It was Monday of the last week of the legislative year. Just like every time I walk into the state Capitol I wonder, am I wearing pants? I always check myself as I walk in the front doors of the building.
Someone told me that having a dream where you aren’t wearing pants means you feel nervous, insecure, and unsure. For sure, I think she is right.
I went to public school in Texas, never learning about the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans. I was stunned — STUNNED — to learn this in my first-year US history class at UC Berkeley. It changed my world. I became an Asian American Studies major and finally was able to put my personal experiences into a historical context of Asians in America.
I spent four great years peacefully protesting — for ethnic studies, immigrant rights, public education and against budget cuts — getting arrested, locking myself into buildings with other protestors. Always on the outside, making noise, agitating and speaking truth to power.
Perhaps I’m kinda doing the same thing now, just in a different venue. I’m still the same young kid in a striped t-shirt with a staple gun posting flyers around campus. Except now it’s one pagers with bullet points and logos and we wear dresses and suits. I still get to be at pickets and protests but then maybe have to run inside to testify in committee or meet with a legislator.
Pretty much get to be the same person and do the same things I did at 18. Who gets to say that? But the stakes are different now.
After being a legislative advocate for 21 years — 18 for the California Labor Federation, I am still amazed at the enormity of our jobs. We fight to change the laws that impact workers’ daily lives — more affordable housing, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, worker health and safety protections, a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave and paid sick days. We defend against corporations who want to take away our lunch breaks, our rest periods, our eight-hour day, our workplace rights, our health care and our consumer privacy. These are big fights. Imagine our state without our cadre of labor lobbyists to win progress and fight regression.
While we’re often portrayed in the media as a powerful “special interest,” that doesn’t give folks an accurate view of what we do, why we do it and who we do it for. Most lobbyists are in the Capitol to protect the bottom line of big companies. We’re there to make sure those companies’ profits are actually shared with workers, that folks are safe on the job and aren’t being taken advantage of by unscrupulous bosses.
Most recently, I got to lobby with workers from Tesla, the electric vehicle (EV) manufacturer, who have been organizing to form a union. Tesla has run a typical anti-union campaign, including serious threats of intimidation and retaliation. The NLRB just issued a complaint against Tesla, finding, in fact, intimidation and retaliation took place and agreeing with the workers that a confidentiality agreement they had to sign was too broad.
We were seeking some language tied to EV subsidies that simply would start a process to certify auto manufacturers as fair and responsible to their workers before qualifying for subsidies. Very small language, just two sentences. Who knew that over 40 auto industry lobbyists would engage in this fight? Tesla alone hired three lobbying firms to kill these two sentences about responsible treatment of workers.
Workers from Tesla, organizing with the support of the UAW, came out on top. Their small but constant presence in the Capitol for three weeks reminded lawmakers that workers’ rights are being violated in the EV industry. And that they could support a small step toward raising standards for all workers in the industry. We sure got the industry’s attention; we’ll work hard to win high standards for these workers.
I still get nervous when I testify in committee, including at two Budget Committee hearings in support of our language. There were a lot of eyes and ears interested in the issue, it was getting some attention. We faced significant opposition. But the stories from those Tesla workers who risked everything to speak out won the day.
I’m still always nervous…wondering am I wearing pants?
And I know…the day I stop being nervous, the day that I am secure in my pants, is the day that I’ve gotten too comfortable. These are big jobs we have, up against deep pocketed corporate interests. They can outnumber us and outspend us, but they will never out-organize us. Every day we must fight with all our might. Without the labor movement, who will remain the last defender against unfettered corporate greed?
Angie Wei is Chief of Staff at the California Labor Federation…and despite the enormous responsibility she has, still very much a kid at heart