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California Labor Unions’ Priority Bill to Provide Unemployment Benefits to Workers on Strike Passes Key Committee
Statewide Constitutional Officers and U.S. Senate Candidates Announce Support for SB 799
SACRAMENTO – (Thursday, August 31, 2023) – Today, the Assembly Insurance Committee voted to pass SB 799 (Portantino, D-Burbank) with the legislation passing on an 11-2 vote. Last week, California labor unions jointly announced priority labor legislation SB 799 to allow union members on strike for at least two weeks to qualify for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. The Legislature has until September 14, 2023 to send the bill to the Governor’s desk.
“Strikes require great sacrifices, but workers should never have to go hungry, lose their home or go bankrupt because they are temporarily out of work,” said Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, Chief Officer of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. “Unemployment Insurance is intended to help workers make it through hard times. We are fighting to end the unfair exclusion of striking workers from accessing unemployment benefits that workers have already earned.”
“As a grocery store worker who stood strong during the 2003-2004 strike, I know firsthand the financial strain that comes with standing up for our rights. Having a safety net like unemployment insurance for striking workers is crucial. It would ensure that we can fight for fair wages and better conditions without the fear of losing everything. Our voices matter, and this bill would give us the support we need to make lasting change,” said UFCW Local 135 member John Garcia, Vons (2012).
Workers have gone on strike in part because of the intransigence of employers to come to fair and reasonable agreements. The entertainment industry employers represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), have made it clear that they are willing to exploit workers’ financial precarity in order to break the strike. One studio executive was quoted saying the employer’s strategy is to “allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.” Another executive doubled down on that strategy calling it “a cruel but necessary evil.”
“If I were receiving a weekly benefit while on strike, I wouldn’t have to worry as much about falling behind on rent and utilities while I’m out of work, striking in the hope of better being able to cover my rent and utilities. When it comes to lunch and coffee these days, I’m often depending on the magnanimity of other writers and empathetic local businesses for sponsored food on the lines. Unemployment insurance during striking would surely give me more stability and peace of mind in these areas,” said Karen Joseph Adcock, Writers Guild of America West member from Yellowjackets, The Bear, Swarm, Atlanta, How I Met Your Father.
“The problem with the current law is that it fails to recognize that employers are the ones that cause strikes, not unions or employees. For employees to bear the burden of employer intransigence by denying them unemployment insurance is unfair and anti-worker,” said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator. “No one should face losing their home, their health care or their ability to feed their family over asking for a fair wage. While SB799 won’t solve all those problems, it provides an important lifeline when workers need it most.”
The entertainment industry strikes illustrate the problem with the current system. Production has stopped for the last few months. A location scout represented by the Teamsters and an IATSE makeup artist are eligible for UI during the shutdown, but the writer from the same show is not.
“Our industry is in the middle of significant strikes by the Writers Guild of America and SAG AFTRA. The California IATSE Council’s nearly 54,000 members are directly impacted by these strikes. They have lost close to $1 billion in income, and the lack of work-days has put their health coverage and pension status in serious jeopardy. Our members want to work but they also understand that sometimes the struggle for fair wages, jobs, and a safe work environment makes a strike necessary. What isn’t fair is that striking workers in California — such as the members of SAG AFTRA and WGA– have no access to UI. SB 799 would change that reality and by doing so would fix the significant imbalance between employers and striking workers that currently exists in our State,” said Thom Davis, President of California IATSE Council.
This week, elected officials across California have come out in broad support of the policy to support striking workers, including the Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, Attorney General Rob Bonta, State Treasurer Fiona Ma, Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond and all candidates for U.S. Senate Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Katie Porter, and Rep. Barbara Lee.
“California’s workers are the force behind our state’s economic success and help generate the prosperity we all enjoy,” said State Treasurer Fiona Ma. “They shouldn’t be punished when they advocate for their own best interest by seeking better pay, benefits, and working conditions. This bill removes a critical barrier of progress by supporting workers who chose to take a stand.”
“Workers are the backbone of our economy. As long as striking workers are ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits, we make it more difficult for workers to fight and advocate for better working conditions, higher wages, and improved benefits so that they can provide for their families and themselves,” said Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara. “Senate Bill 799 will help move our economy forward and keep California as a leader in protecting workers’ rights, including the right to strike.”
“When workers have to strike for a fair contract, it impacts their entire family. No one should run out of food or face homelessness simply due to a strike,” said State Superintendent of Instruction Tony Thurmond. “Unemployment Insurance benefits sustain families through hard times and striking workers should not be excluded. We want kids to have as much stability as possible outside of school so they can succeed when they get to school. This is a simple way for California to strengthen our safety net to benefit our families so I strongly support SB 799.”
“It is unconscionable to ask hardworking Californians fighting for dignity and a living wage to run through their life savings while on strike. These workers are the economic engine of our state’s economy. We need to stand with them,” said Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis.
“Waiting workers out is a cruel but all too common tactic corporate bosses use to get their way during a strike. SB 799 puts a wrench in these kinds of schemes by making it possible for workers to keep paying for their basic needs while on strike. I urge the state legislature to respect the right to strike and side with workers, not greedy corporations,” said Rep. Katie Porter, candidate for U.S. Senate.
“From hotel workers to nurses to screenwriters and actors, tens of thousands of Californians have bravely gone on strike this summer in a historic demonstration of solidarity for fair wages and conditions for all,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, candidate for U.S. Senate. “I support SB 799 to ensure striking workers in California qualify for unemployment insurance. Nobody should go into debt or lose their home because they’re exercising their right to strike.”
“Workers deserve to make their voices heard on the picket line fighting for better wages and benefits, without putting their families in financial jeopardy. Unfortunately, many striking workers can’t afford to go without pay, or have to dip into their savings to pay their bills and keep food on the table for their families — big corporations shouldn’t be able to wait out striking workers to avoid paying workers what they’re worth,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, candidate for U.S. Senate. “That’s why it’s critical that the California legislature pass SB 799, to ensure workers can receive unemployment insurance benefits.”
The California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO represents over 1,200 affiliated unions in California with over 2.2 million union members in trucking, retail, hospitality, janitorial, construction, health care, local and state government, education, arts and entertainment, warehousing and logistics, manufacturing, and a variety of other sectors.