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Shirley Reyes tucked herself next to her 17-year-old son on the couch, peppering him with questions about unions as he googled the cost and benefits of collective bargaining on his phone. Reyes, a Filipina single mother, was inquisitive — and a little anxious. Some labor representatives had already knocked on their cramped granny unit in Daly City, a majority Asian community south of San Francisco. She wondered if she was risking one of her jobs cleaning hotel rooms simply by talking to them.

Her son’s findings began to put her at ease. Unions aim to negotiate higher wages and better benefits for workers. It’s likely the surgery she had six years ago would have cost her less under union-negotiated health insurance. After months of hushed discussions at work, Reyes was handed an official secret ballot. It was a yes or no question. 

Do you wish to be represented for purposes of collective bargaining by UNITE HERE Local 2? 

It’s a question a vast number of California workers, a third of whom make $15 an hour or less, haven’t had the opportunity to answer. Union participation is at historic lows and collective bargaining is less prevalent in retail, restaurants and hotels — segments of the private sector with high concentrations of low-wage jobs. 

California wants to change that. The Future of Work Commission, convened by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom to think of moonshot goals for lifting millions of working Californians out of poverty, proposed getting more workers represented as part of the solution for stemming the state’s staggering wage gap. The commission, which included labor and business leaders,  asserted in their final report released earlier this year that while a college degree reduces the chance of a low-wage job by 33%, union membership improves those odds by 39%. That could go a long way in a state where one in three households with working adults struggle to afford basic necessities, while the top 2% control 20% of the wealth. 

The commission urges employers and employees to reach agreement on a new social compact that would foster quality jobs over the next decade. But first that requires building consensus around basic principles of giving workers a greater voice, whether through unions or worker organizations.

That hasn’t happened yet. 

Diminished voices

The rapid growth of high-skilled tech jobs and the loss of industrial jobs to global labor markets have significantly widened the gap between rich and poor. At the same time, worker organization has diminished. The share of California workers in a union has steadily declined from about 40% in the 1950s to 16% last year. 

Union participation is especially poor in the private sector, which makes up 84% of the state workforce. Today, 1 in 10 private-sector workers belong to a union, compared to 1 in 2 in the public sector.

Yet these private-sector workers are most in need of a voice. 

Numerous reports have documented the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on essential workers, many of whom are immigrants and women of color. Many of the working poor are employed in the service economy, such as retail, hospitality and tourism. They are the ones making and delivering food, producing and packaging goods, and cleaning and caring for others but unable to keep up with their own bills.

For Reyes, who works at the Marriott Waterfront, voting yes to a union worked out for the better. After the contract was signed Aug. 4, Reyes’s wage will rise from $19.80 to $24.30 over the next year. Her health insurance premium dropped from $250 a month to $35. Dental insurance and the option of a 401(k) or pension plans were added.

An exterior view of San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront in Burlingname, where Shirley Reyes works as a house keeper, on Sept. 8, 2021. Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group

Reyes began putting $200 a month toward her son’s college tuition, pulling back on her long work days, and, her favorite part, cooking dinner for her son. Though Reyes was laid off in the pandemic, the union contract gave her priority to return. When the company began rehiring, Reyes was among the first back. 

“I’m not scared anymore,” Reyes said. “We have a contract now. We have job security.”

A group of MIT researchers surveyed workers nationally in 2017 and found that about half of non-unionized workers would vote to join a union. That’s up from 32% in 1995.

Of course, not all workers agree. 

Sylvia Beltran, who was formerly unionized as an usher at the SAP Arena in San Jose and now does freelance photography, isn’t looking for collective bargaining. Dues are high, and she enjoys her freelance schedule unconstricted by a contract. A few have been beset by power struggles and leadership scandals lately.

“(Unions) feel more like a corporation,” she said. “I think they are more in it to make money and less interested in workers.”

Unions can reduce inequality — at a cost

Some researchers say the decline in union membership has contributed to at least 10% of the wealth divide, according to a 2018 study published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics. Henry Farber, an economics professor at Princeton University who co-authored the study, said because wealth inequality is linked to stagnating wages that hurt the lowest-paid workers, unions can act as a counterbalance by lifting up the bottom through wages and benefits. 

Union workers in California are more likely to receive healthcare through their employer, earn nearly 13% higher wages than non-unionized workers in similar industries, and are 50% more likely to have an employer sponsored retirement plan, according to a report by the UC Berkeley Labor Center. Those advantages put an estimated $18.5 billion annually into the hands of low-income Californians, reducing their reliance on public safety nets and helping to stave off poverty.

Unions, however, come at a cost to businesses, which argue the loss of profits will lead to fewer jobs, and the rigidity of union contracts will make it hard to adapt to change. Research from the ‘90s found that unionization slows the rate at which a company adds new jobs by 4 percentage points a year. Another study published more recently in the Quarterly Journal of Economics looked at the market value of publicly traded companies before and after they were unionized. It found that a union election victory led to a roughly 10% decrease in the company’s market value. And, thanks to a tight labor market, wages have been increasing for workers in typically lower-paying leisure and hospitality jobs, despite low union density. 

Even a member of the Future of Work commission who signed his name to the report recommending the state “empower worker voice and organization” notes that unions aren’t the only way to quality jobs. Lance Hastings, president and CEO of California Manufacturers and Technology Association, says his organization focuses on workforce development and training. 

When it comes to the commission’s proposal of increasing union representation to decrease inequality, Hastings says: “Where we can find the balance where that helps in the workforce, we’re all for it.” But, he adds, the conversation about improving workers’ lot can’t begin and end with just paying everyone more. 

Will Swaim, president of the right-leaning California Policy Center takes it one step further. Broadly speaking, he says, a union’s goal is simply to raise wages for its members at whatever cost. And that cost, ultimately, is passed along to all Californians who use the products and services union members make. 

Unionized labor agreements for construction projects, for example, can drive up the cost of housing. In 2016 Los Angeles voters passed a $1.2 billion bond for housing for homeless residents. The city council required that the developers constructing over 65 units must use a mostly unionized workforce. The effect, according to research from RAND, a nonpartisan research organization headquartered in Santa Monica, was that projects cost an additional $43,000 per unit and disincentivized developers from building projects with more than 65 units. 

Based on a simulation, the researchers estimated that 800 more units would have been built were it not for the labor agreement.

That time labor and gig companies failed to compromise

In many ways, California’s wrangling over the employment status of gig workers has been a proxy battle for unionizing an emerging crop of low-wage jobs. 

In 2019, as labor groups pushed California to classify freelancers as employees through a bill, some large unions, including Service Employees International Union and International Brotherhood of Teamsters, took part in private negotiations with the gig companies. In a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed, rideshare executives wrote they’d be willing to work with labor groups and lawmakers on providing some benefits to drivers, some information on driver pay, and supporting the formation of a non-union driver’s association. Perhaps it would have looked something like the Independent Driver’s Guild Uber recognized in New York, an association without the full powers of a union, which has faced criticism for being funded directly by Uber.

It didn’t hurt to sit down and see if there was a deal to be worked out, says Rome Aloise, Secretary Treasurer of Teamsters Local 853, who took part in the negotiations.

The hope, he said, was to secure the right to collectively bargain for gig workers and ultimately improve their livelihoods. But, he said, the labor movement as a whole was adamant that the workers become employees. And the companies “weren’t really able to get themselves to the point” where they would accept unions negotiating on workers behalf over wages and benefits, said Aloise. 

That made it impossible for the Teamsters to move forward. 

  • Gavin Newsom signs worker classification bill, AB 5.
  • Colleen Keene, a musician from Ventura County, holds up a sign at a rally to repeal AB 5
  • Assemblymember Melissa Melendez speaks at a rally to repeal AB 5,

There was also pushback from within labor’s ranks. Some argued that unions should not give away gig workers’ employee status, established under a landmark state Supreme Court ruling in 2018. Negotiations stalled. 

In September 2019, the Legislature passed the bill and Newsom signed it.

Uber, Lyft, and other gig companies quickly put a measure on the ballot in 2020 that exempted gig workers from the new law — and prevented drivers from unionizing. After companies spent $205 million, nearly 59% of Californians voted to approve the ballot measure. Drivers, they decided, would remain freelancers.  

After the passage of Prop. 22, Lyft’s president John Zimmer told the Chronicle and Los Angeles Times that the company was still willing to negotiate with labor to increase benefits for drivers while maintaining their independent contractor status. Zimmer also said he was open to sectoral bargaining, when employers and workers negotiate baseline compensation and safety standards that covers most or all of the workers in an industry, not just a single workplace. 

Lyft spokesperson CJ Macklin confirmed that remains the company’s position today. “We continue to remain open to working with labor to further strengthen benefits and protections for drivers in ways that also maintain their independence and flexibility,” wrote Macklin in a statement.

Uber’s position for further negotiations is less clear. “Uber remains committed to making independent work better — including supporting policies that provide access to new benefits while protecting the flexibility drivers value most,” wrote Uber spokesperson Austin Heyworth.

Labor leaders remain divided on whether to compromise.

There are still two schools of thought within the labor movement on the path forward for organizing gig workers, says Steve Smith, spokesperson for the California Labor Federation. There’s a camp that says “no way, no how” to organizing workers without employee status. Then, says Smith, there are folks who look at the current situation and say: “These folks are without any basic protections. How can we give them not only protections that that other workers have in law, but also the right to organize?” 

Prop. 22 guaranteed some driver benefits and compensation, including 30 cents per mile toward expenses, and 120% of minimum wage for their minutes of engaged time driving passengers. That could work out to as little as $5.64 per hour or as much as $27.58 per hour

The issue of gig worker classification isn’t dead yet. In late August, a state Superior Court judge found that the ballot measure was unconstitutional and could not be enforced. The judge noted the language aimed at banning drivers from unionizing ought to be considered separate legislation.

A coalition that represents the gig companies pledged to appeal

If Prop. 22 is overturned in the courts, and gig workers are able to unionize, Smith says that the organizing that has been ongoing since the passage of the proposition will “become more vigorous and urgent.” Whether or not labor would be willing to head back to the negotiating table with gig companies isn’t yet determined.

Newsom’s former chief of staff, Ann O’Leary, tweeted that these skirmishes won’t really end until labor and business reach a broader pact for workers.

Labor leaders focus on political influence

On a sunny Saturday morning just before Newsom’s Sept. 14 recall election, about 100 union workers gathered in an Oakland parking lot, standing in small groups and chatting while a musician strummed a guitar and sang pro-organizing songs. It was one of several door-knocking events unions coordinated to turn out voters. 

“As the labor movement, we pride ourselves on turning out the labor vote in big numbers,” Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO who had flown in from Washington, D.C., for the event, told the crowd. “We need to get all of the turnout that we can possibly find in these last four days.”

Unions representing both public- and private-sector workers gave more than $25.7 million to counter the recall effort, more than the $20 million they had put into the Prop. 22 fight. After that election was called in favor of keeping Newsom, the California Labor Federation released a statement saying that workers completed more than 20,000 volunteer shifts to get out the vote. 

They said labor volunteering sealed Newsom’s win.

Erika Sanchez, a cafeteria worker at Verizon and member of Unite Here Local 2, canvasses homes in San Jose in support of Gov. Gavin Newsom before the recall election, on Sept. 12, 2021. Jesse Bedayn/CalMatters

“We like to tell our folks that (at) the bargaining table, you inevitably will find an employer on the other side who fears you more if you’ve got political power,” says Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the state labor federation.

Unions are a major political force in California, and they dedicate funds and volunteer hours to their political goals. In the 2018 state legislative races, for example, teachers unions and prison guard unions were among the top donors. This legislative cycle, labor counted a number of state wins in the form of workplace protections for warehouse workers and better pay for garment workers. At the federal level, labor has made the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, a legislative priority to ease unionization drives by increasing penalties on businesses for unfair labor practices and requiring employees covered by union contracts to pay dues.

But there’s been a debate within labor circles over whether unions are devoting enough resources to recruiting new members — and growing the labor movement. This debate over priorities re-emerged after the passing of former AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who focused more on political advocacy and fostered close relationships with the Obama and Biden administrations. Leaked AFL-CIO budget documents show that under Trumka’s tenure, the nation’s foremost labor federation went from spending nearly 30% of its budget on organizing to 10%. 

Across California, there’s a fair amount of variation in how much money unions devote to recruiting new members, says Pulaski. The federation recommends that unions spend at least 20% of their annual budget on recruiting new members, sometimes with high-profile disappointments. 

A couple years ago, for example, Tesla beat back a unionization drive at its Fremont plant. The electric carmaker banned workers from wearing pro-union garb, attempted to shift four pro-union workers to management positions so that they could no longer advocate for a union, and fired a worker. Security guards harassed workers handing out union pamphlets in the parking lot. Elon Musk even sent a tweet, seeming to threaten that if workers unionized they’d lose their stock options. There was never a union election.

Still, some private-sector unions have made gains in recent years. Unite Here, a union for service workers, claims to be the fastest-growing private union, expanding their ranks by 62,000 since 2014 to 300,000 across the United States and Canada. 

In California, 40,000 workers became eligible to unionize in July 2020 when home child care workers voted to form a union under Child Care Providers United. Those workers won their first contract about a year later in June 2021, which included state-funded rate increases and funding for training. 

Amazon: The next frontier

Following a failed vote to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, the Teamsters announced a drive at Amazon warehouses nationwide. The union even launched a new division dedicated to organizing the online behemoth. Their strategy will pressure the second-largest employer in the country on all fronts: recruit from warehouses, raise public awareness and lean on political allies. 

In California, that starts by leveraging existing Teamsters members at non-Amazon worksites. 

Ron Herrera, international vice president of the western region for Teamsters and secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 396 in Southern California, likened the unionization drive to taking a bite out of a whale to try to kill it. “It’s going to be extremely difficult,” he said. Teamsters are recruiting volunteers from existing ranks to help with worker outreach because Amazon warehouses have far more employees than typical bargaining units. Amazon has more than 153,000 workers in California, many of them in warehouses. 

Amazon spokesperson Maria Boschetti said employees have a choice but the company believes unions will get in the way.

As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees,” Boschetti wrote in an email. “Every day we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes — quickly. That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle. The benefits of direct relationships between managers and employees can’t be overstated — these relationships allow every employee’s voice to be heard, not just the voices of a select few.”

A warehouse worker sorts packages toward their appropriate shipping area at an Amazon fulfillment center on Nov. 11, 2010. Ross D. Franklin/AP
A warehouse worker sorts packages toward their appropriate shipping area at an Amazon fulfillment center on Nov. 11, 2010. Ross D. Franklin/AP

Starting in September, Teamsters members across the Bay Area are being trained to canvas their communities as Amazon buys property in San Francisco, and potentially in Richmond, Pleasanton, Gilroy and San Jose, according to Doug Bloch, political director of Teamsters Council 7, which covers Northern California, and a member of the Future of Work Commission. Workers are trained to speak to residents about, in part, the importance of unionizing Amazon plants and encourage them to call local politicians, who vote on new Amazon plants. 

Labor leaders say the Bay Area, which has sympathetic local politicians, will be an important region to mount their campaign. Bloch said unions will press city council members and county supervisors to hold Amazon accountable, require better wages, benefits and even ask the company to be neutral during a union drive. 

“This is the place to bring the fight to Amazon,” said Bloch, who hopes that early union successes here will begin to spread east. Already, the Teamsters are using a new state law requiring warehouses to disclose to workers any quotas or work speed standards as evidence that unions benefit workers.

Bloch said he’s even open to pursuing sectoral bargaining. Unlike unionization, one form of sectoral bargaining could begin with state legislation to designate an appointed council to negotiate wages and benefits on behalf of all warehouse workers in the state. 

“Everything,” he says, “is on the table.”

Updated Oct. 28, 2021, to clarify the name of the union that held the Amazon warehouse vote in Alabama.

This article is part of the California Divide project, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

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Grace covers California’s economy for CalMatters. Previously, she was an editor at the Washington Monthly. She is a graduate of Pomona College.

Jesse Bedayn reports on economic inequality for The Mercury News in San Jose and CalMatters as part of The California Divide project. Before becoming a Report for America corps member, Bedayn studied investigative...