Wins are mounting for California workers as “Striketober” morphs into “Strikesgiving” and as the state cracks down on companies it says are violating labor laws.
Attorney General Rob Bonta on Monday announced an agreement with Amazon that, if approved by a judge, would require the e-commerce giant to pay California $500,000 to help enforce consumer protection laws, notify all warehouse employees about new workplace COVID-19 cases within 24 hours and local public health agencies within 48 hours, and allow Bonta’s office to monitor those notifications. The settlement comes from a lawsuit then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed against Amazon last year for allegedly withholding information about COVID cases and safety practices at its facilities.
Bonta said the agreement “sends a clear message that businesses must comply with this important law,” referring to a bill Gov. Gavin Newsom signed last year that requires employers to notify workers and county health officials about COVID-19 outbreaks. (A stricter bill that would have required the state to publicly report outbreaks by workplace location was watered down amid strong business opposition; infections will instead be reported at the industry level.) It’s also California’s second crack at Amazon in as many months: Newsom in September signed a bill that forces companies like Amazon to disclose speed quotas for warehouse workers.
Also Monday, a union representing 60,000 film and TV crew workers narrowly approved new contracts with Hollywood studios, preventing productions from shutting down across the country.
And a strike that could have shuttered Kaiser Permanente’s Northern California outpatient pharmacies for a week was averted Monday morning, when the health care giant and pharmacists’ union reached a tentative agreement on a new contract. The announcement came two days after Kaiser and another union representing nearly 50,000 health care workers tentatively agreed on a new contract, avoiding what could have been the country’s largest work stoppage this year.
However, Kaiser is still negotiating with a union representing hospital engineers, which has been on strike since Sept. 18. To support the engineers, tens of thousands of other Northern California Kaiser employees — including nurses and mental health clinicians — are planning to hold sympathy walk-outs on Thursday and Friday.
And on Wednesday and Thursday, about 4,000 University of California lecturers will strike over the system’s allegedly unfair labor practices. They’ll be joined by roughly 700 professors, effectively halting instruction for thousands of undergraduate students, CalMatters’ Mikhail Zinshteyn reports. Separately, the lecturers’ union and UC leadership are negotiating a new contract, the terms of which have been under dispute since April 2019.
That’s not all. As Mikhail reports, two other UC unions with a combined 28,000 members are voting this week on whether to authorize a strike, and a union representing California State University faculty is also signaling a strike vote is imminent.
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Other stories you should know
1. State fire chief stepping down
Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter announced Monday that he plans to retire Dec. 10 — the latest high-ranking Newsom administration official to do so. Also stepping down in December: the state auditor, California’s top utility regulator and Cal Fire Chief Deputy Director Craig Tolmie — leaving the state firefighting agency’s top two positions vacant as California emerges from one of its worst fire seasons on record. Nearly 3.1 million acres have burned so far this year, less than the record 4.2 million scorched last year but enough to level entire towns, wreck ancient sequoias and threaten one of the crown jewels of California’s tourist economy.
Porter’s announcement comes about four months after a blockbuster CapRadio investigation found that Cal Fire knowingly let Newsom vastly overstate the amount of land treated to protect vulnerable communities from wildfires — information seized on by Newsom’s critics in the run-up to the unsuccessful Sept. 14 recall election. Porter, who said he was stepping down to “focus on family, aging parents and self,” was appointed to lead Cal Fire on Newsom’s first full day as governor in January 2019. His successor will not only have to lead the state through longer, fiercer fire seasons exacerbated by historic drought, but also oversee the spending of a record $1.5 billion wildfire and forest resilience package.
2. State’s encampment strategy unclear
The Newsom administration is giving Caltrans, the state’s transportation agency, $1.1 billion to clean freeways. Some of the money is earmarked for clearing homeless encampments — 100 of which the governor’s office has identified as top priorities. But both Newsom’s office and Caltrans declined to tell CalMatters’ Manuela Tobias which encampments were on the priority list — raising questions about where and how the money is being spent and whether the state is making good on its promise to connect homeless Californians to housing and mental health resources.
- Christopher Martin, policy director of the nonprofit advocacy group Housing California: “How are we supposed to know what’s happening with these resources? It’s very behind closed doors, and I think that’s a little bit frightening because we need some accountability.”
Other experts question whether the sweeps themselves are an effective long-term solution, given that California has less than one shelter or transitional housing bed available for every three homeless people. However, the Sacramento city council will today consider a measure that would allow it to start clearing more homeless encampments starting in 2023 as long as residents have been offered two different types of shelter or housing.
- Josh Barocas, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado who studies homelessness and substance use: “It’s what I would call social theater. It’s showing your neighborhood that you are trying to do something by literally sweeping the problem away. But anybody who has a house pet that sweeps their pet hair, knows that the pet hair comes back because you still have the pet.”
3. Parents protest public schools
About 1,000 demonstrators gathered outside the California State Capitol on Monday to protest school mask and vaccine mandates, critical race theory (often incorrectly conflated with ethnic studies), teachers unions and the state of California public education in general. The protest comes about a month after some parents kept their kids home from school in opposition to Newsom’s student COVID vaccine mandate and as resistance to the governor’s pandemic rules grows in some parts of the state. But new reports illuminate what may be a more fundamental challenge for California’s public schools: teaching students to read. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond recently launched a task force to ensure all third-graders can read by 2026. But that goal is too little, too late for critics who point out that 37% of California fourth-graders score below the basic level on federal reading tests and many districts aren’t providing adequate reading instruction to low-income Latino students — even as other states, like Mississippi, make significant gains in student literacy.
- Barbara Nemko, superintendent of the Napa County Office of Education and a member of Thurmond’s task force: “Because we’re California, we kind of snicker at Mississippi, but they did a good plan. They made more progress than anyone.”
Also Monday, former state Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero — a Democrat who turned heads by supporting Republican Larry Elder in the Sept. 14 recall election — endorsed a proposed ballot measure that would allow students to create education savings accounts they could use to attend private school instead of public school. The measure is backed by Ric Grenell, former President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Germany and acting intelligence director. “If through this proposal, public schools can rise to the challenge with a little more competition, then everyone will benefit,” Romero said.
Don’t miss this event
Wednesday, Nov. 17: Labor leader and activist Dolores Huerta discusses redistricting and California’s Latino community in a virtual event organized by the Latino Community Foundation and moderated by CalMatters reporter Sameea Kamal. Register here.
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CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California’s redistricting process is messier — and fairer — than it used to be.
Casting a critical eye on California’s curriculum: “Island of the Blue Dolphins” should be removed from California elementary classrooms and the state Department of Education’s recommended literature list, argues Tricia Light, a PhD candidate at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Locking in lower utility bills: A clean energy future with more stable and affordable bills is in sight — but until then, California needs to vastly increase utility assistance for low-income families, writes Andrew Brooks of the Association for Energy Affordability.
Other things worth your time
Podcast on the California housing crisis: The racist history of freeways. // CalMatters
Inside the quest to rewrite racist housing laws in a Silicon Valley town. // San Francisco Chronicle
‘Amazon-style’ warehouses or farmland? San Jose leaders to decide Coyote Valley’s future. // Mercury News
Amazon keeps growing in San Diego and Tijuana. // San Diego Union-Tribune
$1 billion project to expand major Bay Area reservoir gains momentum. // Mercury News
Los Angeles, Long Beach ports delay container fees — again. // Orange County Register
Lithium drilling is happening now at California’s Salton Sea. // Los Angeles Times
Fire-scorched Grass Valley, California, awaits federal natural disaster mitigation funding. // Washington Post
How California districts plan to spend $13.6 billion in federal pandemic relief. // EdSource
As remote work empties downtowns, can San Francisco theaters fill their seats? // New York Times
California marijuana growers stalled by county background check. // Sacramento Bee
California aims to be the nation’s abortion provider in a post-Roe world. // Kaiser Health News
Her husband was killed in the Bay Area’s deadliest mass shooting. Amid healing, outrage remains. // San Francisco Chronicle
Ontario-Montclair school chief gets 22 weeks of leave a year, cashes it out to become state’s top paid. // Riverside Press Enterprise
Feinstein poised to move into presidential line of succession if Democrats keep Senate. // Los Angeles Times
Underdog no more, a deaf football team takes California by storm. // New York Times
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