In the two weeks since Gavin Newsom defeated the recall ballot, California labor activists have notched up a slew of important wins.
A week after the election, the governor signed AB 701, a law requiring warehouse operators to make transparent the quota systems they use for workers, and outlawing the practice of using algorithms to minimize the number of bathroom breaks workers can take. The law allows workers to sue for relief against companies illicitly using such methods.
Then, a week later, on September 27, Newsom signed a troika of bills intended to shore up wages and workplace conditions.
There was SB62, the Garment Workers Protection Act, which unions and immigrants’ rights groups in the state have long been lobbying for. It bans paying workers piece-rate wages that routinely violate minimum wage laws, establishes hourly wages in the industry, and, perhaps most forcefully, holds fashion companies liable for the labor violations and wage theft that occur in factories supplying them with produce.
There are 45,000 garment workers in Los Angeles alone. The Garment Workers Center estimated last year that they earn an average of just $5.85 per hour, making them among the most exploited laborers in the country. All of these workers stand to benefit from the new legislation.
Next up was SB 639, which outlawed the practice of allowing companies to apply for a state license to hire disabled workers and then paying them sub-minimum wages. Disability rights advocates have long pushed for such wage protection; now California has thrown its weight behind the notion that disabled workers ought to have the right to earn a living wage.
Finally, there was SB 321, which requires Cal/OSHA to set up an advisory committee with the explicit goal of developing policies intended to better protect domestic workers, another group that, historically, has largely existed outside of state and federal safety net protections. The committee is mandated to report back to the state legislature with recommendations by the start of 2023, and will likely trigger a rash of changes for the hundreds of thousands of workers who service upwards of 2 million households in the Golden State, according to estimates generated by the UCLA Labor Center.
This same week, there were significant labor victories in California’s private sector as well.
The state’s more than 20,000 unionized janitors, represented by the SEIU United Service Workers West, signed a contract with the companies that they clean buildings for that created a $20-per-hour minimum wage for workers in the Bay Area with at least three years of experience, as well as a $20.90-per-hour wage for most Los Angeles janitors. For large office buildings, the law required that the owners hire full-time janitors, with benefits, rather than rely on part-time workers.
Then, a few days later, striking food service workers at the San Francisco Giants’ Oracle Park, organized by UNITE HERE, won a new contract that massively expands their access to medical, vision, and dental insurance; includes hazard back-pay for work in 2020 and in 2021 during the pandemic, a $7-per-hour pay increase over the next three years, and increased pension benefits. Nearly 1,000 workers will be part of this new contract.
These legislative and contract victories aren’t happening only on the Pacific Coast, of course. In September, New York City enacted the country’s most expansive wage and workplace condition protections for delivery workers. In Nevada, home care workers have won collective bargaining rights, as have state workers. In Delaware and Rhode Island, legislators approved increases in the minimum wage that would allow each state to reach a $15-per-hour minimum by 2025. In many states, including a number of red ones, paid sick leave has been expanded as the pandemic has raged. Since 2019, union membership as a percentage of the total private-sector workforce in the United States has grown, for the first time in decades.
For many reasons, in fact, the pandemic has created a political opening for labor advocates. And ongoing labor shortages have created upward pressures for wages, as has, historically, been the case with many pandemics—most famously, the Black Death in medieval Europe.
But California’s recent labor victories, especially those involving state legislation, are particularly sweet, and put in stark relief just how important elections are. Had Newsom lost the recall two weeks ago, California labor rights would have gone into deep freeze, and unions and their supporters would have had to expend all their energies simply trying to protect existing rights from a predatory governor such as Larry Elder, rather than expanding them as they are now seeking to do. Instead, with his lopsided victory, Newsom has been unleashed, his ability to tack to the left on wage and other issues amplified by the two-to-one endorsement he received from voters.