Capitol Alert

Union power on display in California’s just-completed legislative session

From family leave and clean-air cars to job applicants and the construction industry, organized labor left its stamp on the just-completed California legislative session.

Unions’ efforts sent to Gov. Jerry Brown measures that give their leaders access to employees’ emails, restrict ports from expanding automation that could displace workers and expand prevailing wage requirements for housing construction.

Labor is a major player at the Capitol, where Democratic lawmakers are sympathetic to its issues and some are former union members themselves. The party achieved two-thirds’ control of both houses of the Legislature last fall with the help of millions of dollars in union campaign contributions and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Even as fewer than 1 in 5 California employees has union representation, labor engaged on many of the more than 2,500 bills introduced this year, supporting some and opposing others – and often achieving the desired outcome.

Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable – a group frequently on the wrong side of labor’s goals – said unions see a “window of opportunity” after helping Democrats pad their legislative margins.

“Since they have a two-thirds Democratic supermajority this session, it’s an all-out assault for their agenda before the next election,” he said.

Labor officials say they have to work hard to make their case to lawmakers of all stripes, adding that they’re often the underdog against other influential Capitol interests, including oil companies and the pharmaceutical industry.

“We win some and we lose some,” said Barry Broad, a longtime lobbyist whose clients include the Teamsters, longshore and warehouse union, and Screen Actors Guild. “Sometimes our arguments are more persuasive than others. The notion that we always win is certainly not true.”

State filings show that various labor unions directly donated more than $22 million to current lawmakers during last year’s election cycle, almost one-fifth of total contributions, with all but about $1 million of that going to Democrats. They also gave more than $12 million to Democratic political parties in the state, and millions more to outside spending committees that helped some Democrats get elected.

Unions, meanwhile, ranked among the leaders in lobbyist spending during the first half of 2017, according to state disclosure filings. Of the 100 highest-spending lobbyist employers through June 30, eight were unions or labor coalitions, with reported spending of $6.2 million, about 9 percent of the total.

Dan Carrigg, legislative director of the League of California Cities, has worked with and against unions over the years.

“Obviously labor is a key group that connects with core Democratic principles,” Carrigg said. “If Republicans had the majority, I’m sure that business groups and anti-tax groups would have a bigger profile.”

These are among some of the major bills passed in recent days:

▪ AB 168: Prohibits employers from asking about job applicants’ salary history.

▪ AB 621: Allows non-teaching school employees to set aside part of their income, with a 2-to-1 state match, to receive paychecks during summer recess.

▪ AB 1008: Prohibits public or private employers from asking job seekers about past convictions on initial applications.

▪ AB 1209: Requires businesses with 500 or more workers to collect information about gender pay differentials, which would be posted on the internet.

▪ AB 1701: General contractors and sub-contractors would be equally liable for unpaid wages.

▪ SB 63: Expands the state’s family leave law to employers with 20 or more workers.

Another bill, sponsored by SEIU, would require the Department of Social Services to provide the names and phone numbers of workers in its home care registry to a labor organization, unless the worker opts out. Supporters say AB 1513 would help workers get information about their jobs.

But the Home Care Association of America called the measure an invasion of privacy and noted that it emerged the same day Brown signed budget legislation that barred the public-records release of state workers’ email addresses.

“We know of no existing California statute that is as breathtaking in its invasion of an employee’s right to privacy as AB 1513,” Phil Bongiorno, the association’s executive director, wrote in a Sept. 11 letter to lawmakers. The measure nevertheless cleared the Legislature on Wednesday and is headed to Brown’s desk.

Not all labor-backed bills advanced. Heavy opposition from the dialysis industry blocked SB 349, which would have set staffing levels for those clinics. A bill requiring employers to offer more hours to part-time workers before hiring more employees passed one committee before stalling. And Assembly Bill 1250, which would have restricted counties’ ability to contract out for work, was parked.

Most unions, meanwhile, kept their distance from one of the session’s most-watched measures: legislation to create a government-run health care system. Backed by the California Nurses Association, the measure passed the Senate before being sidelined in the Assembly.

Different unions occasionally are on opposite sides of the same bill or political campaign. They also sometimes find themselves at odds with another core Democratic constituency – environmentalists.

Opposition by construction unions helped block AB 1000, a measure supported by Brown and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein that would have stalled the controversial Cadiz water-pumping project in the Mojave Desert.

Labor also left its imprint on legislation to spend nearly $1.5 billion in revenue generated by the state’s cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and diesel pollution.

A pair of union-friendly conditions prohibit the purchase of fully automated zero-emission equipment at the state’s ports and declare the Legislature’s intent to, beginning next summer, exclude zero-emission vehicle manufacturers from state rebate programs unless they treat their workers in a “fair and responsible” manner.

The latter provision, which applies to all automakers, comes amid an increasingly contentious organizing effort at Tesla’s Fremont plant. Some employees allege illegal intimidation.

Angie Wei, the chief of staff for the 2.1-million member California Labor Federation, said state taxpayers have poured millions of dollars into the growing electric-vehicle industry. That should yield jobs that pay middle-class salaries, she said. “This is part of our work as a labor movement: We want to make sure that public investments have public accountability,” she said.

Business groups, meanwhile, have objected to the strings attached to the ports money. “If they want to spend their own money, let them go out and do it,” Broad said.

Republicans slammed them as a union giveaway and multiple Democrats sounded skeptical.

“We shouldn’t be holding our environmental projects hostage to a fight with one progressive employer,” state Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, said during Friday’s floor debate. Brown signed the legislation Saturday.

Even top lawmakers’ legislative priorities felt the brunt of labor lobbying in the closing days.

A bill by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León to accelerate California’s renewable energy requirements cruised along for most of 2017. Then unions representing electrical and utility workers, who had previously backed the bill, declared their opposition, saying it failed to do enough to protect jobs.

As Saturday dawned, de León’s SB 100 remained stuck in the Assembly despite intense lobbying by environmental groups, as well as actor Mark Ruffalo and “science guy” Bill Nye.

“It’s been a strange turn of events,” said Dan Jacobson of Environment California, who said the objections caught supporters by surprise. “I’m just a knucklehead environmental lobbyist, but if you want an amendment, you’re supposed to talk at the committee hearing.”

Scott Wetch, whose clients include electrical workers unions, said there was no need to pass SB 100 this year given the potentially major financial impact on utilities. “We don’t want to see the Legislature recklessly run into something that isn’t fully analyzed and isn’t fully cooked,” he said.

Tom Scott, California state executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business, which also opposed SB 100, said he welcomed the late addition of an unlikely ally.

“Nobody – no matter who you are, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican – is beyond the potential wrath of organized labor,” he said.