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Pandemic reveals tale of 2 Californias like never before

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As Bay Area tech workers set up home offices to avoid coronavirus exposure, grocers, farm workers and warehouse employees in the Central Valley never stopped reporting to job sites. Renters pleaded for eviction relief while urban professionals fled for suburbs and resort towns, taking advantage of record-low interest rates to buy bigger, better homes. Most of the state’s 6 million public school children are learning remotely, while affluent families opted for private classrooms that are up and running.

California has long been a picture of inequality, but the pandemic has widened the gap in ways few could have imagined. While other states face large budget deficits, California has a $15 billion surplus, thanks to record 2020 gains from Silicon Valley and white-collar workers who pay the bulk of California’s taxes.


Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled the state’s record-high $227 billion budget last week despite a year in which unemployment soared beyond 10 percent and the homelessness crisis reached devastating levels in Los Angeles and beyond.

He has proposed directing much of California’s bounty toward struggling residents and low-income families, and it remains to be seen whether the state will continue to reap similar tax rewards in future years. If this is a onetime windfall, Newsom and lawmakers will have to find other resources to sustain additional aid — and face pressure to raise tax rates even more on the wealthy.

“There’s a way in which the pandemic has amplified all of these systemic and societal issues we were always aware of,” said Brandon Greene, director of the racial and economic justice program at the ACLU of Northern California. “These gaps persist and are widening. And if it can happen here, in a blue state where you have the political capital, it can happen anywhere.”

California’s low-income workers and people of color have borne the brunt of both the economic fallout of the recession and the physical toll of the virus itself. The Latino Covid-19 death rate is 22 percent higher than the statewide average, and the Black death rate is 16 percent higher, according to California’s health equity tracker.

Even before the pandemic, ZIP codes home to just 2 percent of California’s population held 20 percent of the state’s net worth, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. In 2020, more than 40 percent of households making less than $40,000 annually saw reduced work hours or pay, and an equal share had to cut back on food, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

“Decades-long inequalities, those preexisting conditions around race, around ethnicity, the preexisting conditions around wealth disparities and income disparities, obviously have come to the fore and must be addressed,” Newsom said while outlining his budget proposal last week.

Moments later, he made a stark proclamation about how the other side is doing: “The folks at the top are doing pretty damn well.”

Newsom, 53, is a multimillionaire businessman in addition to being governor, and his own personal life has punctuated the extreme differences in California. His dinner at the French Laundry in November not only enraged the public for his flouting of his own advice against gathering; it served as an optics problem with menu prices that many Californians cannot afford even in normal times. Newsom sent his own children back to private classrooms in late October while most families were stuck in remote learning. When he had to quarantine in November, he said he was “blessed because we have many rooms” in his Sacramento County home.

However, the Democratic governor has prided himself on bridging the equity gap and has branded his efforts as “California for All” since taking office two years ago. He appointed the state’s first surgeon general, Nadine Burke Harris, who has focused her career on addressing childhood trauma in disadvantaged communities and led vaccine discussions mindful of equal distribution. Newsom has pushed hard to reopen public schools this spring because he says students in low-income neighborhoods are struggling the most with distance learning.

Newsom has proposed $600 state stimulus checks to nearly 4 million low-income workers as part of his budget plan. He launched an effort to shelter tens of thousands of homeless Californians in hotel rooms when the outbreak began and then transitioned toward a program that would convert that into permanent housing. He helped enact renter protections from eviction and wants to extend those protections.

Californians saw an array of relief in 2020, as all levels of government tried to lessen the burden. Children who live in communities that have long gone without broadband and quality internet access received hotspots and other Wi-Fi access. Cities stopped using parking tickets and towing as a way to bring in revenue. More lower-level offenders were freed from prisons and jails after virus outbreaks.

Advocates say the jarring juxtaposition in the pandemic, as the state’s richest got richer and its poor got poorer, prove it’s not enough. They are lobbying Newsom and the Legislature to use California’s unexpected windfall to help the state’s neediest by expanding the social safety net and to turn temporary relief granted during the pandemic into permanent solutions. They worry that momentum is already losing steam, and that things will revert to normal when the vaccine reaches the masses and Covid-19 is in the past.

“These things that were implemented as a kind of lifeline are now expiring and folks still need it,” said Jhumpa Bhattacharya, a vice president at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development based in Oakland. “We live in a society where we don’t believe in government intervention, and there’s this narrative that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps. When the pandemic hit, we saw that’s not true, and my hope is that we will be able to develop a new understanding of how our society works.”

California Democrats have proposed bigger taxes on the ultra-rich as a solution, with groups like the California Teachers Association pushing last year for legislation to hike taxes for residents with more than $30 million in assets. That bill failed, but Assemblymember Luz Rivas (D-Arleta) just proposed raising taxes on corporations by $2 billion to fund housing for people experiencing homelessness.

Newsom made clear last week that he will not entertain major tax proposals, declaring “they’re not part of the conversation.” The pandemic’s remote work culture has shown information-based companies that office location may not matter as much as once thought, while California’s high housing costs, regulations and taxes are a deterrent.

Further taxing the rich is proving to be a political risk and a threat to the very system that makes it possible for California to thrive even in dark times. Just last month, Oracle and Hewlett Packard Enterprise announced they were moving their headquarters to rival state Texas. Elon Musk, now the richest person on the planet, also said he was moving to the Lone Star State, though his company Tesla will remain in California.

“There’s about 1 percent of taxpayers that pay half the income tax in the state, and the reason why state revenues have been so strong is that those taxpayers had a very good year. As long as those people are willing to stay in California and be taxed, the money will come in,” said David Shulman, senior economist emeritus for the UCLA Anderson Forecast. “But there is a point where they will say it doesn’t work anymore. The question is, are we at a tipping point? There’s certainly more evidence that we are getting close to it.”


The last major tax hike in California was a 2012 voter-approved tax on residents making more than $250,000 championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, which voters later extended through 2030. Voters in November, however, rejected a ballot initiative to tax commercial properties at their current value, which would have generated up to $12 billion more annually.

Advocates say another tax hike is overdue, but even without one, the state could change its priorities to make better use of its billions.

“It’s all very frustrating, since with the fifth largest economy in the world, these things are fixable. The money is there,” said Courtney McKinney, spokesperson for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “It is a question of priorities — whether or not millions of people being plunged into poverty is seen as enough of a destabilizer to encourage the wealthy, business and political class in California to put money into addressing poverty and the trappings of poor environment in smart, sensible ways. Easier said than done.”

Assemblymember Alex Lee (D-San Jose), a coauthor of legislation to extend the eviction moratorium for another year, said resistance to more permanent solutions to help low-income residents is a reminder that California is not as progressive as it claims to be.

In the November election, California proved it’s not the liberal bastion people think it is. Besides rejecting the business property tax increase, they opposed affirmative action and rent control while they sided with gig employers and dialysis companies instead of labor unions.

“Whether or not people should be evicted during a pandemic in a recession … even just having to fight about that says we aren’t where we should be yet,” Lee said. “I think a lot of people are realizing this stuff, and that even though we have Democratic super, ultra majorities, we aren’t living up to the progressive potential we have. I would never characterize us as progressive state.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on January 17, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mackenzie Mays covers education in California. Prior to joining POLITICO in 2019, she was the investigative reporter at the Fresno Bee, where her political watchdog reporting received a National Press Club press freedom award.


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Service + Solidarity Spotlight: Sacramento Central Labor Council Brings Holiday Joy to Children with Disabilities

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

The Sacramento Central Labor Council delivered groceries to more than 200 union families in need during the holidays, and 450 kids also received a present from Santa. Santa visited the Ralph Richardson Center to deliver teddy bears and take pictures (all socially distanced) with students. Also, in a continuation of a six-year tradition, the council passed out teddy bears from a fire truck (with union member Santa) to children with special needs at Starr-King K–8 School in Sacramento.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on January 11, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell  is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.


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In America, Business Profits Come First Over the Pandemic

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Los Angeles, California, is now considered one of the worst COVID-19 hotspots in the nation. LA mayor Eric Garcetti assessed grimly that there is one new infection every six seconds and a death every 10 minutes from the virus. Hospitals are turning away ambulances, and health facilities in LA County are quite literally running out of oxygen. But last spring, as the pandemic was first declared, the city was an early adopter of mandated mask wearing and benefitted from California enacting the first statewide shelter-in-place order that helped curb the worst spread of the virus. So, what happened?

There is a possibility that the deadly surge in cases may be a result of a new, more transmissible strain of the virus circulating in the area. But more likely the spread is the result of the message that authorities are sending of a premature return to normalcy. As social media platforms are filled with angry Angelenos blaming and shaming one another for brazenly vacationing and flouting social distancing guidelines, in truth, the burst of infections is the price that officials are willing to pay for ensuring that corporate profits are protected.

California’s latest shelter-in-place order is quite different from its first one. Whereas in March 2020 the state ordered all non-essential businesses to remain closed, in early December, at the peak of the holiday shopping season, all retail stores were allowed to remain open, even as outdoor parks were closed. So outraged were Californians by the obvious double standards that state officials caved and reopened parks—instead of shutting down retail stores.

Predictably, infections at malls soared as shoppers, eager to salvage Christmas, rubbed elbows with one another in their rush to fulfill holiday wishes. After all, authorities had okayed such actions, so they must be safe, right? Rather than enact strict rules to prevent such congregating, some Californians rightfully terrified of the disease simply blamed the shoppers. Even LA County health services director Dr. Christina Ghaly told the Los Angeles Times, “If you’re still out there shopping for your loved ones for this holiday season… then you are missing the gravity of the situation that is affecting hospitals across LA County. Though they may seem benign, these actions are extremely high-risk.” LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said to Angelenos, “stay home,” but has refused to consider shutting down non-essential businesses.

In other words, officials kept retail stores open but then chastised residents for shopping. There are two ways to interpret the muddled messaging. If authorities are allowing all businesses to remain open, surely it must be safe to frequent them. Or, authorities are being driven by financial stakes, not public health, so surely it is not possible to trust them.

Hollywood is another exercise in contradictions. While new films and TV shows were not considered essential last year, production has now resumed. Why? Simply put, “there is too much money at stake,” in the words of one TV producer. State and local authorities have the power to stop production in the interest of public health, but rather than exercise that power, they asked companies to volunteer to halt their projects. Now that the virus has spread so far and has caused so much suffering and death, even Hollywood has decided maybe it is not a good idea to continue filming. But is it too late?

American society is ruled by the right of businesses to make money above all else. And while for a few months in 2020 it seemed as though we prioritized public health and well-being by shutting down large swaths of the country and passing the modest CARES Act, that did not last. Lost in the horrifying surge of cases and mounting death toll is the stark fact that authorities have chosen to sacrifice human life at the altar of corporate profits. By their logic, if anyone is to blame, it is the individual American who has brought the disease upon themselves by simply making the wrong choices. It is the American way.

Take John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, an elite grocery chain favored by wealthy and health-conscious Americans. According to Mackey, there is no need for health care services. “The best solution is to change the way people eat, the way they live, the lifestyle, and diet,” he said in a recent interview. He added, “There’s no reason why people shouldn’t be healthy and have a longer health span. A bunch of drugs is not going to solve the problem.” Tell that to the seemingly healthy people among us who contract dangerous diseases like cancer and need the kind of chemotherapy drugs that do precisely that—help “solve the problem” of cancer.

Mackey’s logic is consistent with that of the new pro-business “shelter-in-place” orders in California, which effectively send the message that if you catch COVID-19, it is your fault, not the fault of the indoor mall that was allowed to remain open.

Businesses do need to continue operating if they want to make money. But large corporations have amassed so much wealth through the Republican Party’s tax giveaways that surely those in non-essential industries can survive for a year or two while remaining closed and dip into their assets without threatening their bottom line.

The situation is of course far different for small businesses that operate on razor-thin margins and are easily plunged into bankruptcy with just a few months of forced closures. But surely the world’s richest government can pay such businesses to remain closed so that they can reopen safely once the danger is over. European nations have paid workers to stay at home—an obvious solution to curbing the virus.

An NBC News article compared the U.S. response to other nations, making the point that “unlike Western Europe and Canada, the U.S. is asking citizens to face the COVID-19 pandemic without any additional financial cushion from the government.” One epidemiologist told the outlet, “I know multiple industries have been lobbying governors to stay open because closing means a huge loss of income to business owners and employees, even if it would be the best thing to do from a public health perspective.”

Indeed, California has allowed businesses to remain open in part because of a dangerous decline in tax revenues and a lack of federal government funding to states to make up for pandemic-related losses. Again, authorities have chosen the sink-or-swim approach to business and public health. Why pay people to stay at home and remain safe when those individuals can simply risk their lives in the service of profit? After all, it is the same logic that has driven the relentless shredding of the pre-pandemic safety net programs for economically struggling Americans.

There is much hand wringing, blaming and shaming the individual, and general confusion over why COVID-19 is continuing to claim so many lives. But to understand the real reason for the ever-increasing death toll, look no further than the American way of leaving citizens to fend for themselves in the service of capitalism.

This blog originally appeared at Independent Media Institute on January 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations.


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Prop 22 is Bad for Black Workers

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When the pandemic forced Cherri Murphy to stop driving for Lyft, she applied for unemployment benefits like millions of other workers. But because Lyft has refused to pay into California’s unemployment insurance fund, insisting that its workers are independent contractors rather than employees, Cherri received zero dollars in unemployment benefits.

By day, Ms. Murphy is a member of Gig Workers Rising and a volunteer social justice minister who helps people connect their faith to the fight for racial justice. By night, she is a Black working woman in America, completing more than 12,000 Lyft rides, forced to play by rules designed for her — and millions of Black workers — to lose.

“Uber and Lyft drivers are mostly folks who look like me,” said Ms. Murphy. “We’re African American and people of color. We’re on the frontlines and among the hardest hit financially. But our bosses have offered us no meaningful protections, treating us as expendable as ever.”

Now, in the midst of a pandemic that is disproportionately hurting Black Americans, Uber, Lyft and other gig companies like DoorDash and Instacart are trying to roll back labor rights for app-based workers through a ballot measure called Proposition 22. That’s bad news for Black workers.

Supporters of Proposition 22 talk about innovation and jobs of the future, but there is nothing new about bosses attacking labor rights. Don’t be fooled by the misinformation campaign these companies are running — saying drivers must choose between flexibility and employee rights. Flexibility has always been at the discretion of the employer.

As a report co-authored by the Partnership for Working Families and NELP shows, Proposition 22 would lock app-based workers out of minimum wage and overtime protections, unemployment insurance, the right to form a union, and critical health and safety protections.

Proposition 22 would effectively cancel local COVID-19 emergency sick leave laws, passed in cities like San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Los Angeles, that apply to app-based workers.

Bosses have always taken too much from Black workers. And U.S. labor laws have continuously failed Black workers, leaving them out of lifesaving labor protections. Economic inequality continues to this day, with Black women earning 62 cents on the dollar, and Black families having on average one-tenth of the wealth of white families. Union membership dramatically reduces that wealth gap.

The failed response to COVID-19 has only made life worse for Black people in the U.S. Racism in the labor market has forced Black workers onto the most dangerous frontlines of essential work. Yes, Trump is a threat to our safety. But Silicon Valley has done extensive damage as well, using sly legal moves and buying off politicians to steal the benefits workers have earned.

Proposition 22 is only the latest attempt by Silicon Valley bosses to rewrite state laws. It would roll back years of court rulings, agency policy, and statutory law in California, including Assembly Bill 5, which clarified that app-based workers are employees covered by the state’s wage-and-hour laws and eligible for unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation.

Proposition 22 is a step in the wrong direction that harkens back to a long and shameful history of denying Black workers their fundamental rights. The measure sets a dangerous precedent; one that the Trump administration and gig companies could use as fodder for their continued nationwide attack on workers’ rights.

Ms. Murphy was among hundreds of Black Uber and Lyft drivers who penned an open letter calling out gig employers for empty lip-service to the Black Lives Matter movement. The same companies running ad campaigns in support of Black Lives are bankrolling the most expensive ($184 million+) ballot measure in history to take protections away from Black workers.

California voters must vote no on Proposition 22, and say yes to a future with universal rights and good jobs for Black workers and for every worker in the state.

This blog originally appeared at National Employment Law Project on October 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rashad Robinson is an American civil rights leader. He is the president of Color of Change, having joined the organization in May 2011. He has served as a board member of RaceForwardDemosState Voices, and currently sits on the board of the Hazen Foundation.

Rebecca Dixon is executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP).


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California Labor Federation Wins New Protections for Workers

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of these stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

Last Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a package of bills to expand worker protections. The new state laws will provide a workers’ compensation presumption for front-line workers who are afflicted with infectious diseases on the job and a requirement for employers to give timely notification of COVID-19 cases in the workplace. The California Labor Federation, under the leadership of Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski (IAM), took charge of the fight for these new policies. “Since the pandemic began, the California labor movement has strongly advocated for the most robust worker protection policies in the country. Today’s signing of a package of bills to bolster worker protections as the COVID-19 crisis continues shows our commitment as a state to policies that put the health and safety of workers first,” Pulaski said. “While more work must be done in 2021 to strengthen protections to ensure essential workers putting their lives at risk return home safely to their families after each shift, today the governor gave a much-needed boost to all workers across the state.”

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on September 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Aaron Gallant is a contributor for AFL-CIO.


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Return of the Lockout: Uber and Lyft Try to Strong-Arm California

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In August a California court ordered Uber and Lyft to reclassify more than 100,000 drivers as regular employees. The two companies, which depend on a business model that defines drivers as independent contractors, got the decision lifted for at least a few months.

But in the meantime their threat to shut down operations in California—and thereby fire thousands of drivers while ending service to millions of customers—raises the question: What do we call this extraordinary corporate stratagem? A public relations gambit? A pressure tactic? Blackmail? A capital strike?

It’s all of the above, but the best historical analogy is the “lockout,” a disreputable, two-century-old employer weapon designed to force workers to knuckle under.

A WEAPON AGAINST SKILLED WORKERS

The Homestead strike of 1892 began as a stoppage by skilled workers who resisted demands by Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick to slash wages and union power. Frick erected a fence around the entire mill, locked out all employees, and called in a barge full of Pinkerton private police to protect the scabs he hoped to recruit. When workers routed the Pinkertons in a bloody battle, it took the importation of National Guard troops from Philadelphia to put power back in capitalist hands.

Late 19th century lockouts were not uncommon because the status quo had tilted in favor of elite workers: skilled labor controlled the shop floor in many mills and mines and on construction sites, even as deflation was increasing the value of their nominal wages. Bosses responded with lockouts to force concessions and wage cuts.

Lockouts were far less frequent in the mid-20th century decades of union power and successful collective bargaining. That’s when workers went on strike themselves and almost always came out ahead.

But beginning in the 1980s, when just holding on to the contract provisions won in earlier bargaining rounds was often counted a union success, lockouts returned as an employer weapon. Managers locked out union workers in major battles at Caterpillar, the Detroit newspapers, and A.E. Staley in the 1990s. In more recent years, they used the same tactic at Honeywell and National Grid, a Massachusetts gas distribution utility.

Remarkably, the most high-profile lockouts have arisen in professional sports. Here players established strong unions that captured some of the enormous revenue generated by game broadcast rights. And free agency contracts enabled some stars to win enormous salaries. Owners struck back, precipitating lockouts that wrecked the training season: in 2011, the NFL locked out players for 136 days and the NBA did the same for 161 days. The following year, NHL owners locked out players for 119 days.

GIG WORKERS’ FUTURE AT STAKE

But what does all this have to do with Uber and Lyft? Their drivers are not unionized, after all. True, but they have won, in California courts and legislature, a considerable employment-rights victory that, if and when enforced, will transform the meaning of work in the gig economy, greatly enhancing income and security for many.

Last year California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law that requires Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and many other companies to reclassify as regular employees workers currently illegally treated as independent contractors. This means that in the future they will be paid a more predictable wage, earn sick leave and Social Security credits, and find themselves covered by worker compensation and unemployment benefit laws.

And they will be legally entitled to unionize, in which case workers and managers can negotiate a contact that gives drivers as much “flexibility” as Uber and Lyft now claim they want.

So, like the skilled workers of late 19th century America, gig economy drivers and DoorDash “shoppers” now find the status quo theoretically on their side. At least in California, they are on the verge of enjoying work rights that gig employers want to gut. To do so Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have amassed a $181 million war chest to pass Proposition 22 on the November California ballot. That proposition would once again legalize contract work for millions of workers who by any reasonable definition are regular employees.

Uber and Lyft are strong-arming Californians. They hope their threat will convince drivers to abandon their rights and persuade California riders to endorse the theft.

BLUSTER

In 1941 Henry Ford threatened to shut down his company if workers voted for the United Auto Workers. They did and yet Ford continues to this day. Management bluster is often just bluster, which is probably the case with Uber and Lyft.

But in the last month, they have proposed another way to keep employees from their rights: create a set of franchises to employ their drivers, if Proposition 22 passes. Franchising is an old trick, as any employee at McDonald’s, Days Inn, FedEx, or Jiffy Lube can attest. Workers are legally employees in a franchise, but the real employer, the one with the money and power, remains legally aloof. Workers get squeezed and unionization brings few benefits.

So the lockout, once thought a relic of Gilded Age America, has returned with a vengeance, ingenuity, and determination that would have made Henry Frick envious. We need an equally radical rededication to the concept of jobs with rights, and the rewards, monetary and moral, that are their just compensation.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on September 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Nelson Lichtenstein is Research Professor in History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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Working Life Episode 194: Two Hollywood Tales—A Union Win in California, A Florida Progressive Aims to Fire Debbie Wasserman-Schulz

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Today the show is all about Hollywood. Hollywood, California and Hollywood, Florida. Hollywood, California is in a rumble. For most performers in the entertainment business, residuals are the foundation to making a living—either a solid middle class living or somewhat less than that. Over many decades, residuals have been tied to various things such as repeat showings of a movie in syndication or sales of DVDs. Now, it’s all about streaming.

For performers, this is a huge change and it’s really about a fight to make sure generations of performers, some not born today, will be able to earn a respectable living. How do performers get paid in a streaming world? The performers’ union, SAG-AFTRA, just scored a big streaming deal win for performers—as well as locking in a big #MeToo step forward to protect actors from harassment. I dig into all this with the union’s president Gabrielle Carteris, who has a long career in film as an actor in film, TV and stage (most prominently in Beverly Hills 90210) and as a producer, and Ray Rodriguez, SAG-AFTRA’s Chief Contracts Officer.

Florida’s 23rd Congressional district is a strongly Democratic district currently represented by the odious Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. In a world of dishonest, morally corrupt, vain and narcissistic politicians, Wasserman Schultz stands out. That’s where Jen Perelman comes in. Jen is challenging Wasserman-Schultz in the Democratic primary which wraps up next week with Election Day after thousands of Floridians have already cast early-voting ballots. Jen’s website is jen2020.com. She joins me from the campaign trail as she was out talking to voters.

This blog originally appeared at Working Life on August 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a political / organizing / economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years


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Historic Child Care Organizing Victory in California a Win for AFSCME, SEIU

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Working people across the United States have stepped up to help out our friends, neighbors and communities during these trying times. In our regular Service + Solidarity Spotlight series, we’ll showcase one of those stories every day. Here’s today’s story.

In a union election victory 17 years in the making, child care providers across California voted overwhelmingly to be represented by Child Care Providers United (CCPU). The organizing campaign was a joint effort of United Domestic Workers/AFSCME Local 3930 and SEIU locals 99 and 521, with 97% of represented workers who voted choosing to join CCPU. “This has been a long time coming,” UDW Assistant Executive Director and AFSCME Vice President Johanna Hester said Monday. “This win gives 40,000 family child care providers in California the opportunity to bargain for higher pay, better training and increased access to care for every child who needs it.” With AFSCME’s and SEIU’s strong support, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law the Building a Better Early Care and Education System Act (A.B. 378) in September, paving the way for this historic victory, one of the largest union organizing wins in America so far this century.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on July 31, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Aaron Gallant is a contributor for AFL-CIO.


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California Hospital Workers Strike, Fracturing Pandemic’s Uneasy Labor Peace

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Despite nationwide shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and working conditions that have often been life-threatening, there have not been major strikes of hospital workers in America since the coronavirus pandemic struck. Until now.

More than 700 employees of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, a regional trauma center in California’s Sonoma County, held a five-day strike that concluded on Friday. Foremost among the motivating issues were cuts in health care and paid sick leave that the hospital, owned by Providence St. Joseph Health, was pushing on employees during a contentious contract bargaining campaign. The employees are members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

“The biggest reason is because we’ve been out of contract for over a year, and the hospital is trying to force us into a pretty bad contract,” said Steven Batson, an anesthesia tech and 10-year veteran of the hospital, speaking from the picket line last week, where he was joined by hundreds of his coworkers. The company wants to significantly increase health care premiums, Batson said, and to take paid time off away from senior workers and shift it to newer workers as a recruitment tool. Batson, a shop steward, said the contentious bargaining over this contract is “absolutely” the worst he has experienced in his ten years.

Chuck Desepte, an X-ray technician who has been at Santa Rosa for 13 years, agreed. “It’s the takeaways that I’m not accepting,” he said. “They can afford this. We don’t want to go backwards. We’ve been here for this community over and over again.”

In May, the New York Times reported that Providence Health, which received a bailout of more than $500 million from the federal government in the CARES Act, has a $12 billion cash pile and sizable investments in hedge funds and venture capital. “Last year, Providence’s portfolio of investments generated about $1.3 billion in profits, far exceeding the profits from its hospital operations,” the Times wrote.

Though the strike was not directly caused by the fallout of the coronavirus, the pandemic is playing an unavoidable role. Batson said that although the union held a strike authorization vote in February that passed overwhelmingly, it held off on taking action once the pandemic hit. He said that the hospital was slow to require universal masking, and that to this day, housekeeping staff and outpatient lab technicians who do coronavirus testing are not given adequate PPE, like N95 masks. “The hospital has definitely used this pandemic as a weapon against us,” he said, including by trying to portray the workers as irresponsible for going on strike.

In a statement on the first day of the strike, the hospital wrote that “we are deeply disappointed that NUHW has decided to hold a five-day strike given that the number of COVID-19 cases is on the rise in Sonoma County and the potential for a significant increase in hospitalizations remains.” The company also hastened to paint employees as selfishly exploiting current events. “The union has made clear in communications to our caregivers that this is not a strike about personal protective equipment (PPE) or workplace safety. Instead, this is an ordinary dispute over the terms of our labor contract,” the hospital wrote. “It is unfortunate and unfounded that the union is using COVID-19 as a platform for its negotiating tactics. We never deny a caregiver PPE.”

The company itself is playing hardball. It tried to dissuade the strike with preemptive economic threats, posting ominous fliers warning that, “If NUHW submits a strike notice, our current wage offer of an annual 3% increase will be lowered to 2%, to account for the significant expense of a disruptive strike, and the current offer will be pulled off the table.” (Time will tell whether that threat stands as negotiations continue.) As soon as the strike was called, the company stopped deducting union dues from workers’ paychecks, a move that serves to annoy and hassle the union, making it much more time-intensive to collect dues. Contracted replacement workers from an outside agency were brought in for the five-day duration of the strike.

Though every labor action is unique, the fact that NUHW was willing to go through with the strike in the face of the inevitable attacks about responsibility during the pandemic could signal that the fragile labor peace that has mostly reigned in the healthcare sector—an industry afflicted with more than its share of dissatisfied and endangered union workers—may be buckling. Unions that have been cautious about going on strike over contract issues during this crisis will sooner or later be forced to decide whether they will allow employers (who may have multi-billion-dollar investment portfolios) to make them swallow concessions they would not have otherwise accepted. The employees at Santa Rosa, who worked through major wildfires in their area in 2017 and 2019 before facing the Covid outbreak this year, will soon find out if their bold action pays off.

It was not an easy decision. “We’re health care workers,” said Desepte. “We want to take care of people.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected]


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People of the State of California v. Uber & Lyft

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NELP and other workers’ rights advocates urge court to stop Uber and Lyft’s independent contractor misclassification.

On July 17, 2020, NELP, in collaboration with Legal Aid at Work and other California-based workers’ rights organizations, urged the San Francisco Superior Court of California to stop Uber and Lyft’s illegal misclassification of their drivers as independent contractors.

Though they proudly wear the label of innovative “technology” companies, Uber and Lyft are no different than any other company that routinely violates labor and employment laws to boost its profits at the expense of its workers.

By misclassifying their hundreds of thousands of drivers as independent contractors, Uber and Lyft dispossess their workers of basic labor protections, such as minimum wage, overtime pay, workers’ compensation, unemployment and state disability insurance, and other critical rights intended to cover most workers in our society.

Calling a driver an “independent contractor” does not make it so, and managing employees through an online application does not transform them into self-employed entrepreneurs. Drivers for Uber and Lyft are not running their own separate businesses; they are integral to the companies’ businesses. They are Uber and Lyft’s employees.

Misclassification is not unique to app-based employers—it occurs in every industry where a company might feel the itch to cut corners and boost profits. But in Silicon Valley, the practice has its peculiarities. Companies like Uber and Lyft have flourished in a venture capital fever dream in which regulations are disrupted and the dignity of human labor processed via algorithm and code. Through their gospel of “flexible work,” Uber and Lyft have taken an illegal practice familiar to bad employers everywhere and turned it into the “future of work.”

As described in the amici brief, by subverting labor laws and disabling industry regulations, the two companies have been able to steal wages, duck accountability, offload risk, sabotage worker power, and worsen income and wealth inequality.

Driving for Uber and Lyft must be seen for what it really is: Employment for a company that unilaterally dictates the material terms of work for people who are not running their own business.

NELP urges the San Francisco Superior Court of California to correctly enforce state law, so that drivers for Uber and Lyft, already providing the core transportation service for the companies, may access their employee rights under California law.

This blog originally appeared at NELP on July 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Brian Chen is a Staff Attorney at the National Employment Law Project. He primarily focuses on building power for workers who are exploited in “nontraditional” work structures, such as independent contractors, temp, and gig workers. Through litigation and policy campaigns, he aims to support workers’ efforts to democratically self-determine their material conditions.


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