California: Minimum wage hike, state-run retirement savings plan
Fast-food workers in Los Angeles march in 2013 to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Nick Ut | AP

SACRAMENTO (PAI) — A big minimum wage hike that will benefit one-third of the state’s workers and a state-run retirement savings plan that forces companies without pension plans or 401(k)s to enroll workers in retirement accounts head the list of California pro-worker legislation passed this year.

The measures are important as the Golden State, which is home to one of every eight people in the U.S., is often a trend-setter for the rest of the country. And the California Labor Federation’s legislative success there shows what can aid workers when they join together to elect pro-worker governors and legislators.

They’re also continuing to do so. Despite lopsided pro-worker majorities in the state Assembly and the state Senate, they’re not veto-proof, and the state fed wants to make them that way.

“This year California workers had major and historic wins,” the state fed said. It put increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour at the top of the list, saying it would aid six million low-wage workers.

“Passage of a $15 minimum wage put California on the leading edge of a national movement to raise wages. The enactment of overtime for farmworkers and permanent overtime laws for domestic workers were long overdue reforms that help some of the lowest wage workers in the state build a better life for their families. These new laws will make a real difference in the lives of millions,” the state fed added.

The list of pro-worker items is so long that even a rabid union-busting law firm was forced to admit it – and to try to take solace in the fact that some pro-worker measures failed. Among the pro-worker measures that solons passed and Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed were:

  • The retirement law. Supporters calculate it will help seven million workers by automatically enrolling them in the state-run plans. The law requires all firms with at least five workers to enroll their employees in the California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program if they don’t offer their own pensions or 401(k)s. But the firms aren’t required to contribute to the program. The individual accounts will move with the workers, like a 401(k). Workers can contribute up to 3 percent of their pay, too, or opt out.

The California program is “the largest expansion of retirement security since the New Deal,” said its author, State Senate Majority Leader Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles. “This bill is about personal responsibility. The retirement insecurity crisis is looming on the near horizon.” The program is “save now and prepare for later,” said Brown when he signed the measure. A state board will oversee the program, but private firms will handle investing and operations.

  • Overtime pay. Lawmakers passed, and Brown signed, a new law extending overtime pay protection to farm workers, who are not covered under federal labor and labor pay laws, but are covered by state law. Solons also dumped a “sunset” provision that would have ended overtime pay coverage for domestic workers.
  • Pay equity. Brown signed two strong pay equity laws the last day of the legislative session. One bars employers from considering prior salary as the sole reason for pay discrimination. The other extends pay equity coverage to race and gender.
  • Wage guarantees. The anti-union law firm reported this one: Any employer challenging state decisions that it broke minimum wage laws must, when it files the challenge, post a bond equal to the amount of the unpaid wages, liquidated damages and overtime compensation owed. It also says the bond will be forfeited if the company “employer fails to pay the amounts owed within 10 days from the conclusion of the proceedings.”
  • Institute a janitorial contractor registry. The law forces the contractors to register and lets the state monitor them as a way to stop wage theft and sexual harassment of janitors.

Another law extended wage standard protections to the thousands of contract workers in the University of California system. The university system’s mistreatment of its unionized workers, represented by the Teamsters, is still a problem, though.

Local 2010 Secretary-Treasurer Jason Rabinowitz reported mass rallies about the issue at campuses in Los Angeles, Berkeley and Santa Barbara, among others. “The Berkeley community rallied at California Hall on August 24 protesting the poverty wages at the University of California and the recent attacks on the secure retirements of the lowest-paid workers,” he told the Southern California Teamster.

  • Worker retention. When local governments change solid waste contracts, “workers lose their jobs and their union. This bill requires contractors to retain the existing workforce for at least 90 days after the contract changes hands,” the state fed said.
  • Promoting women in the building trades. Pre-apprenticeship programs in the building trades that applying for funding from the federal Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA) now will have to submit a plan for outreach, recruitment and retention of women, and to incorporate the use of the Multi-Craft Core Curriculum.

Another new law orders non-union contractors to properly pay apprentices even if a contractor does not use the apprentice for construction work, but requires the apprentice to undergo testing, added safety training, or any other pre-employment requirements.

  • Expanding skilled workforce requirements. By expanding the requirements into more state-funded construction projects, the new law also protects and reinforces Project Labor Agreements.
  • Ban contractor deductions in prevailing wage projects for anti-union causes. The measure says contractors cannot deduct portions of the wages, which are set for federally funded and state-funded construction, to pay for lobbying against prevailing wages, health and safety standards and other protections.
  • Mandating an indoor heat standard. “While outdoor workers have health and safety protections aimed at the excessive heat many work in, there is no similar standard to protect indoor workers in warehouses, laundries, kitchens, machine shops and other high heat worksites. This will require Cal/OSHA to develop a standard to protect indoor workers from heat stress,” the fed said.

There were some losses, though, which is one reason the state fed is campaigning for a veto-proof legislature.

The state Assembly defeated a measure ordering retailers to pay double-time to workers they force to work on Thanksgiving. Walmart is the main culprit there. And “labor’s bill to control the cost of prescription drugs for our members was stripped and made ineffective, reflecting the power of Big Pharma even in a progressive legislature,” the fed said.

Brown vetoed a bill to extend paid family leave to parents of newborns, if the firms those parents work for employ between 20-49 people. He also vetoed a measure to prevent contractors hired by the university “from putting downward pressure on workers’ wages.”

The state fed said, “As always, the mobilization of our members and the hard work of our unions were key to winning some significant new laws and stopping harmful takeaways. Our unions won new leave protections, worker retention, skilled workforce requirements, and regulations to improve worker and patient safety.

“Many of these bills also support organizing and help us build density, which will again be our priorities in the coming year. While we celebrate this year’s victories for workers, we’re focused on finding new ways to build power for our movement and strengthen the middle class,” it concluded.


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.