In summary

A bill that would extend unemployment benefits to workers on a strike exceeding two weeks is awaiting a signature from Gov. Gavin Newsom. A Hollywood writer argues that striking workers deserve benefits from a fund their labor helps support.

Guest Commentary written by

Vincent Brown

Vincent Brown

Vincent Brown is an award-winning writer and a member of the Writers Guild of America. He has worked on “One Day at a Time,” “Girlfriends,” “A.N.T. Farm,” “Life by Ella,” “Housebroken” and more.

For over 20 years, I’ve been doing what all writers do: making something from nothing, sometimes alone, and sometimes with groups of other misfits. Our imaginative labor has changed our culture, lit up living rooms with laughter, inspired and instructed young people, and created untold billions of dollars in wealth.

We’ve been out on the streets working to create a different kind of story: the story of a society where working people get their fair share. We hope that Gov. Gavin Newsom will support us in that undertaking by allowing striking workers to access the unemployment benefits we have earned.

2023 has been called “hot labor summer” because working peoples’ frustration with unaccountable bosses, unacceptable working conditions and a fundamentally imbalanced economy is boiling over across industries. From Hollywood writers like me to school workers and health care professionals, workers are fed up with an economy that enriches only top executives and shareholders, tears down the middle class and rankly exploits lower-paid workers. 

This isn’t sustainable, it isn’t inevitable and it isn’t unrealistic to push for a more fair economy. But workers are at a steep disadvantage. Entertainment industry leaders were frank in expressing their hope that unemployment and its attendant threats to housing and food security of our families would break our “unrealistic” demands. Thankfully, a tentative deal was reached on Sunday.

Still, giant corporations like the ones I have worked for, from Apple to Disney, were sure that they could wait it out. They have untold wealth. They knew that workers don’t have a safety net, and they used this fact to their advantage, spending months refusing to negotiate in good faith. 

We need to make that kind of bullying less effective. Senate Bill 799, a bill now on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk, would enable workers who are on strike for more than two weeks to draw on the unemployment insurance funds our employers pay into – in other words, use the benefits that we have earned. 

When we headed to the picket lines, we put everything on the line, including our mortgages and our grocery money. In some cases, workers even put our careers at risk from illegal employer retaliation. 

Meanwhile, the CEOs who control our work lives wager very little by dragging out bargaining or stonewalling negotiations; in our case, the industry refused to even respond to many of our key concerns and, for most of the year, simply refused to negotiate. 

My colleagues and I have were on the picket line for over four months. It was, in fact, very hot, but it was also filled with energy and hope. We were joined by janitors, many of whom have lost their jobs at the studios, by Teamsters, by healthcare workers, domestic workers, public sector workers and more. The solidarity was humbling and inspiring.

It came from a shared understanding: this economy needs a reset. All of us are insecure. Most of us are a paycheck or two away from financial disaster.

The politicians and big corporations who oppose SB 799 contend that workers like me shouldn’t be eligible to draw on the system we pay into because a strike is “refusing” to work. But no worker willingly chooses to sacrifice our income and our security; no writer moved to Los Angeles not to work. It is and will remain a last resort.

Unemployment pays at most $450 a week, not enough to get by in any part of our state and surely not an incentive for more workers to go on strike.

Employers’ arguments that the state’s unemployment fund is under-resourced also fall flat: it is corporations who have long underfunded the system and fought to keep it under-resourced.

Their real motivation isn’t principle or fiscal prudence – it’s power.

The corporate view is that employers should have unlimited power and nearly all the wealth that workers help create. That’s what is fueling California’s hot labor summer. SB 799 is a small shift to give workers the ability to survive while we fight for a fair share of labor.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this commentary was updated to clarify how unemployment insurance is funded.

The California Legislature this month sent a bill to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk that, if he signs it, would provide unemployment benefits to striking workers. A Sacramento entrepreneur says the beleaguered agency that would have to distribute the benefits is underfunded and ill-equipped to take on additional responsibilities.

more commentary on senate bill 799

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