As this year draws to a close, so too does Arnold Schwarzenegger's term as California governor. Skimming the many articles that reflected on his tenure as Governor, one word was used over and over: “moderate.”
So what does it mean to be a “moderate?” Sure, Schwarzenegger did not embrace the socially conservative agenda pushed by much of the Republican Party, but he has shown a deep disregard for the working people who built this state and who make it run. Every time he had to choose a side, he stood with big business, big banks, and big campaign contributors.
First came his slashing of workers compensation benefits. The deal in workers comp is that workers lose the right to sue for injuries on the job but gain a guaranteed level of benefits if seriously injured at work. In early 2004, his first year in office, Schwarzenegger pushed for a major overhaul of the workers compensation system and the Legislature went along. But in implementing that bill, his Administration slashed benefits to permanently disabled workers by more than 50 percent.
In March of this year, my father-in-law, a bulldozer operator at a recycling plant, was hit in the head by a 100-pound bundle that fell off a conveyor belt. He fell to the concrete floor, fracturing his skull and leaving him unconscious. He was airlifted to a trauma center an hour away and, before surgery began, his wife and kids were brought in to say their goodbyes. Miraculously, he survived. But he will never work again. He cannot drive a car. He can't dance, a favorite pasttime for him and my mother-in-law. As he says, the accident not only changed his entire life, it changed hers too.
So after two decades at that job, having suffered a life-threatening injury and sustaining permanent brain damage, my father-in-law could end up receiving less than half the disability benefits he would have been entitled to before Schwarzenegger's “reforms.”
The treatment of injured workers was a sign of what was to come.
In December of 2004, Schwarzenegger's Labor Agency issued emergency regulations right before Christmas. The emergency? The right to a lunch break.
Actually, the problem was that major corporations, and coincidentally major donors, were being sued for mass violations of workers' right to a lunch break. The Schwarzenegger administration decided that these workers seeking justice constituted an “emergency,” and they put forth regulations to eliminate the guaranteed lunchbreak and shorten the statute of limitations to reduce liability for companies that broke the law.
What was so amazing about this particular proposal was the lengths they were willing to go to make it happen. Before holding public hearings as required by law, the Labor Agency produced a fake news video, featuring workers and employers agreeing that lunch breaks were an unnecessary burden.
While the public hearings were dominated by workers from all industries speaking to the importance of lunch breaks, a few chain restaurants brought workers by the busload to speak again the right to a lunch break. A San Francisco Chronicle expose documented that Schwarzenegger's Labor Agency actually colluded with the California Restaurant Association to coach workers to support the rules.
Although the Labor Movement successfully exposed this attempted takeaway and forced the Administration to withdraw the rule, Schwarzenegger never stopped trying to help out the corporations that denied workers lunch break rights. In fact, while these proposals do not save the state one dime, the Governor and Republican lawmakers demanded lunch break and overtime takeaways in almost every budget negotiation.
Also in his first year, Schwarzenegger's Health and Human Services Agency tried to reduce the nurse to patient ratio, undermining public health and worker safety. When nurses protested the regulatory takeaway, Schwarzenegger dismissed them as “special interests” who were mad because he was “always kicking their butts.”
This was the beginning of a new assault on public employees that has only intensified throughout his years in office. In 2005, Schwarzenegger threatened to run an initiative to privatize public pensions. He called a special election and backed initiatives to weaken workers political voice and strip teachers of basic rights.
After a major defeat in that election, Schwarzenegger renewed his campaign against public employees by refusing to honor the state employees contract agreement that his administration had negotiated. He implemented an across the board furlough policy that did not even save the state money-but cut state worker wages by 15 percent. He proposed further wage and benefit cuts be made unilaterally, rather than reached through collective bargaining as every Governor before him had done.
In his final year, he again focused on public school teachers, blaming them for the impact of billions of dollars in education cuts. He even tried to push through a proposal to strip teachers of basic due process rights as part of a budget deal.
Rather than take on the banks that caused the foreclosure crisis or stop giving massive tax breaks to corporations that outsource jobs, Schwarzenegger blamed working people — the ones who literally make this state run — for the budget crisis.
And of course, every year, Schwarzenegger vetoed almost every bill that would have improved the lives of California workers. He vetoed bills to penalize employers for intentional violations of workers rights, to protect farmworkers from retaliation, to improve workplace safety, to ensure pay equity, to restore dignity to disabled workers, and to help low-wage workers get justice when they are abused.
There is nothing moderate about standing with corporations and against workers every single time. There is nothing moderate about scapegoating your own employees to avoid responsibility for your failures. And there is nothing moderate about turning a blind eye to the injustices faced by workers across this state. As we say goodbye to Governor Schwarzenegger, let's keep it real. The working families of this state deserve better than we got these past 6 years.