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State of Resistance: Labor Will Double Down in Trump Era

Illustration by Lalo AlcarazIllustration by Lalo Alcaraz

California’s labor laws are stronger than federal regulations in most areas, including the minimum wage, paid sick leave, overtime for agricultural workers and domestic worker rights. The state also leads the national trend for predictive scheduling. (In 2014 San Francisco passed the nation’s first measure that requires employers to inform workers of schedules two weeks in advance; 13 states and other municipalities are currently pursuing the policy.

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But it’s not all sunshine, now that fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder has been nominated to be the next Secretary of Labor. Puzder, the CEO of CKE, which owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s chains, is no admirer of California’s labor codes and last year began moving the parent company’s headquarters from California to Tennessee, complaining that “you can’t be a capitalist in this state.” Donald Trump’s nominee is widely regarded by labor advocates as a substantial threat to working standards around the country. The fallout from a Puzder labor department could well reach California.

“We may be big and we may have the Sierras, but we’re not an island,” says Ken Jacobs, who is the chair of the University of California, Berkeley’s Labor Center. “There are very serious challenges.”

But as union membership shrinks nationally and workplace protections have come under attack, California has created labor-organizing models to resist attempts to erode labor standards and impose right-to-work measures —two predicted hallmarks of a Trump administration labor policy.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245 has developed and exported to other states a leadership model that goes beyond the shop floor and trains stewards to engage in an organizing agenda to counter anti-labor attacks and to support local political and contract fights.

The California local, which has a strong presence in the Central Valley and Nevada, created an Organizing Stewards program that recruits stewards, teaches them how to connect with members and trains them in door-to-door canvassing and leadership skills.

Much of it involves on-the-ground training. Just this month the California organizing corps helped Baltimore Gas & Electric workers buck a national anti-union trend to win representation.

Nine organizing stewards went to Wisconsin to join rallies at the state capitol against Governor Scott Walker’s right-to-work policies and to reach out to other workers. Local 1245 also fielded 100 organizing stewards and active members during the 2016 election season to work full time on campaigns across California, Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Ohio to support labor-friendly candidates, says Fred Ross Jr., an organizer for the local who, along with colleague Eileen Purcell, developed the program.

Tom Dalzell, Local 1245’s business manager, views a Trump administration, especially Trump’s Supreme Court picks, with concern, but is resigned to resisting. “I don’t know what it’s going to look like,” he says. “We know we’re going to have to do it.”

Dalzell worries about potential Supreme Court decisions that could permit public employees to opt out of union membership. The only answer, he says, will be counter-organizing in the workplace with one-on-one meetings to explain why an employee should stick with his or her union. “It will be like an organizing campaign,” Dalzell says, of “people who are already taking the message of the union to people who have never had to fight for it or live without it.”

Silicon Valley Rising, a coalition of the Communication Workers of America, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Service Employees International Union Local 521, SEIU-USWW and UNITE HERE Local 19, plus nine community organizations, formed two years ago in this region dominated by tech development.

“Silicon Valley was the poster child for income inequality,” says Maria Noel Fernandez, SVR’s campaign director. The Silicon Valley work culture is famous for its perks — shuttles sent to a tech worker’s front door, chefs serving gourmet meals, game rooms and massages. Those details make for good headlines but hide the gulf between tech employees who earn, on average, $113,000 annually, and the support staff of janitors, cafeteria workers and others, the majority of whom are contract workers who average under $20,000 a year, according to a study by University of California, Santa Cruz researchers. While tech development drives jobs in Silicon Valley, the majority of those jobs belong to service workers that serve meals and clean offices.

Silicon Valley Rising is poised to push the state of California to keep moving forward on labor and immigration standards, and to continue campaigns around employee rights, work-week rules and local minimum wage measures. The coalition is also working with employers to ensure that employees that work on the sprawling company campuses are protected from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities while on the job.

Tech employees—those considered the industry talent— recently joined service workers in a march in front of the data analytics company Palantir Technologies. The protest targeted Palantir’s involvement in technologies that could support Trump’s announced programs of mass deportation and “extreme vetting” of Muslim immigrants. Trump mega-donor Peter Thiel holds the largest share of the company, one of the world’s most valuable venture-capital-backed companies.

The tech workers’ message, says Fernandez, is that “’This is not how we want our talent to be used.’ That’s not the Silicon Valley they signed up for.”

Local action is critical, says Fernandez. Labor has won on wage and work standards in cities, and Trump administration policies will thwart gains at the federal level. “Cities have to be the centers of resistance.”

The University of California system exudes the same prosperous air as the tech sector—but grad students working here as teaching assistants, tutors and lab technicians at 10 campuses in the UC system can make as little as $18,000 annually.

The fight here concerns labor standards—but has other ramifications. Funding for research and research assistants is federal, says Anke Schennink, the president of United Auto Workers Local 5810, which represents 7,000 post-doctoral researchers in the UC system. “Most of our international students are on work visas, so we’re doing education and strategy discussions around what exactly is going on and what we can do.” The local works with the national UAW to press on protecting immigrant post-doc rights.

Schennink is an immigrant from the Netherlands where “a lot of power is in the hands of labor — strikes are a common thing, not unique.” Under-paid post-doctoral students are her rank-and-file but the union’s issues go beyond pay and working conditions, and the local is prepared to defend against attacks on immigrant rights and potential federal cuts that could decimate funding for climate science, clean energy and some medical research.

“We of course have to put together a legislative and political plan with Trump as a factor,” she says.  An October contract win that created family leave and other amenities has boosted union activism and the Trump victory has actually accelerated organizing.

The Oakland-based Local 3299 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union has a similar big-picture perspective. The local organizes front-line health-care staff members who answer phones and check in patients at UC’s 10 campuses, five medical centers and additional clinics, research laboratories and UC Hastings College of the Law. “The cuts to health care will be devastating to our members and leave millions without health care,” predicts Elizabeth Perlman, the local’s executive director.

For Perlman, guaranteeing worker rights in the Trump era means doubling down on the union’s information campaign in the face of anticipated right-to-work initiatives that are legislated from Congress or adjudicated by a Trump Supreme Court. This defensive war will require keeping in close touch with her local’s members, so “the union knows what’s important to them, what connects them to the union, who they are, where they work. It’s focus groups, it’s polling, it’s every piece of data we can collect.” The union, she says, must make hard assessments about how it connects with workers. If Supreme Court decisions give employees a choice as to whether to opt into the union, locals must work to find out what makes members value their union and be willing to participate and pay dues.

UC Berkeley’s Jacobs is encouraged by California’s innovation and energy, but remains cautious about predicting the national impact.

“We have incredible people [and] unions—if anybody can craft a solution it’s us. We should be clear-eyed that people need to fight the changes on a national level— we’re going to also have to figure out what to do as a state.”

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