A new bill that would allow California striking workers to be eligible for unemployment pay is gaining traction with Democratic state legislators as employees from various industries picket throughout the Golden State. 

On Monday, Democrats in the State Assembly overwhelmingly passed the bill which is now expected to head to the Senate floor before potentially landing on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk for signature.

If the bill becomes a law, striking workers wouldn’t be eligible for unemployment pay until after two weeks since the strike kicked off. Similar laws have been enacted in New York and New Jersey.

It comes as hotel workers throughout Orange County – and Southern California – have instituted a wave of short-term strikes in their effort to get better pay and safer working conditions.

[Read: The Summer of Strikes]

Gloria Alvarado, the executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation, said in a Wednesday phone interview that people on strike are fighting for better pay and they sacrifice the little income they make – even risk homelessness – when they hit the picket line.

She said it’s why striking is the last resort.

“The decision to strike is not easy, it’s very difficult. Members need to look at their budget. Members need to look at their livelihood to be able to do this,” Alvarado said.

“The bills don’t stop coming because we’re on strike.”

The OC Labor Federation supports the bill, saying it will safeguard families and boost the economy at a time when workers all over have chosen that last resort and are taking a stand for better pay and working conditions.

But the California Chamber of Commerce (CalChamber) has tagged the bill as a job killer, which they say will require employers to subsidize striking workers and raise employers taxes.

Robert Moutrie, a policy advocate for the state chamber, sent a opposition letter in August to state Senator Anthony Portantino (D-Burbank), who introduced the bill, with the Orange County Business Council and OC Taxpayers Association signing on to it.

“Striking is obviously a federally protected right and has historically been a key strategy in labor disputes. But – to put it simply – being on strike is not the same as being terminated,” reads the Aug. 24 letter. 

The letter continues, “Striking workers have a job – they are just choosing not to work in order to create economic pressure and negotiate. That is not the same as having no idea where your next paycheck comes from.”

According to CalChamber, more than 120 organizations have signed on to their letter – including a host of local chambers of commerce throughout Orange County.

Orange County Business Council President and CEO Jeffery Ball and Vice President of Communications Lizz Mishreki did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

The OC Taxpayers Association did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday either.

State Assembly Members Overwhelmingly Back the Proposal

During Monday’s Assembly floor vote, Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), who helped introduce the bill, said the proposal would keep food on the table for workers on strike and keep the economy alive.

“Workers do not go on strike because they want to – they do so as a last resort withholding wages to convince employers to come to the negotiation table for fair terms,”  Holden said.

The vote fell along political party lines.

Assemblyman Bill Essayli (R-Riverside) pushed back on the bill arguing it could give striking laborers an unfair advantage over their employers.

“You’re subsidizing, with tax dollars, the labor side. Now maybe there’s other labor unions that want to help them – they have plenty of money. We know that because they give it to you guys – millions of dollars. They do,”  he said as his Democratic colleagues began objecting.

Essayli was the only state legislator to speak against the bill on the Assembly floor Monday. 

“The unemployment insurance fund is in the hole by $18 billion, which is going to be put on small businesses across the state to pay, this is just adding to that debt,” he told his colleagues. 

Assemblywoman Lori Wilson (D-Suisun City), who supported the bill, also expressed concerns about the state of unemployment insurance in California. 

“I have serious concerns about unemployment insurance and the fact that it is $18 billion unfunded and that it is something businesses pay into – not workers and I think that’s something we should look at in terms of how do we fund unemployment insurance,” she said on the Assembly floor. 

Wilson added, “Next year when we come back, there needs to be additional reforms. We can’t leave it here.” 

Orange County’s Assembly delegation was also split down party lines

Assembly Members Avelino Valencia (D-Anaheim) and Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) voted in favor of the bill Monday. 

There were no votes casted by Assembly members Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Irvine) and Blanca Pacheco (D-Downey). 

Assembly Members Diane Dixon (R-Newport Beach), Laurie Davies (R-Laguna Niguel), Kate Sanchez (R-Rancho Santa Margarita) and Tri Ta (R-Westminster) voted against the bill.

Assemblyman Phillip Chen (R-Brea) did not cast a vote. 

Workers Continue Striking Throughout the State

The debate over the bill comes at a time when California workers in different industries ranging from university workers to actors and screenwriters are increasingly picking up signs and hitting the picket line.

Over 300,000 workers this year alone have gone on strike, according to a Washington Post article published last month.

According to the bill’s analysis, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows there have been at least 56 strikes in California between 2012-2022 with only two that lasted over two weeks.

This year – in what has been dubbed as the summer of strikes – Hollywood screenwriters have been on strike since May, Actors since July and Southern California Hotel Workers have had waves of strikes since Independence day weekend. 

While some may see this time as an unprecedented period for strikes, labor expert and UCI professor Judy Stepan-Norris says otherwise. 

“We’ve been in a tremendously low period for strikes,” Stepan-Norris said in a phone interview last month. “It seems to everybody that, ‘oh my gosh we have all these strikes going on.’ But  that’s because we’re not used to it for decades.” 

Stepan-Norris said strikes and union membership have been steadily declining since the 1970s. 

The strikes come not long after a global COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses and industries to temporarily shut down except for those deemed essential workers – people like janitors, grocery workers and trash collectors.

Working class families were among those hit hardest by the pandemic.

“This is a very crucial moment because people want their voices to be heard, or to learn about their rights and they saw what could happen when everything stops,” Alvarado said.

This year, hotel workers across Orange County have been the most actively engaged in strikes.  

Hotel workers in Anaheim, Irvine and Dana Point have participated in a rotating series of strikes for better pay and working conditions this summer with some even walking out during Labor Day weekend.

The rolling strikes typically last a handful of days before the employees go back to work, then workers at other hotels will begin picketing.

Hotel workers protest on July 13, 2023 in front of the Irvine Hilton Hotel. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Ada Briceño, Co-President of Unite Here Local 11 – a union representing hotel workers across Southern California, said in a Wednesday phone interview that the bill is needed now more than ever.

“It’s a good time, because workers are standing up and saying, ‘we’re not going to take this anymore. We need enough money to make our ends meet,’” Briceño said. 

She said the bill would encourage more strikes.

Alvarado said the union’s strategy to utilize rolling strikes allows workers on the picket line to bring in a little income.

“It’s a rolling strike because we don’t want families to suffer but we need to show that there is a problem,” Alvarado said.

She adds the bill would encourage employers to negotiate in good faith from the get go to avoid a strike.

Briceño said while rolling strikes are an important strategy, they’re not a tactic to soften the impact of lost wages stemming from picketing.

“We have a hefty strike fund.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.


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