If the massive union workers’ protests radiate from Wisconsin and Ohio across the country, you can almost bet there is one metro area that won’t participate in large numbers: San Diego County.
Across the nation, realistically, uprisings may be limited to very heavily unionized areas. Since fewer than 12 percent of American workers belong to unions (down from 36 percent 65 years ago), Americans aren’t likely to storm the Bastille over organized-labor issues, particularly since government workers’ unions dominate the labor movement today and many taxpayers are resentful of the fat pensions and early retirements that municipal safety workers, in particular, enjoy.
While polls indicate that more than 60 percent of Americans don’t approve of the type of restrictions proposed in Wisconsin for public workers, it’s questionable that many people lacking an overriding self-interest will be aroused enough to take to the streets.
California is more unionized than the nation, but sympathy for labor unions is not likely to reach the boiling point in San Diego. According to the University of California Los Angeles Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, San Diego is one of the least-unionized metro areas in the state. Last year, only 13.3 percent of San Diego workers belonged to unions. The figure was 16.5 percent in Los Angeles, 17 percent in San Francisco, and 17.6 percent statewide.
Private-sector unionization was a mere 5.3 percent in San Diego, compared with 9.7 percent in the state, 7 percent in the nation, 10 percent in San Francisco, and 9.3 percent in Los Angeles. Public-sector unionization here was 45 percent, but the comparable state number was 56.1 percent, while in bureaucrat-bloated Sacramento, not surprisingly, it was 58.8 percent. San Francisco was close at 57.4 percent.
For the movement to explode across the country, protesters’ focus will have to broaden. It will take more cosmic grievances to bring up the bile — say, the repugnant gap between the superrich and the not-so-rich. Income and wealth disparities are a major factor setting Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Iran aflame. (Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak may personally control as much as $70 billion in wealth — about twice as much as the right-wing, Kansas-based Koch brothers, who are shoveling money and advice to the Wisconsin governor.)
Americans should feel bitter resentment that average people’s wages, adjusted for inflation, have gone nowhere for 20 years, while the richest 1 percent have seen their incomes grow 33 percent over the period. Folks should gnash their teeth that the richest 1 percent rake in 24 percent of total income and the wealthiest 1 percent have more net worth than the bottom 90 percent. The top 15 hedge-fund managers are bringing home an average of $1 billion a year and paying only 17 percent taxes.
Someday, such figures will have people ready to revolt. But not yet — and almost certainly not in San Diego, which has an ugly antiunion and anti–free speech history. In 1912, disaffected workers, including members of the leftist Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) would gather in the Stingaree district, filled with whorehouses and opium dens, to hear soapbox orations about workers’ rights and social inequality. The city council passed ordinances severely restricting free speech. Police threw protesters in a vermin-infested jail. San Diego vigilantes, spurred on by hate-filled newspapers, physically brutalized the workers protesting uncivilized conditions.
San Diego gained the reputation as the city least tolerant of free speech — and that legacy remains. Mainstream media and the establishment still disparage anyone challenging the conventional wisdom.
Income inequality can foment social defiance, but San Diego is more balanced than one might suspect. The Census Bureau has a Gini Index, which measures income inequality on a scale of 0 to 100. Metro areas with scores closer to zero have more equality; those closer to 100 have more inequality. In 2009, San Diego was about in the middle of major metro areas. The most unequal metro area, 54th on the list, was New York City, home of Wall Street. The most equal, number 1, was Salt Lake City. San Diego came in 25th — not bad at all, and right at the U.S. average. (Traditionally, the most unequal — too small to be included in the largest 54 metro areas — has been Southern Connecticut, including superupscale Greenwich, Darien, and New Canaan. That’s where so many of those hedge funds are based, in the aptly named Gold Coast.)
It’s true that San Diego County median rents — at $1224 monthly — are the fourth highest in the nation, according to the Census, and even though housing values have plunged 36.6 percent from their late 2005 high, the median housing price is $387,600, according to the National Association of Realtors. But San Francisco tops that at $588,900, and San Jose is higher still at $628,700. What do you want to do: go to Youngstown, Ohio, where the median price is $60,400? (Mobsters will smack down any labor protests in Youngstown.)
San Diego’s cost-of-living index, as compiled by the Council for Community and Economic Research, is 32.5 percent higher than the nation’s — about the same as Boston’s and Philadelphia’s. But San Diego housing costs are 93.3 percent higher than the national norm; utilities costs are slightly lower than in other cities, and costs of groceries, transportation, and health care are only 7 to 15 percent higher than in other metro areas.
Housing affordability is still a problem, despite the crash. Only 62 percent of county households can afford to purchase an entry-level home, according to the California Association of Realtors. That compares with 69 percent in California and 80 percent in the United States.
It has always been said that San Diegans are hit with a sunshine tax. They live on psychic income. That’s because, historically, incomes have been only a bit above average while the cost of living has been well above the national norm. But San Diegans’ incomes have been creeping up. Last year, per capita personal income in the county was $45,630, or 27th highest among 366 metro areas, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Southern Connecticut was far ahead at $73,720, and San Francisco was second at $59,696. But the Bay Area’s cost of living is 62 percent above the nation’s.
You could live in Yuma ($25,496) or El Centro ($28,154) and pay a different kind of sunshine tax — too much sunshine and too little income.
Culturally and economically, San Diego is definitely not likely to join lustily in the union protest movement, even if the focus becomes income inequality. The county doesn’t breed dissent, and the overlords don’t tolerate it. ■