At last count, 16.9 million Californians were wage and salary workers, and, according to the federal government, just 15.9 percent of them – about one in six – were members of labor unions.
However, their unions wield huge, disproportionate influence in the building, thanks to their intimate relationship, both financial and ideological, with its dominant Democrats.
That’s especially true of federal, state and local government workers, who are barely 15 percent of California’s wage and salary employees but are well over half of the state’s union members, according to state and federal data.
While every legislative session includes a raft of union-sponsored bills, the 2017 session is seeing a particularly strong push by union leaders. They evidently hope that Democratic gains in the 2016 election, coupled with what appears to be a more benevolent attitude by Gov. Jerry Brown in the last two years of his governorship, will bear fruit.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of union-backed bills are moving, and employers are sounding the alarm.
Take, for example, Assembly Bill 1250, carried by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a former Los Angeles city employee union activist.
If enacted, it would make it much more difficult, perhaps impossible, for cities and counties to shift services from their unionized employees to private contractors. The League of California Cities said it adds “onerous, over-prescriptive and unnecessary requirements that impede on local control…”
The most active – and arguably the most influential – of the private employee union groups is the State Building and Construction Trades Council. Its primary goal is to expand the state’s “prevailing wage” law that governs salaries on public works projects.
Last year, it persuaded the Legislature and Brown to extend the law to drivers of concrete ready-mix trucks on public works projects, although it may be set aside by a preliminary federal court decision.
This year, a number of bills seek to extend prevailing wages to residential housing projects with tangential relationships to local or state governments. But they face stiff opposition from the housing industry, which says extension will dramatically increase construction costs and make it more difficult for California to solve its housing shortage.
Brown vetoed previous attempts and opposition has forced this year’s major bill on the issue, Assembly Bill 199, to be softened.
By far the year’s most dramatic union campaign is the California Nurses Association-supported legislation (Senate Bill 562 by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens) to create a single-payer health care system costing an estimated $400 billion a year.
The nurses say it would improve health care by eliminating provider profits, but it also would give the union opportunities to use its political clout in a state-operated health care system.
A clue to that goal is bill by Lara (SB 349), sponsored by the United Nurses Association of California and other health care unions, to set state-mandated staffing requirements for dialysis clinics that, the clinics say, will drive up costs of treatment.
Editor’s note: This post has been updated to clarify sponsorship of SB 349.