By Judy Lin and Ben Christopher
SACRAMENTO—Last summer, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled public sector unions couldn’t compel fees from nonunion workers, the talk was thatorganized labor had been hit hard, was facing amass exodus, and was playing defenseeven in pro-labor California.
Talk about a comeback.
As state lawmakers wrap up for the year, labor is celebrating a banner year in Sacramento: New restrictions on California charter schools at the behest of the teachers unions. A bill to allow unionization for child care workers. And on Wednesday, the signing of AB 5, a nationally watched measure converting 1 million California freelancers into employees while granting them a suite of protections along with the right to join unions. The bill takes effect Jan. 1.
The turnaround is no accident. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s dues-gutting decision in the case of Janus v. AFSCME, labor went into political overdrive last year in California, pushing a series of bills through the Legislature that, among other things, forced state and local governments to give unions access to newly hired public employees. That helped shore up membership—and dues—in the influential unions that represent teachers and government workers.
But experts say labor still has its work cut out, even with the passage of AB 5, touted as a path to more job security for gig economy workers. While the bill is at once potentially transformative, it is also filled with complications and pitfalls, said Stanford law professor William Gould, a former National Labor Relations Board chairman. Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have put$90 million toward seeking an end run around it. In his signing statement, Newsom alluded cryptically to what may be an Achilles’ heel in the legislation: the fact that, however California regards its 200,000-plus gig workers, the federal government still categorizes them as freelancers.
And it remains to be seen whether unions, even in California, can turn a paper victory into a meaningful labor movement that results in more private-sector members. Union membership has fallen to a historic low as a share of the state’s workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unionization rate here is 50% in the public sector and just 8.3% in the private sector.
“It depends on the energy that the unions put into organizing the unorganized,” Gould said in an interview. “From the ‘40s to the ‘60s, the unions were spending approximately 30% of their budget on organizing. Today, it’s about 3%.”
For so long, we had focused so much on public sector unions—and we’re going to continue to defend and protect those—but we’re also going to look at the private sector,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, AB 5’s author. “We see income inequality growing at staggering paces and a lot of that is the narrowing number of unions in the private sector.
Labor leaders note that rideshare drivers are scrambling to make ends meet, jumping from one app to another to cobble enough earnings, or sleeping in their vehicles as an ever bigger slice of their fares goes to Lyft or Uber. In shifting workers to employee status, companies would have to offer basic worker protections such as guaranteed minimum wage, overtime pay, contributions to Social Security and Medicare, unemployment and disability insurance as well as workers’ compensation, sick leave and family leave.
And workers are hopeful. Oakland resident Luke Rivera, 39, who drives about 30 hours a week for Uber, said aspires to be like his uncle, whose work as a long-haul truck driver represented by the Teamsters supported a home and a family. “When he passed away 5 years ago, he had a million dollars saved up from driving a truck,” said Rivera. “We want the opportunity to work our butts off and say, ‘God dang it, I was able to save a million dollars in my lifetime.’”
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.