Union job paid for an education that paid off

Originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Feb. 27, 2011

By Steve Lopez

I grew up in an apartment house owned by my grandfather in downtown Pittsburg, Calif. No, there’s no “h” at the end of Pittsburg. We did it our way up there in Contra Costa County, an hour east of San Francisco.

Neither of my parents went to college, but we always did just fine because my dad had union jobs that paid a living wage. He drove trucks for milk and bread companies, and later worked as a candy and tobacco salesman.

When I was 7, my parents moved my brother and sister and me out of the apartment because they’d saved enough for a down payment on the house my mom and dad still live in. I always had part-time jobs growing up, but when I went to San Jose State, my parents paid my tuition and the bulk of my room and board.

For a couple of reasons, I’ve been thinking lately about the union job that paid for my college degree. First, because attacking unions has become a national sport. And second, because I’ve been notified by San Jose State that the school wants to give me an honorary doctorate degree.

Don’t laugh, even though my wife, children, colleagues and acquaintances all did when they heard the news. Tempting as it was to be able to make dinner reservations as Dr. Lopez and to tell the motley crew of scribes who sit near me that I wanted to be referred to as Dr. Lopez from here on out, I wasn’t sure I would accept the honor. I wasn’t a particularly good student in my day, and I haven’t done anything particularly deserving of the recognition.

If I were to look back though the several thousand columns I’ve written, I’d probably find one in which I made fun of the very idea of an honorary doctorate degree. I Googled “honorary doctorate” and here’s what Wikipedia had to say:

“Some universities and colleges have been accused of granting honorary degrees in exchange for large donations.”

I assure you, cross my heart, that I did not pay a bribe, and if I were in a position to make a large donation, it would probably be to my daughter’s college fund.

Wikipedia went on to say that some recipients “have been criticized if they insist on being called ‘doctor.'” Jeez, it’s not like I’d try to perform surgery or anything.

When San Jose State President Don Kassing called to chat, I told him I feared that if I were to accept, honorary doctorates would be forever diminished for future recipients.

He told me to think about it.

When I left San Jose State in 1975, I worked for three small California newspapers that paid the going rate — next to nothing. Then I got a job at the Oakland Tribune, a union paper, and my salary nearly doubled.

I’ve had union and nonunion jobs since then (this one is nonunion), and I’ve seen and written about both the great benefits and the many excesses of organized labor.

This week, I got an e-mail from a reader who recalled a column I wrote about the looming cost of unfunded mandates for teachers and other public employees. She asked if I was happy about being on the same team as the governor of Wisconsin, who wants to take away collective bargaining rights, and the billionaire Koch brothers, who have spent millions trying to destroy civil service unions.

Sure, I’ve hammered away at the UTLA leadership on occasion. But still, I was insulted.

“I think teachers are underpaid,” I wrote back. But I added that California’s average retirement ages of 54 for cops and firefighters and 59 for everyone else are outrageous and unsustainable, and so are the pension-spiking tricks that have led to 20,000 retirees collecting six-figure salaries.

I think we need to bring public employee unions and pensions into line with economic reality, as I’ve written many times. But we don’t have to make them extinct. Shouldn’t there be one last place to make a middle-class living with decent benefits and none of the risks posed by 401(k)s that are tied to shaky markets?

As my colleague George Skelton brilliantly pointed out last week (he’s a San Jose State alum, naturally), inflation-adjusted incomes for the top 10% of Californians have gone up 43% in the last 20 years and 81% for the wealthiest 1%.

Income for the lower 60%, meanwhile, dropped by 12%.

Unions aren’t responsible for that consolidation of wealth. If anything, the fact that the rich are getting richer is an argument to organize against the disparity. And to quit dismantling institutions like the state university system that has balanced the playing field for low-income and middle-class students by the millions over the decades.

Wikipedia also said that honorary doctorate recipients are expected to make a speech.

I think I’m going to accept.

And in my speech, I’m going to say that I grew up at a time when upward mobility was a realistic objective in California rather than a wild dream.

With no college education of their own, my parents were able, through hard work — and fair pay for that work — to take me to the doctor when I was sick, to enroll me in public schools that were adequately funded instead of at the bottom of the national rankings, and to send me to a proud state university system that has prepared great battalions of students for what was once a thriving economy.

They can boo if they want, cheer if they must.

Either way, no need to call me Dr. Lopez. Unless you feel a need to.