Labor unions in California helped push successful efforts for increasing the minimum wage, mandatory paid sick leave and expanding overtime rules for farmworkers in the state. But the Trump administration has unions playing defense, even in labor-friendly California.

The new administration worries Belinda Beeks-Malone. She’s a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). She says her biggest concern is actually very basic.

“One is if we’re even going to have a union,” she says. “Is it going to be a right-to-work-state here in California? So that’s one of the things I’m concerned about is our collective bargaining rights.”


In California, union representation continues to grow. But nationally it’s on the decline. Over half the states in the country are right-to-work states. That means employees cannot be compelled to join unions. Sylvia Allegretto is a labor economist with the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at UC Berkeley. She says it will be telling to see how the federal Department of Labor will act on workplace policies under Trump.

“Do they believe in expanding paid leave? Instituting better scheduling practices, especially for part-time workers?” she asks. “What will they do with the overtime the Obama administration wanted to expand and pass?”

Allegretto says early signs indicate the administration won’t be very helpful to union workers. She points to Trump’s pick of Andy Puzder to be labor secretary. Puzder is chief executive of a company that franchises fast food restaurants. He has criticized minimum wage increases and paid sick leave. And Allegretto says the U.S. Supreme Court will likely revisit a case that could expand those right-to-work laws, which many regard as anti-union.

Still, California labor groups are trying to stay positive. Laphonza Butler, president of California’s Service Employees International Union (SEIU) State Council, says many of Trump’s campaign promises actually align with union goals.

“Trump has said to the American people that he was going to be a jobs creator,” she says. “He was going to bring manufacturing back. And he was going to keep auto plants thriving in our nation. And those are union jobs.”

Butler says SEIU wants to focus on protecting the Affordable Care Act and protecting immigrants. But she doesn’t believe California’s strong labor laws can shield unions from changing federal policies.

Steve Smith is with the California Labor Federation. He acknowledges unions are under siege.

“But we also look at this as an unprecedented opportunity to organize, to talk to workers about the value of having a union, to talk to workers about being able to stand together to demand fair treatment from their employers,” he says. “We don’t want to just play defense for four years, we want to go on offense.”

In other words, make lemonade out of lemons. To that end, Smith says there’s a large focus on mobilizing members.

“We’re going to have people out in the streets for the foreseeable future,” he says. “Because that’s how we believe we win over the long term.”

Whether Congress or the White House will be listening remains to be seen.

  • Hillary Clintub

    California consumers could save a lot on their cost of living by starving a union member to death. Everyone should personally adopt a union member to starve.

  • GINNY HOFFCHILD

    Unions certainly had their place – 60 years ago – but they’re merely a burden on society now. I promote collective bargaining but not the rest for which unions are known. Too many people have developed an entitlement attitude and, because of union pressure, are almost implossible to fire even when the evidence against them is beyond the requirement.

Author

Katie Orr

Katie Orr is a Sacramento-based reporter for KQED's Politics and Government  Desk, covering the state Capitol and a variety of issues including women in politics, voting and elections and legislation. Prior to joining KQED in 2016, Katie was state government reporter for Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. She's also worked for KPBS in San Diego, where she covered City Hall.

Katie received her masters degree in political science from San Diego State University and holds a Bachelors degree in broadcast journalism from Arizona State University.

In 2015 Katie won a national Clarion Award for a series of stories she did on women in California politics. She's been honored by the Society for Professional Journalists and, in 2013, was named by The Washington Post as one of the country's top state Capitol reporters.   She's also reported for the award-winning documentary series The View from Here and was part of the team that won  national PRNDI and  Gabriel Awards in 2015. She lives in Sacramento with her husband. Twitter: @1KatieOrr

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