When the Supreme Court ruled in June 2018 that government workers couldn’t be forced to join a union or pay dues, politicians in pro-labor states vowed to help their union allies maintain their membership. California, whose government has long had a reputation for being highly responsive to labor’s needs, has outdone itself again in pursuing labor’s agenda since the Court’s decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. Recently, Sacramento passed laws expanding the eligibility pool of workers for public and private unions, reining in employers hostile to labor, and committing new taxpayer money to support the pay and benefits of union workers. Whether the Golden State’s political class can help stop labor’s long decline is another question—but give the state’s politicians credit for trying extra hard.
The latest salvo in California’s pro-union arsenal is a law that allows government-paid child-care workers to organize and bargain for higher wages and benefits with the state itself—which pays their salaries! If that sounds bizarre (why doesn’t the state just pay them more?), remember that after Janus, unions can’t force government-paid workers to join their organizations or pay dues and fees. That gets at the real purpose of the bill. It not only allows these workers to organize but also gives unions the right to attend orientation sessions to pitch union membership to new workers. In other words, the state has just extended potential union membership to 40,000 people whom it’s paying to care for kids, and legislators helpfully created the organizing mechanism for unions to make their case to these folks. All this was done under the guise of boosting these workers’ “poverty wages.” But in exchange for the privilege of allowing a union to bargain for them, they will have to pay union dues, which means that they’ll make less than if the state had simply given them a raise.
Meantime, the state also passed a law heavily backed by the state’s powerful California Teachers Association that will likely derail the growth of charter schools. The law empowers local districts to curtail charter school formation, including denying a school’s application to operate if officials believe that the new school will adversely affect its finances by drawing students—and hence funding—away from local public schools. The CTA has waged a long campaign against charters because of trouble organizing them; only 30 percent of the state’s charter schools have unionized workplaces. In addition to limiting the options for parents looking to transfer their kids out of failing public schools, the new legislation is also likely to make school board elections highly contentious, as the union and charter school backers direct resources to back their preferred candidates.
California’s private-sector organizing was the focus of another union-friendly law, Assembly Bill 5, passed last month to target so-called gig economy workers at employers like Uber and Lyft. The radical legislation redefines the companies’ for-hire drivers and other kinds of contract workers as permanent employees and extends to them many of the benefits those workers qualify for, including minimum wage and overtime pay—even if the workers themselves want to retain their flexible, part-time, or for-hire status. Notably, the bill exempts many professions with no history of unionization from the new requirements, including doctors and artists, but conveniently reclassifies some 1 million gig economy workers as permanent employees, making them ripe for organizing campaigns.
Unions have also won significant new funding in the state budget, which has been growing, thanks to an expanding national economy, though no one in Sacramento would dare call it Trump’s economy. Union allies persuaded state legislators earlier this year, for instance, to pony up $3 billion to help school districts pay for efforts to bail out the troubled California State Teachers’ Retirement System. The budget also allocates money so that the state can update records on child-care workers—the easier for unions to organize them—and grants funds to pay school-district employees who aren’t salaried during the summer.
How much all this ultimately matters to California’s labor movement is not clear. The Golden State has made extraordinary efforts in support of unions for decades, but that hasn’t stopped the decline of the labor movement. In the early 1990s, for example, the Service Employees International Union persuaded the state legislature to allow local governments to declare independent home health-care workers as state employees if they were paid with Medicaid funds. That led to massive organizing drives that many workers, who worked out of patients’ homes, didn’t even know were taking place. Ultimately, SEIU gained 130,000 new members because of the effort, and even those who didn’t vote for unionization were forced to pay union dues or fees.
Despite such extraordinary assistance from Sacramento, however, the share of state union workers has declined to 14.7 percent from 16.1 percent over the last 20 years, according to unionstats.com. Public-sector unions have struggled especially since the Great Recession ended in 2009, despite the state economy’s rebound. The portion of government workers belonging to a union is down from 55.8 percent in 2009 to 50.3 percent today, even as the total number of state public employees has reached new highs.
The state legislature isn’t about to extend to its own employees the rights that it gives to private workers and other government personnel. According to long-time Sacramento columnist Dan Walters, the one union-backed bill that didn’t make it through the California state house this year would give unionization privileges to employees of the legislature itself. That would be too union-friendly, apparently.