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How California Lawmakers Embraced Hot Labor Summer

Unions won major victories this session on pay for fast food and health care workers, benefits for strikers and bargaining rights. Business groups say that labor has too much power at the Capitol.

Published on Friday, September 15, 2023 | 2:36 pm
Fast food workers rally through the streets of Sacramento on Aug. 31, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

The hot labor summer was scorching at California’s Capitol.

As the legislative session wrapped Thursday night, unions could point to an impressive string of wins this year, some of which only surfaced in the past few weeks: Bills to increase the number of guaranteed sick days, raise the minimum wage for health care and fast food workers, allow legislative staff to unionize and make striking employees eligible for unemployment insurance, a benefit long on labor’s wish list.

While Gov. Gavin Newsom could still veto some of the measures over the next month, organized labor’s overwhelming victories — notable even in a Legislature stacked with union-friendly Democrats — caught the attention of both allies and opponents. One Republican senator complained on the floor that “the fourth branch of government in this Capitol building has a little bit too much power this year.”

Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, head of the California Labor Federation, said unions have worked over the past few years, as a large portion of the Legislature turned over, to elect new members with a strong track record of championing workers’ rights. That paid off this session, as major strikes across the country powered a surging public interest in the labor movement and helped unions push through a “really heavy agenda” in Sacramento.

“The legislators are representatives of the people, right, and they see what we see. And that’s that unions are exceptionally strong right now. They’re exceptionally popular among their constituents,” said Gonzalez Fletcher, a former Assemblymember. “I don’t think anyone wants to be on the opposite side of that right now.”

But it’s also a prelude to a looming electoral battle with the business community over taxation.

Several of the late-breaking measures pushed by organized labor, including a proposed constitutional amendment that would set new rules for changing tax law, were aimed at least in part at boosting their campaign to defeat a November 2024 ballot initiative that would make it more challenging to raise taxes.

“Everything that is taking place is to be able to shape the ballot,” said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, which sponsored the initiative. “We see it as a sign of desperation. They’re willing to say and do anything, including amend the constitution.”

Fast food workers rally at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Aug. 31, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

Labor advocates stress that their success is not by chance, but the culmination of a decade of increased activism.

Wins elsewhere — such as the Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign that began in New York City in 2012 — encouraged California workers to take on more ambitious fights, said Mike Roth, spokesperson for the California chapter of the Service Employees International Union, one of the state’s biggest and most powerful labor organizations.

“When workers see and feel the power they create by coming together, they are inspired to push higher and broader,” Roth said.

Those ambitious fights are backed up by serious muscle at the Capitol. SEIU California, for example, was among the top lobbyist employers in the first half of year — it spent nearly $2.3 million on advocacy, ranking sixth for the period — though it was surpassed by some of its industry opponents, including McDonald’s, which spent more than $4.2 million on lobbying, and the California Business Roundtable, which spent $2.3 million.

Major labor measures that passed the Legislature this session, and which Newsom now has until Oct. 14 to sign or veto, include:

Assembly Bill 1 by Assemblymember Tina McKinnor, a Los Angeles Democrat, which would extend collective bargaining rights to legislative staff after more than two decades of attempts.
Senate Bill 616 by Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a Long Beach Democrat, which would require employers to offer at least five days of paid sick leave, up from three.
SB 799 by Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Glendale Democrat, which would make workers who have been on strike for at least two weeks eligible for unemployment benefits. The proposal has failed before but was revived as a pair of Hollywood strikes by actors and writers grind on.

Unions also negotiated two last-minute deals with industry groups to avert ballot fights that could have cost tens of millions of dollars or more. AB 1228 by Assemblymember Chris Holden, a Pasadena Democrat, would boost wages for fast food workers in exchange for backing off a proposal to hold corporations liable for their franchisees’ labor violations. The industry plans to withdraw a November 2024 referendum challenging a recent law that created a new regulatory council for fast food restaurants. SB 525 by Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, a Los Angeles Democrat, would hike the hourly wage for health workers to $25, but place a 10-year moratorium on local measures to increase compensation.

“I think we’re responding to the abnormal economic situations of Californians,” said Durazo, citing the pandemic turmoil, high inflation, expanding gig economy and growing wage inequality of recent years. “That’s all we’re trying to do, is help people catch up.”

Assemblymember Ash Kalra, a San Jose Democrat who leads the Assembly Labor Committee, credited the leadership of new Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas and his team for making labor legislation a priority and helping position it to pass. Rivas, a Salinas Democrat, took over the speakership this summer.

“It matters that the infrastructure is in place to get these bills across the finish line,” Kalra said. “The tough work was done before they got to the floor.”

That was a source of frustration and disappointment for Lapsley of the California Business Roundtable, who is now counting on the governor to “do the right thing and create some checks and balances by vetoing some of these bills.”

He said Rivas had signaled at the start of his tenure that he would seek more of an equilibrium between workers’ rights and job growth. But “he seemed to embrace giving the labor groups everything they want,” Lapsley said. “It raises questions about what the future looks like for the statewide business community.”

Rivas called the union victories “a sign of the times… some challenging times for our state, and they’re counting on us to get the work done and deliver results.”

Legislators on both sides of the aisle agreed that progressive gains in recent elections have lifted organized labor’s prospects at the Capitol, though some expect that momentum will eventually swing back to the middle.

“There’s an ebb and flow to all these issues, and all of our politics,” said Sen. Steve Glazer, a moderate Democrat from Orinda who voted against the unemployment insurance bill. “These things all shift through the decades, and I think that they’ll continue to shift.”

Sen. Roger Niello, a Roseville Republican, described the volume of labor bills this session as a “natural existence” of the Legislature, given that the Democrats who make up a supermajority tend to align with unions.

“If you look at past years, it’ll fluctuate,” he said. “But you’ll always see a lot of pro-labor bills.”

Assemblymembers convene during the final day of the legislative session at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Sept. 14, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

Though the hot labor summer gave unions a boost in public support for their agenda, another animating force behind the spurt of dealmaking and victories at the end of session is their mounting campaign to defeat a tax measure that the California Business Roundtable qualified for the November 2024 ballot.

That initiative, dubbed the Taxpayer Protection Act, would introduce several changes that make it more challenging to raise taxes in California, including a requirement for the Legislature to put any new or higher tax before voters for approval and another increasing the margin to pass a voter-initiated special tax at the local level, to two-thirds from a simple majority. Organized labor worries this would undermine funding for public services and infrastructure projects that employ union members.

“It was certainly leverage to get people unified and working together,” said Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat.

The deals on minimum wage increases for fast food workers and health care workers cleared the deck so that unions can focus their political resources next year. And the late push for ACA 13 by Assemblymember Chris Ward, a San Diego Democrat, which will now appear on the November ballot, was aimed directly at the California Business Roundtable measure. ACA 13 would require that any changes to the threshold for approving state and local taxes pass by the same margin; if it wins, the Taxpayer Protection Act would then need to secure two-thirds support from voters rather than a simple majority, a high hurdle for a statewide measure.

“There’s a reason why the unions are doing this — because they’re scared to death,” said Lapsley, who complained that the maneuvering stole focus from other issues that should have been the priority at the end of session, including a failed effort to fix California’s collapsing market for homeowners insurance.

But Gonzalez Fletcher of the California Labor Federation argues that going through the Legislature is a more responsive process that results in better policy for workers.

“Nobody wants to legislate by ballot box, right?” she said. “We want to actually have prolonged discussions and make sure that these things work well.”

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