California labor shows off its political muscle

Your guide to California policy and politics
Lynn La BY Lynn La May 9, 2023
Presented by American Property Casualty Insurance Association, Dairy Cares, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership and New California Coalition

California labor shows off its political muscle

If you need any more proof of labor’s power in Democratic politics, look no further than the joint conference of the California Labor Federation and the State Building and Construction Trades Council.

Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom told the gathering — “Unionize California” emblazoned everywhere — that worker rights are under threat in other states and that California must continue to lead the way. 

  • Newsom: “I hope you’re not taking for granted what’s happening in state after state all across this country.”

His speech followed appearances earlier Monday by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Lakewood, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego and Attorney General Rob Bonta. Atkins pledged again to protect workers’ rights, while Rendon re-upped his backing of a bill to let legislative staffers form a union.

Sunday, the three leading U.S. Senate contenders came calling to seek labor’s backing. It was the first time Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff of Burbank, Katie Porter of Irvine and Barbara Lee of Oakland appeared together since kicking off their campaigns to succeed Sen. Dianne Feinstein. After their panel discussion, one union director told The Los Angeles Times, “The hard part for us in the labor movement is that we have three friends. Which friend do we vote for? Which friend do we back?”

There are good reasons for Democratic politicians with any ambition to curry favor from the California Labor Federation and other organized labor groups — millions of them. 

The number of potential voters is staggering and, at times, consequential: The Labor Fed claims 2.1 million members in 1,200 local unions and the Building Trades says it has some 450,000 members in 157 affiliated unions. Union members are also a key source of possible volunteers to canvas neighborhoods, run phone banks and distribute campaign flyers.

Then there’s the money — a lot of money. As CalMatters’ data journalist Jeremia Kimelman calculated Monday, in 2021-22 alone the Labor Fed spent nearly $2.7 million on campaigns and the Trades another $2.7 million, including more than $1 million to the state Democratic Party and local parties. In addition, the Labor Fed spent $877,000 on lobbying in 2021-22, while the Trades put in nearly $1.2 million.

The timing of the conference is not coincidental. Labor leaders and key legislators will gather today at the state Capitol to advocate for a state constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot that would guarantee every California worker the right to organize, join a union and negotiate with their employer.

  • Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, head of the California Labor Federation, on Monday: “If big businesses can protect their property taxes in the constitution and politicians can protect their salaries from cuts in the constitution, then why shouldn’t workers be protected in the constitution too?”

The event will be followed by a second rally nearby at the Capitol Mall. Gonzalez Fletcher and other labor leaders are expected to join nurses and health care workers from the United Nurses Associations of California and the Union of Health Care Professionals to advocate for three Assembly bills that would expand career pathways for nurses, boost clinical placements from hospitals and increase transparency in the state’s annual review of nurse-to-patient ratios.


A new leader for CalMatters: Eight years into our mission of providing nonpartisan news and analysis for California, CalMatters is getting a new editor in chief — Kristen Go, now vice president and executive editor for news and initiatives at USA Today. She starts May 30. Read more about her from our engagement team. Founding editor Dave Lesher isn’t leaving CalMatters, but will be leading a new effort to transform government accountability reporting.


1 $1 billion for child care?

Patricia Moran plays with the children enrolled in her at-home daycare in San Jose on Nov. 2, 2022. Photo by Laure Andrillon for CalMatters
Patricia Moran plays with the children enrolled in her at-home daycare in San Jose on Nov. 2, 2022. Photo by Laure Andrillon for CalMatters

It’s a big week for the state budget, with Gov. Newsom scheduled to unveil his revised May spending blueprint on Friday. 

In advance of that, Assembly Democratic leaders called Monday for a $1 billion investment in child care, focused on higher pay for another union — Child Care Providers United. The 26% increase in funding is designed to make up for inflation since 2016 and was unveiled by Assemblymember Phil Ting of San Francisco, chairperson of the Assembly Budget Committee, and Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry of Winters, vice chairperson of the Legislative Women’s Caucus.

  • Ting, in a statement: “While this budget plan is just a down payment on California’s goal of funding the real cost of child care, it also shows providers that we value them and want more people to work in the field.”

The announcement was timed with a series of events across the state Monday held by the child care providers union, which says that state rates cover only 25% to 30% of the costs to provide “quality care.” 

There’s a history to this debate. It took until 2019 for California to allow child care providers to organize into a union and bargain with the state. Then in 2021, in the first deal with the union, the state increased pay rates for the first time in five years. Flush with cash, the 2021-22 budget added 200,000 state-funded child care slots, in part to offset the loss of openings for working parents when thousands of child care sites shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Because the state provider payment rates are stuck at 2016 levels, many of the additional slots are being unused, Assembly Democrats say. 

  • Assemblymember Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, in a statement: “Families are still waiting on long waitlists and missing work. The child care system is collapsing and we can’t continue to stand still.”

But this year, the state is facing a budget deficit of $22.5 billion or more.

While both Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and incoming Speaker Robert Rivas offered their support, they can only hope their “Care COLA” plan gets a warmer reception from the governor than Senate Democrats’ proposal for increasing corporate taxes to help balance the budget, which Newsom quickly shot down late last month.

2 CA bank regulators take some blame

The Silicon Valley Bank sign hangs above one of its branches in San Jose on March 13, 2023. Photo by Benjamin Fanjoy, AP Photo
The Silicon Valley Bank sign hangs above one of its branches in San Jose on March 13, 2023. Photo by Benjamin Fanjoy, AP Photo

The California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation released its report on Monday detailing the role state and federal regulators played in their inability to prevent the March collapse of Silicon Valley Bank

The report highlighted four takeaways:

  • Though regulators identified deficiencies with the Santa Clara-based bank, they didn’t press the company hard enough for it to address those issues quickly.
  • The bank’s skyrocketing growth was not “sufficiently accounted for” in risk assessments.
  • The bank’s high number of uninsured deposits contributed to customers withdrawing their money en masse, also known as a bank run.
  • Digital banking technology and social media supercharged the bank run, ultimately leading to the bank’s failure and eventual fire sale to First Citizens Bank.

As CalMatters’ economic reporter Grace Gedye explains, the report also included steps to prevent “future economic destabilization,” such as working with federal regulators to create faster solutions that banks can implement, and putting banks with more than $50 billion in assets under closer scrutiny.

In April, federal regulators acknowledged their role in the fall of Silicon Valley Bank in a separate postmortem. The Federal Reserve blamed its lack of oversight, as well as bad management from the bank’s board of directors and the loosening of regulations for regional banks that began in 2018.

The state department’s report follows the recent failure of another regional bank, San Francisco-based First Republic. Last week, the bank was seized by state regulators and then sold to JP Morgan Chase. The department is expected to share these findings and answer questions from lawmakers Wednesday during a joint banking committee oversight hearing.

3 Climate change = new crops

Gary Gragg with his avocado plants at his residence in Winters on May 4, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters
Gary Gragg with his avocado plants at his residence in Winters on May 4, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

Move aside, grapes — the next top California fruit commodity could be… mangoes? While it sounds far-fetched, farmers across the state are experimenting with new, more resilient crops that have a better chance at surviving the dramatic changes to California’s climate brought on by global warming.

As CalMatters’ water reporter Alastair Bland explains, the warmer conditions we usually experience in Southern California are creeping northward, and Oregon and Washington are feeling more like Northern California.

For residents, that may just mean toastier summer and winters. But for crops, it can be devastating. In 2015, many pistachio orchards suffered total failure when the warmer winter caused the male varieties to bloom too late. And last fall, when temperatures soared to 115 degrees in the Central Valley, 40% of the season’s walnut crop was lost. 

To adapt with changes in heat, humidity, fog, seasonal and daily temperature patterns and more, farmers are attempting to grow and develop new crops:

  • Farmers in the Central Valley are investing in avocados and agave, which are traditionally planted farther south.
  • One Santa Cruz grower is trying to plant lucuma, a tropical fruit native to South America.
  • Several Bay Area farmers are growing yangmei, a delicacy in China that can resist blights that ravage California peaches during rainy springs. 
  • Many growers in the San Joaquin Valley are swapping out their stone fruit and nut trees with olives, a historically minor crop in California that is mostly produced in the Mediterranean.

Farmers also face competition from increasing costs and oversea imports, according to Alastair. The rising cost of labor, for example, has made the high-value crop table olives unprofitable to grow in the state unless machines pick the fruit. Meanwhile, competition from China has disrupted the California walnut industry, sending prices plummeting: In 2013, a ton of walnuts sold for $3,700 and now it’s about $700.

California’s water crisis, explained: CalMatters has a detailed look at how California might increase its water supply, and a dashboard tracking the state’s water situation. Now we have a lesson-plan-ready version of the water explainer, especially made for teachers, libraries and community groups, as part of the CalMatters for Learning initiative.


CalMatters Commentary

Legislators should preserve $60 million on the chopping block for court-appointed advocates for foster children, writes David Allen, a court appointed special advocate in Placerville.


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