Fast food chefs and cashiers. Caretakers. Housewives. Hospital staff. School bus drivers. Custodians. state employees.
Workers in all kinds of industries are demanding more wages and benefits to keep up with the rising cost of living in California. They are backed by a wave of Democratic-led legislation making its way through the state Capitol, converging with ballot measures and funding requests from Gov. Gavin Newsom, to create a moment of workers’ rights that seems unique even for one of the most unionized. States friendly to the nation.
The calls come as support staff from the Los Angeles Unified District, the second-largest school district in the country, walked out of classrooms on strike and state workers demonstrated outside the Capitol in Sacramento this week.
“We used to be able to afford to eat out, but even fast food is expensive…we would donate to food banks and now we find ourselves going to those same food banks to get things for ourselves.” Tammy Rodriguez, an employee of the Department of Motor Vehicles and a member of SEIU Local 1000, said through tears on the Capitol steps Monday before contract negotiations with the state. “As state employees, we should be able to pay for only everyday things.”
Earlier this month, domestic workers such as nannies and housekeepers stood on those very steps pushing for a state bill to pass. Senator Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) that would give them the occupational safety protections offered to most other employees in the state.
“I actually suffered a miscarriage due to the level of dangerous conditions I experienced,” Mirna Arana, a member of the California Domestic Workers Coalition, said in Spanish through a translator, describing cleaning up to 10 houses a day in the peak of your workload “No other worker should experience what I experienced.”
Tia Orr, executive director of Service Employees International Union California, said that while the state has “always been the frontrunner” when it comes to worker rights, the lingering pandemic frustrations of those considered essential workers, combined with inflationary pressures, has created a special momentum.
Bills introduced this year include a mandate for a $25 minimum wage for healthcare workers; a proposal for more than double paid sick time; and new regulations for fast food franchisees in terms of wages and hours. Meanwhile, a ballot measure will ask voters next year if they support raising the state minimum wage to $18 an hour, which, if passed, would make it the highest in the nation.
“We are moving forward with an aggressive agenda that we believe is a game changer and we hope to shift the balance of power toward the worker,” said Orr, who represents 700,000 service workers. “People are fed up with corporate power. And it will take more than a salary: they want a clear, strong voice and a seat at the table.”
California’s already deep income inequality worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic as the state’s rich got richer and the state’s poor poorer. Income is often not enough to meet basic needs in the state, according to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California published this month.
Families in the state’s richest income category earn 11 times more than families at the bottom, $291,000 versus $26,000 respectively, according to the report. In 1980, that gap was narrower: Higher-income families earned seven times as much as low-income families back then. The current gap reflects income growth of 63% for the richest over the past 40 years and growth of just 7% for the poorest, according to the report.
That growing divide has sparked outrage from low-income workers seeking to hold their wealthier employers accountable, said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in worker organizing and protests,” he said, pointing to a historic strike by University of California workers that began in November and lasted for weeks and led to wage gains. “During the pandemic, we had such a contradiction where people were being celebrated as essential workers on the front lines, and yet they were earning poverty wages. Now this is a time when the workers are really showing their discontent.”
More strikes could be on the horizon. The Writers Guild of America is in negotiations with the Hollywood studios, and the workers at California State University are demanding more in wages and benefits.
Other bills introduced this year include a proposal to allow in-home providers who care for Californians who are elderly or have disabilities to negotiate with the state over wages and benefits, just as Newsom allowed child care providers to do in 2021.
An invoice by State Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (D-Los Angeles), a former union organizer, aims to protect workers who report labor violations, including allegations of wage theft or unequal pay, from being fired or harassed.
Investing in workers now prevents higher costs to the state in the long run, as the public safety net must fill the gaps left by employers, he said.
“Work isn’t doing what it used to do, which is support families and communities, so we’re doing that work as policymakers and our state budget is being overwhelmed because we have a business model that doesn’t meet the needs basics,” Smallwood-Cuevas said. .
The California Chamber of Commerce has labeled many employee-focused bills as “job killers” warning that they could have unintended and costly consequences for employers and could hinder business growth and employment in the state.
California is home to some of the strictest employee rights laws in the country, and Jennifer Barrera, the chamber’s president and CEO, has concerns about enacting more workplace laws, especially general regulations for different types of workers. industries.
“California has long been viewed as the state with the most protective and strict labor requirements of any part of the country,” Barrera said. “For the most part, we are not necessarily opposed to the underlying policies. It’s really about the way they’re implemented. How do you make all of this work in the workplace without the potential threat of a devastating lawsuit that could put you out of business?
State Sen. Brian Dahle (R-Bieber) said California employers will have a hard time competing with a rising minimum wage. Instead, lawmakers should focus on policies that lower the cost of living.
He pointed to Republican-backed proposals to cut energy and gas costs that have been rejected over regulatory and other concerns.
“You have to pay a higher salary because people can’t afford to live here. Food costs are going up, rent is exploding. At the end of the day, wages don’t fix the problem, you have to lower the cost of living,” said Dahle, who lost his gubernatorial bid last year. “If we can lower their electric bill, it’s like giving them a five-dollar-an-hour raise.”
Dahle doubted that any labor-backed bill would face scrutiny in the Democratic-majority Legislature.
“Let’s be honest, the unions in this building, there’s no question about it, are powerful,” he said.
Influential labor organizations poured millions into legislative races last year to help pro-union candidates. SEIU helped its preferred candidates by injecting nearly $4 million into eight independent expenses alone.
Newsom has been friendly to workers, signing a first-in-the-nation law on Labor Day that created a council to set new standards for fast-food wages and working conditions. That plan is now on hold after restaurant and business trade groups gathered enough signatures to get a measure on next year’s ballot to ask voters to strike it down.
He also signed a law making it easier for farmworkers to join unions.
But he could hit the brakes, as he warned against ongoing large investments amid a projected budget deficit. He has clashed with unions before, including the California State Building and Construction Trades Council, a formidable political player representing plumbers, electricians, blacksmiths and construction workers. He disappointed the powerful California Nurses Association. when he went back on his promises of single-payer health care.
Joe Sanberg, a Los Angeles investor and anti-poverty activist who spearheaded the 2024 minimum wage ballot measure, is less optimistic about the success of worker rights bills, especially around wages.
It was necessary to bring the minimum wage directly to voters, said Sanberg, who has considered a 2020 presidential run and said he is “undecided” on whether to run for governor in 2026.
“Anyone who trusts Gavin Newsom to support higher wages is a daredevil,” he said. “Why hasn’t it been done already? What gets in the way?