California needs an attorney general who recognizes the realities facing low-wage workers and has the experience to change those realities.
By Eliseo Medina, Special to CalMatters
Eliseo Medina is former international secretary-treasurer and executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union and former national vice president of the United Farm Workers, firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected low-wage and other vulnerable workers. For those who are keeping grocery and retail stores stocked, toiling on farms and in meatpacking plants, and packaging and making deliveries to our homes, the virus continues to present a pervasive and potent hazard.
Although vaccination efforts may soon abate the threat of infection for these workers, they will bear the brunt of the virus’s economic effects for years to come, as the pandemic has only further widened the gap between rich and poor.
That is why I urge Gov. Gavin Newsom to replace outgoing Attorney General Xavier Becerra with someone who can hit the ground running in protecting California’s workers. Like Becerra, the next attorney general must vigorously enforce our state’s labor and employment laws, investigate potential violations, and work with employers to provide safer and healthier workplaces.
To my mind, there is no person better suited for this job than California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu.
I have had the pleasure of serving alongside Liu on the board of directors of the James Irvine Foundation, whose grantmaking focuses on empowering low-wage workers. I know firsthand Liu’s commitment to enhancing the opportunities available to all Californians. But even before meeting and working with Liu, I was aware of his national reputation as a sharp legal mind and respected jurist who has consistently sought to provide equal justice under the law.
Liu’s record on the bench gives me the highest confidence in his ability to advocate on behalf of California’s workers. He has written major decisions limiting the reach of arbitration clauses that make it difficult for workers to fully vindicate their rights. He wrote an important decision upholding a key provision of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act designed to bring reluctant employers to the bargaining table. Liu also joined the court in landmark decisions that required employers to relieve their employees of work obligations during meal breaks and made it harder for employers to misclassify their workers and evade wage, tax and other obligations under California law.
Most recently, Liu wrote a unanimous opinion rejecting an employer’s claim that it need not pay its employees for small amounts of compensable work, such as bringing in furniture, activating the alarm system and locking the doors at the end of a work day. He emphasized that proper payment for “a few extra minutes of work each day can add up” over time to be “enough to pay a utility bill, buy a week of groceries or cover a month of bus fares” for “many ordinary people who work for hourly wages.”
Liu’s dedication to standing up for ordinary working people extends to his service, advocacy and teaching off the bench. He is renowned for his leadership on a broad swath of issues, including access to justice, criminal justice reform, racial justice, juvenile justice and education.
Liu’s national stature would lend credibility to Newsom’s administration as it joins forces with the Biden-Harris administration to provide California’s workers and their families the services and support they need to thrive.
In the continuing fight for justice and equity, the next attorney general will be a pivotal partner for Newsom as he leads our state in its recovery from the pandemic.
California needs an attorney general who recognizes the stark realities facing low-wage workers and has the experience, legal acumen and resolve to change those realities for the better. California needs Attorney General Goodwin Liu.