California enacts hefty fines for government union-busting
California''s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, has signed a bill that penalizes anyone in a government agency who works to subvert union organizing. | Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—In what its union backers hope will become a model for other states, California has a new law imposing hefty fines on local governments that try union-busting against their workers.

SB931, by State Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, mandates that when faced with an organizing drive, state and local agencies cannot “repeatedly and illegally send anti-union communications to their workers,” says Teamsters Joint Council 7, one of four leaders in the wide union drive to enact the measure.

If they do, and the state Public Employees Relations Board (PERB) convicts them of law-breaking, the agencies face fines of up to $1,000 per affected worker per day, up to a maximum of $100,000, plus attorneys’ fees and costs.

SB931 is one of a stream of pro-worker laws California has recently enacted. Another recent prominent one, HB2183, improves farm worker elections so the workers “can participate, beginning next year, in elections free of intimidation and deportation,” the United Farm Workers, its top advocate, says.

SB931’s key provision, a nonpartisan legislative agency analysis says, is not just the fine, but what actions would bring the fine. SB931 “prohibits public employers from deterring or discouraging public employees or applicants from becoming or remaining members of unions, authorizing unions to represent public employees, or authorizing dues or fee deductions to be transferred to unions.”

That last phrase gives a kick in the head to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Republican-named majority. In 2017, led by Justice Samuel Alito, the majority ruled 5-4 that virtually every state and local government worker in the U.S. could be a “free rider,” able to use union services and protections without paying for them via union dues or any other method.

Responding to that Janus ruling, California lawmakers banned state and local agencies from campaigning against unionization. But the only punishment against law-breakers was requiring them to post a we-broke-the-law-and-won’t-do-it again notice.

Now, under SB931, breaking the law will cost them money. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed the measure September 30, after the pro-worker legislature overwhelmingly approved it. The State Senate cleared the final version 29-9 and the State Assembly agreed 59-14.

SB931 is important for several reasons, according to Leyva, Teamsters President Sean O’Brien and Joint Council 7 President Jason Rabinowitz. Other leading union backers were the California Labor Federation and the state affiliates of AFSCME and of the Service Employees. Dozens of other unions also campaigned for it.

In violation of the prior post-Janus state law, “some public employers sent out anti-union communications repeatedly to existing employees or workers attempting to form a union,” a Leyva fact sheet says.

“Unfortunately—when an employee organization succeeds in petitioning PERB to grant an unfair labor practice charge—PERB can only issue a cease-and-desist order requiring the employer to post notice of the violation.  By that point, the damage is clearly already done.”

“I know firsthand the tactics some employers use to try to prevent their workers from unionizing and asserting their rights,” Leyva said in her statement  “The financial penalty in SB931 will hopefully finally force public sector employers to think twice before purposely deterring union activity among their workers.” She called it “an important next step to protect their ability to participate in a union without illegal interference by their employer.”

“California is taking a step in the right direction by cracking down on illegal union busting, and there’s opportunity for more states to follow this model to protect workers from predatory employers,” O’Brien said in a statement.

“For decades, greedy employers have run roughshod over workers’ rights, engaging in illegal union-busting activity because our labor laws have no teeth,” said Rabinwitz’s statement. “SB931 helps end this injustice, for the first time creating meaningful penalties that protect workers. We hope other states and Congress will follow California’s lead to protect workers’ rights to form a union everywhere.”

Other union backers were the California Nurses Association, both big teachers’ unions– the California Federation of Teachers  (AFT) and the California Teachers Association (NEA)– state affiliates of the Firefighters, the Electrical Workers, the Pipe Trades Council, and the Professional Engineers, the Orange County Employees Association, UAW Locals 2865, 4123 and 5810, UDW/AFSCME Local 3930, the United Public Employees, the Elevator Constructors, and Smart’s Transportation Division as well as its Western States Council.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.