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.
Angie Wei is the legislative director for the California Labor Federation. She also serves as chair of the California Commission on Health and Safety and Workers' Compensation (CHSWC).
We’ve been holding our breath all of June, waiting for yet another Supreme Court decision that could change the lives of millions of Californians. Heartbroken, disappointed, but not surprised, this Court denied our dream of opportunities for the millions of immigrant workers who are at risk every day. At risk of getting separated from their families, at risk of employer exploitation, at risk of returning to a country they hardly remember, at risk of losing their children.
By Angie Wei
Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to be a delegate representing the AFL-CIO to the 3rd Congress of the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA), at the invitation of Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre.
The annual season of governor’s signatures and vetoes has come to an end. And this year, as every year, worker power won legislative change. Many of the most significant bills that were signed by Governor Brown each engaged an active lobbying and advocacy effort by workers and their organizations.
I started out as an immigrant rights advocate on the heels of the passage of Proposition 187 and during the Pete Wilson administration. Those were difficult times for the immigrant rights movement. Voters had passed the most draconian anti-immigrant initiative to date, racist anti-immigrant commercials filled our airwaves, and the fear mongering fomented hate toward immigrants. And the Legislature had passed a new law requiring social security numbers to get a driver’s license, effectively barring undocumented immigrants from eligibility.
Over the past 20 years, multiple attempts to eliminate the immigration restrictions for a driver’s license have failed. I worked on AB 1463 in 1999 from the immigrant rights side, passed by the Legislature, vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis. I worked on SB 60 in 2003 from the Labor side, signed into law by Gov. Davis and then repealed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004.
Legislative deadline weeks in the Capitol usually bring out all of the well-heeled suits representing a cacophony of corporate interests. Every industry’s got a lobbyist (or several) moving a bill or killing a bill at this time of year. The “gate” — where lobbyists can request to see a Senator or Assemblymember on a particular measure — is usually bursting with pinstriped suits.
As in politics, Labor is generally outnumbered at the gate. I’d say that at deadline time, it’s at least a 25-to-1 ratio of corporate-side vs. union-side representatives. But that was not so on Tuesday, May 28th.
Over the last week, there’s been a lot of silly media coverage comparing Texas to California. It’s almost like a sports rivalry at this point. Perry says his low-regulation, low-government service, low-wage economic model is the way to go. As a native Texan, I know better.
Arnold Schwarzenegger rode into the Governor’s office in 2003 on the campaign promise to “fix” the workers’ compensation system. Every day in 2004, the media hammered home Schwarzenegger’s talking points that California’s highest-in-the-nation workers’ compensation costs were driving employers, and jobs, out of the state.
In the face of a relentless media campaign and the threat of an extreme workers’ comp reform ballot measure, the Legislature passed SB 899 in 2004—a draconian bill that gutted the workers’ compensation system and created more pain and suffering for injured workers. Since SB 899, permanently disabled workers have seen their benefits slashed to the bone. Medical treatment is delayed and denied by insurance companies, sometimes for over a year. As a result, injured workers are stuck at home battling insurance companies for the medical care they need, with no ability to return to work.
Thanks to unaffordable fees, credit checks and other obstacles, big banks have shut out about a million California households from access to any banking services whatsoever. These “unbanked” workers, unable to receive direct deposit, have in recent years found employers replacing paper paychecks with mysterious “payroll debit” cards—electronic cards that charge massive fees only a banking lobbyist could love.
Over 2.1 million workers are currently unemployed in California. That’s not counting the underemployed, the part-timers who would like to be working full-time, the temporary workers, and those who are so discouraged that they’ve given up on work. One-third of the unemployed have been jobless for over a year; 25% have been out of work for more than two years.
This Great Recession is leaving millions of workers behind. Workers in especially hard-hit sectors like construction are facing unemployment rates as high as 40-50%. Workers have lost their jobs, their homes, their marriages and their community roots in the wake of this recession. Women and men who spent decades in the construction industry may never return to the same work. We’ve got to re-invest in these workers — to train and arm them with new skills so they can embark upon new career paths.
Fifteen years ago, on the first Immigrant Day in Sacramento, I remember standing on the Capitol steps. I stood there worried, what if no one showed up?
That fear melted away as I saw a group of Hmong immigrants approach the Capitol from one side. Then I turned to see Russian immigrants approaching from another side, Latinas from across the street, and so many other communities converging on the capitol. We were impressive.
As we prepared our advocates for the first-ever Immigrant Day, I recall working with my fellow leaders and deciding to scrap our formal talking points and encourage our allies instead to speak from their heart–to share their stories. The legislative response was overwhelmingly positive and we’ve tried to take that approach ever since. When we talk about the real immigrant experience and share ways to make California a better place for everyone, we win.
Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway has an answer to just about any question directly relating to our budget crisis. “No.” No revenues. No vote of the people. No Republican budget proposal. No closing corporate tax loopholes. No spending cuts. No, No, No, No, No.
Conway explained her caucus’ flurry on “No’s” to the LA Times recently: “The reality of it is, if we put up a ‘budget’ of our own it will get picked apart, criticized.”
That may be a good answer for a politician. But it’s the last thing we need to hear from a public servant.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is holding a gun to the heads of over 300,000 California state employees. He’s salivating at the opportunity to drop state employee pay to federal minimum wage if a budget isn’t enacted by July 31st. He’s also announced that he won’t sign a budget unless it includes worker concessions on their pensions.
That’s right. The federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour, 75 cents below CA’s $8 an hour minimum wage. Sacramento’s economy would come to its knees. Local restaurants, car repair, grocery stores, landlords, banks, would all lose revenue as a result.
This proposal takes the economic high road by saving hundreds of thousands of jobs for teachers, police, firefighters and other workers, and creating jobs in the private sector that will spur economic growth and new revenues for the state without raising taxes on working families.
If a business wants to contact someone in state government to bring jobs to California, where would they start? The answer is a lot more complicated than you might think. The Trade and Commerce Agency used to be the de facto point of entry for employers to state government, but it was dismantled in 2003, and now there are over 100 separate economic development plans among more than a dozen state government agencies.
This disaster known as California’s economic development plan is what inspired the California Labor Federation to sponsor SB 1259 (DeSaulnier) which would create a cabinet-level Office of Economic Development and Job Creation to streamline and focus the state’s economic development activities.
California's unemployment insurance program is our state’s frontline defense for our state’s economic recovery. Every day, Claifornia's Employment Development Department (EDD) pays out, on average, $80 million in unemployment insurance checks, and over 1.4 million laid off Californians depend on these UI benefits to get by.
With unemployment at 12.5%, EDD’s infrastructure is falling apart. Laid off workers must call dozens of times before they can get through on the phone lines. No one at EDD”s one-stop offices can help with unemployment insurance claims. And despite the high need for services, the Governor has failed to appoint a leader to the EDD.