Lopez: The recall circus ignores California’s staggering crisis
Millions of dollars have been spent.
Punches and counterpunches have been thrown.
A gubernatorial recall election that is costing taxpayers an estimated $276 million — one year before Gov. Gavin Newsom would have had to run for a second term anyway — is just about behind us, and little has been accomplished.
Political campaigns, especially in this era of toxic division, typically generate lots of heat and very little light. This one has been no different, except for the absurdities of a throw-the-bums-out playbook in which the bluest state could end up being governed by the reddest of challengers, and a mere 15% to 20% of the vote could make that happen.
But if the recall election is about leadership failures and the many problems that have resulted — including homelessness, crime, the state of public schools and the quality of life — a major reason for all these woes has been virtually ignored before and during the campaign.
A staggering level of income inequality has affected nearly every aspect of life from cradle to grave, making California home to both the United States’ largest economy and the nation’s highest rate of poverty when the cost of living is factored in. And the pandemic has widened the divide.
In May, perhaps feeling the heat of the recall effort, and sitting on a multibillion-dollar budget surplus that is a reflection of how the rich get richer even during a pandemic, Newsom proposed $100 billion worth of programs to support businesses, train workers, fix infrastructure and address homelessness. But this redistribution of wealth would be spread out over several years and could fail to significantly reverse trends long in the making.
“Income inequality has risen substantially in the past several decades, with relatively little progress over the long term for the lowest-income families,” said a report last December by Sarah Bohn and a team of researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California. “The effects of the current recession are concentrated among low-income workers, African Americans, Latinos and women.”
These changes have been tied to global forces and began so long ago that I saw the beginning of them as a young resident of the Bay Area town of Pittsburg. When I was coming up, nobody gave a second thought to where they’d get a job or whether they could afford to buy a house. Jobs were there for the taking at U.S. Steel, Johns Manville, DuPont, Allied Chemical and Continental Can Co., where I got a job on the assembly line one summer.
You could easily afford a three-bedroom rancher on those jobs; you sent your kids to college, retired with a pension and went on a cruise every year.
Almost all of those jobs are gone now, along with the ladders of upward mobility. Now, if you don’t go to college, and maybe even if you do, you get a job at Sam’s Club, share an apartment and struggle to pay for groceries and car insurance, without enough of a cushion to handle a modest financial emergency.
Six years ago, the Boeing C-17 assembly plant closed in Long Beach, eliminating the last of the state’s large-scale blue-collar aerospace assembly jobs. I shadowed employees who made $40 an hour, with benefits, as they struggled to find jobs that paid even half that. In fact, roughly one-third of California’s workforce has made $15 an hour or less in recent years.
“Instead of $40, they want to bring us to our knees with $10 an hour, and you’ve got a thousand people lined up in the street to get it,” said Randy Sossaman, a union leader who worked on the C-17.
Yesenia Barrera, 23, fits perfectly into Sossaman’s take on California’s new economy. The Inland Empire resident worked in fast food and sales at or near minimum wage, then felt lucky to land an Amazon warehouse job at $12.75 an hour, which made it possible for her to rent a room in a house she shared with two roommates.
“I had been hearing they were going to increase it to $15 an hour,” Barrera says, so she didn’t complain about the demands of the job. But she was fired because the company’s computer algorithm for monitoring production said she wasn’t keeping up with the desired pace.
“We are carrying, bending, reaching, twisting and packing items from 30 to 60 pounds for hours a day with no proper rest time,” Barrera told an Assembly committee in Sacramento. “The algorithm fired me, and other workers like me, though we were working as hard as we could.”
Barrera told me she hadn’t given much thought at the time to the fact that her boss is one of the richest men in the world, with 950,000 U.S. employees generating $368 billion in revenue last year for Amazon. But now she is an organizer for the Warehouse Worker Resource Center and said it feels good to be part of a cause that’s challenging the status quo. A bill to help workers fight speed quotas cleared the state Senate on Wednesday.