Tens of thousands of California workers have gone on strike this year to seek better wages and working conditions. As the strikes continue, unions are mounting a full-court press in the Legislature to achieve those same goals.
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.
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.
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.
“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.