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Labor's Edge: Views from the California Labor Movement

Why I'm Speaking Out Against Prop 32

By Helen Gan

Hello, I’m Helen Gan, a member of IBEW Local 1245.

I want to persuade you to vote NO on Proposition 32. Prop 32 is a measure that will prohibit unions from contributing to political campaigns. It is part of an attempt, going on all across the country, for businesses to roll back the benefits unionization has given to workers.

I am 76 years old, and have worked for 57 years, 52 of them at PG&E. I am part of the generation who, because of the union, was able to live a good life, buy a house, travel, and have a secure old age.

I’m afraid most people have little knowledge of history, and short memories, not knowing how unions lobbied long and hard for us to get the benefits we have today.

In 1912, my mother was seven years old when she went to work in a cannery, here in San Francisco, cleaning shrimp until midnight or two in the morning. When she was twelve, she started working in a sewing factory. These jobs were piece work, with no benefits and no limit on the hours worked.

In 1920, the government declared that advocating an eight-hour day was treason, and thousands of people were arrested, thrown into jail, and held, perhaps for months, without trial.

In 1929, the Supreme Court declared that trying to limit the number of hours a child worked was unconstitutional.

Since then, the benefits we have today, Social Security, unemployment insurance, and all the rest, came into law because unions fought for them.

In 1960, PG&E was an all-white company, mostly Irish, many related, with perhaps three generations of the same family working there. I was one of the first non-whites they hired.

I, and a few other Chinese, were only hired because the union had worked for affirmative action. Still PG&E hired no blacks. They did hire a couple of Hawaiians, and tried to pass them off as black. Only when the union threatened lawsuits did PG&E start hiring all minorities.

My first day at PG&E, the supervisor told me, "Now your name is O’Gan, go join the rest of the Irish!" Then, he snapped my bra strap. Today, he would be sued for harassment, but that is how things were back then.

There was a dress code, dresses only, no pants. If you came to work not wearing stockings, you were sent home. For men, white shirt, dark suit, tie, and no beard.

When affirmative action came in, Chinese women were the first hired. The company figured that Chinese girls would be quiet. And not create problems. Boy, were they in for a surprise!

Chinese women are strong, not the china dolls seen in movies; as soon as we had an issue, we hollered for the shop steward. On my first job evaluation, the supervisor noted, "She is a fast and accurate keypunch operator, but she is defiant."

I don’t understand those people who do not pay union dues, but are pleased to take the benefits the unions bring them. Don’t they see that companies give nothing unless the union fought for it?

Companies are constantly trying to cut back on benefits, eliminating union workers and hiring non-union “analysts,” cutting job classifications and reducing all office workers to “utility clerks,” increasing the amount workers contribute to health plans, reducing pension benefits.

Meanwhile, at PG&E, stocks have never been higher, profits greater, and CEO’s paid so much. The workers have never “lost their way,” it was the many company officers, who left, after a short time on the job, with multi-million dollar golden handshakes, who “lost the way.”

The only way unions can influence laws is through lobbying legislators. Without contributing to political campaigns, you would have no:

Social security, minimum wage laws, pension plans, eight-hour days, forty-hour week, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, health and safety rules, equal pay for equal work, job seniority, paid vacations, sick leave, no discrimination because of race, gender, age, disability, or sexual orientation. Now there is no dress code. You can wear whatever you like, or have a beard – regardless of your sex.

I can’t understand why people vote against their own interest. If Proposition 32 passes, it will be followed by many other laws reducing union activities and eroding your benefits.

For your own sake, for the sake of your children or grandchildren entering the work force, for workers everywhere, Vote NO on Prop 32.

Learn more about Prop 32.

Posted on 09/04/2012Permalink

More posts by Helen Gan

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