In summary

California unions scored big wins in the Legislature this year, hoping to arrest declining union membership in the state.

California’s labor unions scored big wins in the just-concluded legislative session — to the surprise of precisely no one.

Democrats’ huge gains in last year’s legislative elections, coupled with the election of Gavin Newsom, who had strong union support, as governor, foretold what would happen.

The biggest of union victories, Assembly Bill 5, was also arguably the highest-profile bill of the session. It codifies the state Supreme Court’s Dynamex decision, defining which private economy workers must be placed on payrolls and which can remain independent contractors.

The author of the bill, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat and a former union official, granted a few exemptions, but shunned most of the requests submitted to sponsoring unions by specific employer groups.

Hundreds of thousands of independent contractors would be potentially affected, but Newsom’s signature on the bill is clearly not the last word on the issue.

Ride-hailing services Uber, Lyft and other businesses built on the contractor model have declared that they will spend $90 million or more on a ballot measure to overturn AB 5, perhaps by asking voters to endorse a hybrid employment system of contractors with income guarantees and fringe benefits that unions dislike.

Labor had the upper hand this year because of the court’s decision. If nothing was done in the Legislature, the court’s three-factor test of employment status would prevail.

Qualifying an initiative would shoot the political tennis ball into labor’s side of the net, forcing its leaders to decide whether to agree to a compromise in the Legislature or take their chances on the outcome of an election campaign that could cost them tens of millions of dollars.

Underlying AB 5 and other union-backed legislation this year is an arithmetic fact. Union membership in California has declined from a quarter of the state’s workers in the mid-1980s to 14.7% in 2018, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, and is still dropping.

Traditionally unionized industries, particularly manufacturing, have faded in economic importance, while expanding post-industrial sectors, such as technology, have been resistant to unionization.

Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision, issued last year, voids a California law requiring public employees to pay union dues even if they don’t belong to unions.

Although it didn’t achieve the notoriety of AB 5, Assembly Bill 378, signed this week, is another big win for labor.

Sponsored by the Service Employees International Union, it paves the way for as many as 40,000 workers who provide childcare to low-income families with state vouchers to join SEIU’s Child Care Providers United and bargain with state officials on pay and other benefits.

It’s very similar to what happened two decades ago when hundreds of thousands of home care workers under the state’s In-Home Supportive Services program were made eligible for unionization.

“Childcare providers help our economy by allowing working families and parents to report to work,” Newsom said in a statement as he signed AB 378, which was carried by Assemblywoman Monique Limon, a Santa Barbara Democrat. “Creating quality jobs for the childcare workforce makes economic and common sense. These workers care for our kids — we need to take care of them.”

Newsom already has the power to “take care of them,” and in fact boasts of increasing childcare support by $2.3 billion in his first budget. So what does unionizing workers accomplish other than increasing union membership and dues, some of which would be diverted into the campaign treasuries of politicians such as Newsom?

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions:

Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 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...