A Little History on the Labor Movement

Today is the 100 year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 young women and girls in New York City on March 25, 1911. It was one of the worst workplace disasters in our nation’s history. The sight of immigrant girls and women leaping to their deaths—some with their clothes on fire, some holding hands—horrified the entire nation. The tragedy not only helped spark the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union but the entire labor movement in the United States.

Fast forward to 2011 … I’ve received a couple of comments from readers on how Governor Jerry Brown has been wrongly “blamed” for giving California public sector workers the right to unionize. For example, the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion article stating:

The sharp rise in public union membership in the 1960s and 1970s coincides with the movement to give public unions collective bargaining rights. Wisconsin was the first state to provide those rights in 1959, other states followed, and California became the biggest convert in 1978 under Jerry Brown in his first stint as Governor. (A Union Education, Wall Street Journal On-line.)

It’s true that during his first two terms as Governor (1975-1983), Jerry Brown signed the Educational Employment Relations Act of 1976 giving collective bargaining rights to schools and community college employees, the State Employer-Employee Relations Act of 1978 (now called the Dills Act) giving collective bargaining rights to state employees, and the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act of 1979, giving collective bargaining rights to higher education employees.

However, those laws were not truly ground-breaking because they were not the first laws in California giving public sector employees the right to collective bargaining. The first law that gave public sector employees the right to collective bargaining is the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act (MMBA). The MMBA was signed in 1968 and gave city and county employees the right to collective bargaining. The MMBA was signed by a former union president. No, it wasn’t Jerry Brown. It was Ronald Reagan.  By signing the MMBA, Governor Reagan made California the second state in the nation to allow public sector collective bargaining. The first was Wisconsin in 1959.

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