This legislative session brought some exciting victories as well as some deep disappointments. Labor accomplished big things this year that benefit all Californians but when it came to advancing worker protections, many of those bills were vetoed.
- Homeowners’ Bill of Rights: Early in the year, Labor joined forces with Attorney General Kamala Harris to demand some accountability from the banks. We passed the Homeowners’ Bill of Rights, making California the first state in the nation to ban the practice of dual tracking, where a family gets foreclosed on while in loan modification.
- High-Speed Rail: Having taken on the foreclosure free-fall, the next big challenge was jobs. While other states rejected federal funding for high-speed rail, we saw great opportunity in the chance to draw down funds to build a statewide bullet train. This project would spur economic growth, benefit the environment, and create 200,000 good jobs in construction, maintenance, and operations. This summer, the Legislature voted to appropriate the funds so that groundbreaking can begin.
- Help for Injured Workers: One of former Governor Schwarzenegger’s only accomplishments was the dismantling of the workers’ compensation system. For eight years, California’s injured workers have suffered under slashed benefits and delayed medical treatment. Comprehensive workers’ compensation reform enacted this year (1) increases benefits for injured workers system-wide by $860 million or 30 percent, (2) cuts down delays in medical treatment, and (3) stabilizes the insurance market by removing inefficiencies and excess profiteering from the system. SB 863 was based on labor-management negotiations, proving that collective bargaining works.
- Protecting Good Jobs: Governor Brown signed significant bills to protect good jobs. AB 1855 supports warehouse workers by prohibiting labor contracts in the warehouse industry that cause downward pressure on worker wages and conditions. AB 2508 stops the outsourcing of state benefit call center jobs by requiring that the work is done in California. SB 829 prohibits charter cities from banning project labor agreements and AB 1565 extends prequalification standards to school construction.
- Cracking Down on the Underground Economy: The 2012 budget contained a $2 million dollar augmentation for the Labor Commissioner to crack down on companies that misclassify workers as independent contractors to evade all their employer obligations and additional funds to catch contractors who violate prevailing wage laws. This protects workers, as well as the responsible businesses that can’t compete against lawbreakers. Governor Brown signed AB 1744 which helps protect temporary workers by giving them more information on wages, hours, and client companies. He also signed AB 1675, which establishes new civil penalties for unlicensed farm labor contractors, and AB 1794, which targets construction contractors who underreport workers to cheat on workers’ compensation coverage.
A Series of Set-backs: While we made good progress this year on rebuilding our economy, several bills to protect the most vulnerable workers did not fare as well.
- AB 2517 would have created a wage lien to help car wash workers who are cheated out of wages. In the face of business opposition, this bill was defeated on the Assembly floor.
- AB 2346 would have strengthened the law to protect farmworkers from heat stress and increase accountability on growers if labor contractors fail to protect workers. That bill was vetoed.
- Another big loss was AB 889, the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which would have resulted in overtime and meal breaks rights for those providing care in the home. These workers are no less deserving of basic worker protections but sadly, this bill was also vetoed.
- The only bill this year that would have expanded the right to organize, SB 259, was also vetoed. This bill would have allowed graduate student researchers to have the same employee rights already enjoyed by all other student workers.
These losses were painful, especially because so many workers sacrificed so much to make their worksites safer, fight for fair wages, demand respect, and win the right to organize.
2012 was a great beginning in investing in California’s future. But we must invest in California workers, too. An economy that works must be built on a middle-class workforce that has a voice on the job and rights on the books. That will be our challenge for 2013.
Caitlin Vega is legislative advocate at the California Labor Federation. Her post first appeared on Labor’s Edge and is republished here with permission