The State Worker

California unions say state law will protect workers, despite Trump’s ‘anti-union’ pick

California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez celebrates committee passage of a bill to reclassify workers in California

California lawmakers are working on legislation that would change the 'gig' economy by reclassifying independent contractors as workers in California. California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez celebrated the passage of a bill on July 10, 2019.
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California lawmakers are working on legislation that would change the 'gig' economy by reclassifying independent contractors as workers in California. California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez celebrated the passage of a bill on July 10, 2019.

California unions don’t expect President Donald Trump’s administration to get any friendlier toward labor with the president’s pick of corporate attorney Eugene Scalia for Labor secretary.

Trump nominated the son of late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to succeed Alexander Acosta, who resigned last week amid questions over his role in a lax 2008 plea deal in a sex trafficking case against Jeffrey Epstein.

“We’re ready for the worst, but on the other hand this administration from Day One has been vigorously anti-union, so I don’t know how much different it will be under Scalia than it was under Acosta,” said California Labor Federation spokesman Steve Smith.

Scalia, 55, challenged Labor Department regulations while working for business clients at a Washington, D.C. law office. He previously served as the Labor Department’s solicitor under George W. Bush, and has fought Obama- and Clinton-era labor rules.

“Gene has led a life of great success in the legal and labor field and is highly respected not only as a lawyer, but as a lawyer with great experience working with labor and everyone else,” Trump said of Scalia on Twitter.

The Labor Department under Acosta has loosened some overtime rules for employers, including, just this week, relaxing rules for truckers who spend down time in their trucks. The department moved to get rid of an Obama rule that would have made companies more liable for workplace violations by their franchises and contractors.

“We just see the Labor Department become less of a labor department and more of a corporate department,” Smith said. “And I think that trend continues, if not accelerates, under Scalia.”

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed on a Clinton-era rule aimed at reducing repetitive-stress injuries, known as the ergonomics rule, Scalia speculated about union motivations behind the proposed rule.

“That draft rule itself is a major concession to union leaders, who know that ergonomic regulation will force companies to give more rest periods, slow the pace of work and then hire more workers (read: dues-paying members) to maintain current levels of production,” Scalia wrote in the op-ed.

Scalia has taken on a state labor regulation at least once, when on behalf of Walmart he successfully challenged a Maryland law that would have set a minimum threshold for companies’ health care spending.

But the federal Labor Department’s ability to impact California workers is limited by the state’s labor laws, said Catherine Fisk, a UC Berkeley law professor focused on labor.

In general, federal labor rules for things like minimum wage and workplace safety are considered minimum standards around the country, Fisk said. Some states haven’t adopted more stringent protections than the federal rules, but California’s are robust, she said, with the nation’s highest minimum wage and a Labor and Workforce Development Agency overseeing a Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

Relations between companies and unions are governed mostly by federal law, where they fall under the National Labor Relations Board, not the Department of Labor, Fisk said.

Over time, if the gulf grows larger between states with protective labor laws and those that fall back on the federal minimums, more businesses could migrate away from states like California, she said.

“If this goes on and on, you could see jobs moving from California to Louisiana or Texas for agriculture or lumber or manufacturing, where the more that California decides we want to have safer workplaces or better wages, the more it makes other states more attractive to have less safety, more pollution, more injuries, lower wages,” she said.

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