By Sheri Williams
California unions, and unions across the United States, had a strong year in 2023 with wins that helped all working families in the fight for fair and equitable workplaces.
Union momentum was so great that this summer became known as “Hot Labor Summer,” with massive organizing drives and strikes across the country and throughout California. In California, that included a difficult strike for the Writer’s Guild of America, where solidarity and commitment led to a new contract for some of Hollywood’s most important workers.
The fight also took place at the statehouse, where Labor helped pass more than a dozen measures to improve life for working families.
“These victories were not won by lobbyists or politicians, they were won by courageous workers—actors and writers on the picket line to shape the future of their industry, Starbucks workers holding the company accountable for refusing to bargain, hotel workers on rotating strikes around Los Angeles, nurses demanding better patient care, autoworkers walking out until they get a fair contract,” said Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, leader of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, of the many bills labor passed this year.
One of the key wins this year for California workers was the passage of a new minimum wage for healthcare workers. In a first-in-the-nation law, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation this fall that will ensure a $25 minimum wage for all healthcare workers in the state.
“California is putting a stop to the hemorrhaging of our care workforce by ensuring healthcare workers can do the work they love and pay their bills—a huge win for workers and patients seeking care,” said Tia Orr, Executive Director of SEIU California, told media.
SEIU was the union behind the bill, Senate Bill 525, which was authored by labor champion Maria Elena Durazo.
“Californians saw the courage and commitment of healthcare workers during the pandemic, and now that same fearlessness and commitment to patients is responsible for a historic investment in the workers who make our healthcare system strong and accessible to all. We applaud Governor Newsom for signing this bill and making history for California as the first state to lift the floor on healthcare worker wages to $25,” Orr said.
The passage of the new law was a hard-fought battle. SEIU and Labor allies shut down the Capitol swing space on O Street weeks before the billed was passed by the Legislature. With temperatures reaching past 100 degrees, hundreds of union members and allies picketed in front of the building and later, dozens of people took over the swing space building staging a sit-in.
The California Highway Patrol detained eight protestors, including Fabrizio Sasso, head of the Sacramento Central Labor Council.
Earlier in the year, members of SEIU 1000, the state’s largest public employees union, also fought a difficult battle before winning a new contract. The new contract included a 10% salary increase over three years, wage increases for low-paid workers and a monthly health care stipend of $165 for some state workers. SEIU began bargaining for the new contract in April.
“We were essential before the pandemic, we were essential during the pandemic and we are essential now,” said Local 1000 vice president of bargaining Irene Green during negotiations. “We are committed and we are dedicated to the work we do and if we don’t show up, California doesn’t run. If we don’t work, California does not work.”
Members of Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West (SEIU-USWW) also joined First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom and other legislative leaders in April to honor Denim Day, which raises awareness about sexual violence.
The union members attending the Capitol event were part of the Ya Basta Center, an organization that provides training and support about sexual violence in the workplace.
Union member Veronica Lagunas spoke in Spanish at the event, encouraging workers to continue their fight and highlighting the progress the group has made.
“I am the owner of my body,” she told the crowd, eliciting cheers. “Ya Basta!”
First partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom also spoke.
“I never asked to join this club, none of us did,” she said. “Today, standing here with all of you on Denim Day, I feel fully the collective power that we have as a community of survivors.”
The phrase Ya Basta, which means “enough” in English, came out of a 2015 campaign by janitorial workers with SEIU to end sexual violence against nightshift workers, who often work alone and are particularly vulnerable to attack. The campaign was sparked by the investigative documentary, “Rape on the Nightshift.”
And in May, farmworkers with UFW won a major victory when they finalized a deal that will make it easy for them to unionize. Newsom signed Assembly Bill 113 on May 15, a follow-up to legislation he signed last fall.
Under the provisions of the new law, farm workers can now vote in union elections by the card-check methods, which protects them from employer harassment and retaliation.
“Allowing farmworkers to organize without the fear of intimidation and deportation has been our dream in California for decades. Nothing good comes easy, but we’re excited we finally have this tool,” said Gonzalez Fletcher, head of the California Labor Federation.
That victory led to one of the first new UFW contracts in Stanislaus County for 300 workers in November.
“We’re looking forward to negotiating a strong contract for them with good wages, good benefits, a grievance process, health care, all the things that really all the workers in America deserve, but especially the workers that are working so hard to put food on all of our tables,” Antonio DeLoera with the United Farm Workers, told media.
The victories for Labor this year highlight the growing diversity of California unions. A study released recently by the Berkeley Labor Center found that at least half of all of California’s 2.5 million union members are women.
Other key findings from the California Union Membership and Coverage 2023 Chartbook included data that showed the majority of California’s union members are workers of color, reflecting the diversity of California’s workforce.
By contrast, 20 years ago the typical union member in California was a white man, the report said.
“While some of these changes might be due to the growing number of women and people of color in the California workforce as a whole, they also point to a conscious effort by the labor movement to organize immigrants, women, and people of color, particularly in service industries,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center.
The Sacramento Central Labor Council also this year made homelessness and housing a core issue, gathering stakeholders together in a series of meetings to help craft policies around those critical problems.
“These are union issues,” said Fabrizio Sasso, head of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, at one of the meetings. “We have members living in cars and on the street, people who are working full time but can’t make ends meet. We as union members need to be part of the solutions, because we are directly affected by a lack of affordable and fair housing.”