Labor’s 2012 Legislative Conference Focuses on Investing in California

It’s not often that union leaders, representatives and activists from all over the state come together to plan and execute a shared agenda for the good of all working families. That’s what makes Labor’s annual Joint Legislative Conference, sponsored by the California Labor Federation and State Building and Construction Trades Council, so special. And this year’s conference has been no exception.

More than 500 union advocates from hundreds of different unions joined together at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Sacramento yesterday to learn about and advocate for labor’s legislative priorities for 2012. In true conference tradition, the morning plenary session kicked off with four brave workers sharing their personal stories about the exploitation and hostility they (and hundreds of thousands of other warehouse workers) face every day working at Walmart-subcontracted warehouses in the Inland Empire. In a remarkable show of support for the workers, conference attendees dug into their pockets and contributed more than $2700 to the “Si Se Puede” Worker Fund — 100% of the proceeds will go directly to helping those workers.

The warehouse workers were followed by a warm welcome from Sacramento Labor Council leader Bill Camp. Then California Labor Federation President Connie Leyva delivered her remarks, which focused largely on the War on Women, and how it affects ALL Californians. But she also noted that

My hope lies in President Obama. Let’s not forget that just 9 days into his presidency, he signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. He has put more women into powerful positions than any other president… I hope you’ll join me in working like never before to get Obama elected to second term, so he can protect the rights of not just every woman in this country, but every citizen in America.

Following Connie’s speech, Josh Pechthalt of the California Federation of Teachers took to the stage to announce the landmark compromise his union and partners reached with the Governor regarding a revenue-generating ballot measure. Pechthalt says the compromise measure will bring in $9 billion in new revenues in the 1st year alone with a more progressive income tax on the wealthiest Californians, while cutting in half the more regressive sales tax component.

Revenue isn’t the only ballot issue that received a lot of attention at this year’s conference. In his remarks, State Building Trades leader Bob Balgenorth focused on another critical race in 2012 – the fight to stop the deceptive Corporate Power Grab ballot measure this November.

This measure would silence workers voices in politics, but don’t expect it to stop corporations from spending unlimited amounts in our elections. If they can strip us of union wages benefits and protections, and silence us in the political arena, they get what they want — an even bigger slice of the pie.

Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski also pointed out the deceptive and one-sided nature of the ballot measure, which would eliminate the use of payroll deductions for political purposes:

The proponents of this measure claim that it’s “fair” because they say this applies to both unions and corporations… but when was the last time you ever saw a corporation use payroll deduction? It just doesn’t happen. They know they can’t pull a move like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s union-stripping bill, but they think they can fool the voters in California with something they call campaign finance reform — but it’s really a lie, a deception and a fraud.

Our first special guest speaker was Labor Secretary Marty Morgenstern, who took the time to outline just a few of the 25 pro-worker bills that Governor Brown signed into law in the past year, including improved access to job training and a number of workplace health and safety laws. He also detailed the work he and Labor Commissioner Julie Su are doing to crack down on wage theft in the underground economy, and the culture of contracting out which has led to the devastating situation the Walmart warehouse workers detailed earlier in the day.

The next speaker, Senate President Pro tem Darrell Steinberg, spoke directly to the conference attendees about the pivotal nature of this year:

This is the 4th time as Senate President pro Tem that I’ve had the opportunity to address you. In the previous 3 years, I've talked about deficits, unemployment and republican obstructionism. Well, I come here my 4th year, and like you, I’m tired of it. You’re tired of it. And we have the chance this year to put all this behind us. This must be the last year of deficit in California. This must be last year of high unemployment. This must be the last year corporations dare try and silence workers’ voices in this state!

Steinberg was followed by Assembly Speaker John Perez, who talked about all the labor-backed bills that have truly made a difference in the lives of California workers, and he also underscored the inherent value of solidarity and unity in today’s increasingly divisive political climate.

With millions of Californians out of work, a state budget that needs revenue, and a population that needs jobs, there’s never been a better time for us to stand together and fight for working families. We're going to continue to fight for new opportunities for the next generation of Californians!

Senate Labor Chair Ted Lieu pointed out the great strides that have been taken to improve our state in the year since Governor Brown took office, and what he hopes to see in the year to come:

We have had 6 months of declining unemployment, we’ve cut the deficit by two-thirds, we’ve created more jobs in last year than any other state, and Standard & Poor has ungraded our credit rating from negative, up to stable, up to positive. I hope that next year when I’m here, ill be able to say the Corporate Power Grab failed, we’ve got two-thirds majority in the Legislature and Barack Obama has won a second term!

Following Leiu, Assembly Labor Chair Sandre Swanson, who will be leaving the Legislature at the end of this term, voiced his appreciation for everything that the House of Labor has done for him, and expressed what has been at the core of his time in office:

I've tried to be an uncompromising voice for you. I’ve tried to not be ashamed to say ‘that will hurt working families, and I will not vote for it.’ I hope that I have been faithful to that agenda…  This year is a transitional year. Make sure you elect to office the people that are going to stand with you, who see being your champion as an honor.

To honor his steadfast commitment to workers, Bob Balgenorth presented Swanson with a special plaque to commemorate all that he’s done in support of working families.

The first workshop of the day focused on the series of bills that California Labor is sponsoring this year. Cracking down on wage theft and exploitation, ending discrimination against the unemployed and creating good union jobs are just some of Labor’s priorities for the year.

At the conference luncheon, keynote speaker Attorney General Kamala Harris detailed her role in the recent $18 billion foreclosure settlement with the big banks, where she secured $12 billion for principal reduction to help families keep their homes. She also underscored the importance of passing her new anti-foreclosure “Homeowners Bill of Rights” legislation, and the challenges to passage:

I've been told that a lot of people are going to be hesitant about creating rules about how banks should behave. But I believe our legislators will have the courage and focus and commitment to pass this because it’s the right thing to do. I believe labor can help us remind our friends in the Capitol of the need to do just this, so we can change the rules and make them more fair. Because that’s what this is really all about.

In the afternoon, conference attendees attended workshops on a variety of worker-related issues ranging from the state budget to contingent work to healthcare and workers’ compensation. Following a long, action-packed day, the conference attendees kicked back with a few drinks and some socializing before the conference dinner, which opened with a performance from the adorable Folklorico Ballet Dancers.

The attendees then turned their attention to Bob Balgenorth, who will be retiring this year after 20 years of leading the State Building Trades. The union compiled a commemorative slideshow in his honor, and Greg Feere of the Contra Costa Building Trades presented Bob with a unique award. Labor Federation leader Art Pulaski also presented Bob with a gift – a bottle of delicious UFW union-made wine.

Governor Jerry Brown headlined the dinner program, addressing the crowd as if we were 600 of his closest friends. In his closing remarks, he underscored the theme of the conference:

It’s time to start investing in California again!

The dinner program concluded with our “Hundred Percenter” awards, where we recognize all the legislators that voted with working families 100% of the time in the last year: Senators Ellen Corbett, Mark DeSaulnier, Loni Hancock and Mark Leno, and Assemblymembers Tom Ammiano, Jim Beall, Marty Block, Bob Blumenfield, Mike Eng, Paul Fong, Mary Hayaski, Roger Hernandez, Ricardo Lara, Tony Medoza, Nancy Skinner, Sandre Swanson, Das Williams and Mariko Yamada.

Today is the last day of the conference, and attendees are all participating in our Legislative Lobby Day, where they’ll have the opportunity to talk face-to-face with the legislators and staffers that have the ability to push through the pro-worker bills that Labor is focusing on in 2012. Visit our website to learn more about Labor’s Legislative Agenda, and find more highlights from the conference on our Twitter page.