their bills.

And the truth is: They're right.

In fact, many Bay Area residents are underpaid: They don't make enough to afford a home and save for their kids' college education, let alone their own retirement.

At the same time, the rich get richer and corporate profits soar. According to The New York Times' list of highest-paid CEOs, a substantial portion of the nation's best-paid executives lead California-based companies, most of which are headquartered in the Bay Area. Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle and czar of the America's Cup yacht race on San Francisco Bay, topped the list with $96.2 million in total compensation in 2012. In addition, the latest tech boom has created thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of new millionaires in the Bay Area. And local corporations like Oracle, Google, Apple, and Chevron continue to post multibillion-dollar profits each year.

And yet we get angry with transit workers and city employees for asking for a living wage. And we argue over whether our public agencies can afford to pay them, provide basic services, and avoid bankruptcy at the same time. And then our elected leaders in Sacramento and Washington, DC, sensing our frustration, view raising taxes as political suicide. Case in point: state legislators couldn't even pass a bill this year that sought to close a major loophole that allows corporations to avoid paying sufficient property taxes.

It's a Republican wet dream.

The Downside of the Prop 8 Decision

Last week, Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage represented a landmark moment for gay rights in California and the nation. The court's 5-4 ruling, overturning the federal anti-gay-marriage law, known as DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), was particularly historic because it means that the federal government will now recognize the legitimacy of same-sex marriages in states that allow them.

The high court's decision on Proposition 8 also finally brought marriage equality to California. But the court's ruling on that case could prove to be problematic in the future. Perhaps that's why two of the court's most conservative jurists — John Roberts and Antonin Scalia — signed onto it.

To recap, the court voted 5-4 to strike down Prop 8 on the grounds that state Attorney General Kamala Harris and Governor Jerry Brown had refused to defend the law during the appeals process. Although Prop 8 supporters had attempted to continue the appeal, the Supreme Court said they had no legal right to do so.

Although Harris and Brown deserve credit for taking a moral and ethical stand against Prop 8, their decision — coupled with the Supreme Court ruling — could spell trouble for other democratically enacted propositions. If, for example, a future Republican governor or attorney general refused to defend a measure he or she disagreed with — say Prop 215, which legalized medical pot in California — then it could effectively mean that the law would be doomed to defeat, even though a majority of state residents had voted for it.

As such, it would have been much better if the court had ruled squarely on the constitutional merits of Prop 8 — like it did with DOMA. 

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