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California Unions, Wielding Outsized Power, Make Big Push for Legislative Gains

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California unions represent a relatively small faction of the state’s workforce but wield great political power, says Dan Walters. (CalMatters/Lauren Justice)
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This has been a year of labor unrest in California, a state in which unions represent a relatively small faction of the state’s workforce but wield great political power.

Dan Walters with a serious expression

Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

The most obvious example is the protracted strikes of actors and writers in Southern California’s iconic entertainment industry, but Tinseltown’s picketers are just a fraction of the workers who have been demanding more in wages and benefits and are willing to walk off the job to get them.

There have been 53 labor strikes in California so far this year, involving 276,340 participants, or about 10% of total union membership in the state, according to Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker. That doesn’t include strikes that began in 2022, either.

What’s happening in California mirrors trends in other states, leading to much speculation about underlying factors, such as post-pandemic angst and inflation.

As the California Legislature enters the last days of its 2023 session, the growing unrest in workplaces is manifesting itself in high-stakes drives by union officials to gain new members and more benefits for those members.

Plethora of Union-Sponsored Bills

The final agendas for legislative action are studded with union-sponsored bills that, in some cases, would make major alterations in the relationships between California employers and their workers.

One of the biggest is Assembly Bill 1228, which would make fast food franchising companies such as McDonald’s liable, along with their franchise holders, for labor law violations.

It’s the latest move by the Service Employees International Union in its drive to organize fast food workers, and responds to – or retaliates for – the fast food industry’s referendum, due to appear on the 2024 ballot, aimed at overturning previous legislation. The law in question sought to create a state commission to oversee fast food wages and working conditions.

The Hollywood strikes have spawned a late-session effort to make strikers eligible for unemployment insurance benefits.

“Striking workers have earned their unemployment insurance benefits. They deserve to use them when they are unable to work,” said Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, head of the California Labor Federation. “We can’t have workers economically insecure because they’re forced to go out on strike, it harms them and their families and has rippling effects on the entire community.”

Business groups oppose the measure, of course, arguing that since employers finance unemployment insurance benefits, they would be unfairly underwriting strikes.

Still another hard-fought measure, Senate Bill 525, would raise the minimum wage for health care workers to $21 an hour and later to $25. It’s needed, health care unions say, to allow workers in a vital industry to meet their rising living costs. Hospitals and other health care providers see it as too costly. Los Angeles County says its system would take a $200 million hit.

SB 525 is one of several union-backed measures to make the California Chamber of Commerce’s “job killer” list, meaning it’s a high-priority target for the influential business organization.

Senate Bill 616 is another chamber target and another one on the Labor Federation’s priority list. It would increase the number of mandated paid sick leave days off from three to seven.

“We knew when we passed the first paid sick days law that three days wouldn’t be enough,” Fletcher said.

The bill “imposes new costs and leave requirements on employers of all sizes … in addition to all other enacted leave mandates that small employers throughout the state are already struggling with to implement and comply,” the chamber responded.

This is only a small sample of the union-sponsored bills pending in the session’s final days. The stakes are high in both the state’s many strikes and what happens in the Capitol over the next few weeks.

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. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan 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.

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