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California labor shows off its political muscle

Fast food workers from across California rallied at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Aug. 16, 2022.
Rahul Lal
Fast food workers from across California rallied at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Aug. 16, 2022.

If you need any more proof of labor’s power in Democratic politics, look no further than the joint conference of the California Labor Federation and the State Building and Construction Trades Council.

Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom told the gathering — “Unionize California” emblazoned everywhere — that worker rights are under threat in other states and that California must continue to lead the way.

  • Newsom: “I hope you’re not taking for granted what’s happening in state after state all across this country.”

His speech followed appearances earlier Monday by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Lakewood, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego and Attorney General Rob Bonta. Atkins pledged again to protect workers’ rights, while Rendon re-upped his backing of a bill to let legislative staffers form a union.

Sunday, the three leading U.S. Senate contenders came calling to seek labor’s backing. It was the first time Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff of Burbank, Katie Porter of Irvine and Barbara Lee of Oakland appeared together since kicking off their campaigns to succeed Sen. Dianne Feinstein. After their panel discussion, one union director told The Los Angeles Times, “The hard part for us in the labor movement is that we have three friends. Which friend do we vote for? Which friend do we back?”

There are good reasons for Democratic politicians with any ambition to curry favor from the California Labor Federation and other organized labor groups — millions of them.

The number of potential voters is staggering and, at times, consequential: The Labor Fed claims 2.1 million members in 1,200 local unions and the Building Trades says it has some 450,000 members in 157 affiliated unions. Union members are also a key source of possible volunteers to canvas neighborhoods, run phone banks and distribute campaign flyers.

Then there’s the money — a lot of money. As CalMatters’ data journalist Jeremia Kimelman calculated Monday, in 2021-22 alone the Labor Fed spent nearly $2.7 million on campaigns and the Trades another $2.7 million, including more than $1 million to the state Democratic Party and local parties. In addition, the Labor Fed spent $877,000 on lobbying in 2021-22, while the Trades put in nearly $1.2 million.

The timing of the conference is not coincidental. Labor leaders and key legislators will gather today at the state Capitol to advocate for a state constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot that would guarantee every California worker the right to organize, join a union and negotiate with their employer.

  • Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, head of the California Labor Federation, on Monday: “If big businesses can protect their property taxes in the constitution and politicians can protect their salaries from cuts in the constitution, then why shouldn’t workers be protected in the constitution too?”

The event will be followed by a second rally nearby at the Capitol Mall. Gonzalez Fletcher and other labor leaders are expected to join nurses and health care workers from the United Nurses Associations of California and the Union of Health Care Professionals to advocate for three Assembly bills that would expand career pathways for nurses, boost clinical placements from hospitals and increase transparency in the state’s annual review of nurse-to-patient ratios.

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.