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Two-Decade Battle Over Employee Lawsuits Heads for California Ballot

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California's unique Private Attorneys General Act, or PAGA, empowers workers to file class-action lawsuits against their employers. (Shutterstock)
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On Oct. 7, 2003, California voters decided to recall their governor, Gray Davis, less than a year after giving him a second term, and replace him with action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Five days later, in one of his last acts as governor, Davis signed Senate Bill 796, the Private Attorneys General Act, or PAGA, a unique-to-California law empowering workers to file class-action lawsuits against their employers, alleging violations of state laws governing working conditions.

Dan Walters with a serious expression

Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

Davis’ signature gave unions and personal injury attorneys a long-sought victory in their quest to gain the upper hand in employment disputes by supercharging what they contended was lackadaisical enforcement of labor laws by the state Labor Commissioner’s Office.

It was also Davis’ way of thanking unions and trial attorneys for standing by him during his two campaigns for governor and the recall election.

Business groups, of course, were and remain steadfastly opposed to PAGA, contending that it gives rapacious lawyers a hunting license to hector employers with suits or the threat of suits that are expensive to defend and even more costly to lose.

In the two decades since PAGA was created, there have been two parallel efforts by the contending forces. Unions and attorneys have sought to increase PAGA’s reach while employers have sought to undo what the Legislature and Davis had wrought.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.