Earlier this week, California’s Senate passed SB 321, the Health And Safety for All Workers Act. Introduced by progressive Senator Maria Elena Durazo, the bill, which has now been taken up by the Assembly, would plug a shameful gap in the state’s OSHA coverage: the nearly five-decades-long exclusion of domestic workers, the majority of whom are women of color, since the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1973.
“We want safety and security for all workers, including those who work as nannies, home care workers, and housekeepers,” says Norma Miranda, a Los Angeles–based domestic worker who is part of the California Domestic Workers’ Coalition (CDWC) and an activist with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles (CHIRLA).
Miranda notes that in the existing unregulated labor market of domestic work, workers have no way of distinguishing the good employers from the bad, those who will help pay for health care coverage and accident insurance and safe working environments versus those who make no effort to maintain safe conditions inside their homes. She talks of the high rate of respiratory illnesses and skin ailments faced by workers exposed on a daily basis to toxic cleaning chemicals, as well as the potential for accidents when workers have to move heavy pieces of furniture.
If it becomes law, SB 321 will mandate Cal-OSHA to set up a committee that will report back within six months on how to extend workplace protections to cover domestic workers. Among other things, the law will require employers to post warnings in areas of their homes that have been deemed unsafe, thus alerting future employees of potential risks inside the homes. It also sets up a system of fines to punish violators of these new codes.
The CDWC hopes that extending OSHA protections to this group of laborers, and classifying private homes as workplaces if people are being paid to work in them on a regular basis, will create pressures across the state to improve working conditions inside homes. In late May, the coalition held a sizable protest in Los Angeles in support of the legislation. Legislators paid attention. A few days later, on June 1, the Senate passed the measure by 30 votes to 10. The bill will likely also pass the Assembly and be signed into law by Governor Newsom.
That California is now looking to extend workplace protections to a part of the workforce that historically has been largely invisible politically speaks volumes to how much the state’s politics have shifted in recent years. There is now a self-reinforcing progressive tilt in the state: More people vote, encouraged to exercise their franchise by state laws that make registering to vote, and voting itself, easier than they have been in the past. Consequently, more constituencies are able to flex their political muscle; as that muscle is flexed, more laws are enacted that empower traditionally disempowered parts of the population.
In the 1992 presidential election, only 54 percent of California’s voting-age population cast ballots. In the years immediately following, the state veered to the right, on criminal justice and immigration policies in particular. That rightward drift, however, eventually triggered a popular reaction, helping to politicize a generation of young minority voters. In the 2010 gubernatorial race, about 60 percent voted. In 2020, more than 70 percent did. California hasn’t seen such high political engagement since the progressive era more than a hundred years ago.
That increase in political participation in the state has opened the door to a set of progressive policies on everything from the environment to workplace safety to expanding state health care coverage to include undocumented residents that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago.
Meanwhile, the country’s second-most-populous state, Texas, is veering in an entirely different direction. In 2020, Texas did see the highest voter turnout in 30 years, but it was still far lower than in California and many other parts of the country. The increased turnout wasn’t enough to undermine the GOP choke hold on state politics. Now, emboldened GOP legislators in the Lone Star State, probably aware of California’s trajectory as more low-income and minority residents start to wield their political power, are attempting to pass some of the most onerous restrictions on voting rights of any state in the country, as well as a slew of other reactionary measures.
The Democratic legislators’ dramatic walkout to deny the GOP a quorum to vote on voter suppression this week offered a temporary breathing space. But Governor Abbott has already announced that he will bring legislators back in a special session this summer specifically so that they can ram through this hideous package of proposals intended to make it even harder for poorer, nonwhite, and urban residents to vote in his state in the next election.
Limiting political engagement limits the amount of pressure that progressive groups and coalitions can bring to bear on legislators. Where California is expanding health care access, in Texas roughly one in five residents lacks health coverage. This includes close to 1 million children, according to research carried out by Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families. Nationally, one in five of the country’s uninsured children lives in Texas. The USDA estimates that one in seven Texans is food insecure. As for wages, Texas’s minimum wage is the federal minimum—$7.25 per hour, a number that hasn’t changed since 2009. So many Texans are low-wage earners that if the federal minimum were increased to $15 per hour, as President Biden pushed for earlier this year, more than 4 million Texans would see a wage increase.
Meanwhile, the Texas legislator and the governor continue, in the face of these shocking numbers that show an utter disregard for the well-being of the state’s impoverished residents, to claim to be “pro-life.” To prove their chops, they have recently passed into law the country’s most outlandishly restrictive anti-abortion legislation, banning the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy. The “pro-life” label is, of course, preposterous. There’s nothing pro-life about a state that treats its poor and its essential workers as entirely disposable, and that goes out of its way to keep their living conditions as precarious as possible.
The West Coast states have led the way on increasing political participation among all their residents; the results are now showing in the political reforms that are regularly being enacted by their legislators. Political battles around voter participation and suppression are now raging around the country. Will states opt for the high-participation, political-reform model from out West, or the low-participation, political-reaction model now on full and ugly display in Greg Abbott’s Texas?