California labor confronted major challenges last year but responded with frenetic organizing and a newfound aggressiveness—momentum unions hope to maintain in 2019.
As 2018 opened, California had 2.49 million union members, roughly 15.5 percent of the state’s official working population. However, after five years of steady growth, 2017 saw a 2 percent decline in membership. The state’s unions sought to reverse that trend. The highest proportion of unionized workers in California, public and private, was in 1989, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, when it reached 18.9 percent, and at its lowest in 2000 and 2017.
California’s unions became more active than they had in more than a decade.
A major cause of concern was the U.S. Supreme Court case Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, a case that challenged public employee unions’ right to charge nonunion members “agency fees” when those members benefited from a union-negotiated contract. The Janus arguments began in February 2018, and in June, the court ruled 5-to-4 for the plaintiff, Mark Janus.
Janus, an Illinois child welfare worker, had complained that he was forced to pay monthly union fees to keep his job. The Supreme Court ruling means that teachers’ unions—among other public unions—will lose out on a major source of revenue and see a dip in membership as well.
Spurred by a slight decline in membership, the Janus decision and the Trump administration’s general hostility toward organized labor, California’s unions became more active than they had in more than a decade. Below is a survey of California labor activity in 2018.
California Nurses Association/National Nurses United scored two huge wins in 2018. In February, 19,000 nurses from more than 20 Northern and Central California medical centers, clinics and office buildings of Kaiser Permanente took a strike vote. Ninety-nine percent of union-represented registered nurses and nurse practitioners authorized a strike. The vote forced Kaiser to the table, resulting in an April contract agreement that union officials said will improve patient-care staffing protections and lock in health and pension coverage.
The gains for workers include paid education leave, benefits to assist in recruitment and retention, protections against workplace violence.
After a three-year fight that included protests and walkouts, the 14,000 registered nurses at five University of California medical centers, 10 student-health centers and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory won a new contract. Megan Norman, a registered nurse at the UC Davis Medical Center, said, “Nurses stood together in solidarity and fought back over 60 takeaways that would have directly affected our ability to care for our patients. We won new language addressing infectious disease and hazardous substances as well as stronger protections around workplace violence and sexual harassment.” The contract also includes provisions to help retain and recruit nursing staff.
Registered nurses and nurse practitioners also won new contracts in Contra Costa County, San Mateo County, the City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, Shasta Regional Medical Center in Redding, West Anaheim Medical Center in Anaheim, Alhambra Hospital Medical Center in Alhambra, Hi-Desert Medical Center in Joshua Tree, and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland.
The gains for workers include paid education leave, benefits to assist in recruitment and retention, protections against workplace violence and sexual harassment, creation of professional practice committees, and provisions for safe patient handling and safe staffing. The latter include protections against unsafe “floating”—the practice of reassigning nurses to hospital units where they don’t normally work.
The strike was averted when SEIU Local 721 and L.A. County management reached a tentative agreement.
Unsafe staffing levels and floating underpinned CNA and SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West’s one-day strike and informational picket at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital, San Leandro Hospital, Tri-City Medical Center and Palomar Hospital in San Diego County, Little Company of Mary Hospital in San Pedro, Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, St. Joseph Health in Eureka, Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez, St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco, and Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae.
SEUI-UHW also ran summerlong ads attacking Stanford University Medical Center for unsafe staffing levels.
In November, registered nurses represented by SEIU Local 721 were ready to strike all of Los Angeles’ county hospitals. The strike was averted when the union and L.A. County management reached a tentative agreement.
April saw registered nurses at Stanford Health Care’s ValleyCare Medical Center in Pleasanton join CNA/NNU. The nurses cited staffing shortages and declining patient care as a motivation for unionizing. In May, 400 health care workers at Shasta Regional Medical Center in Redding joined the Caregivers and Healthcare Employees Union.
Unions representing mental health workers, caregivers and others, secured new contracts for workers at West Anaheim Medical Center and Fountain Valley Regional Hospital
When the merger between Dignity Health and Colorado-based Catholic Health Initiatives was announced in December 2017, nurses were proactive in protecting health care jobs and working conditions. Throughout the year, the CNA dogged state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, demanding that approval come with contract and pension protections and a guarantee that hospitals would not shutdown or cut services. They also wanted a commitment to women’s health care services and expenditures of $20 million over six years on a “new homeless health initiative.”
Nurses were also active in trying to save Seton Medical Center in Daly City, O’Connor Hospital in San Jose, St. Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy, Alta Bates Medical Center in Oakland and Community Medical Center Long Beach, which were all slated for closure.
The National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents mental health workers, caregivers and others, secured new contracts for workers at West Anaheim Medical Center and Fountain Valley Regional Hospital. The union also got University of Southern California Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center to cancel a contract with a nonunion employer and reclassify the positions as USC union jobs.
San Francisco IHSS workers are now the highest paid in the country.
NUHW picketed outside Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital; staged a four-day strike at Providence Tarzana Medical Center, only to see their members locked out; and held a five-day strike of Kaiser Permanente. The aim of the December Kaiser strike was to settle a “contract that treats its workers fairly and provides patients better access to mental health treatment.”
Nursing home workers and in-home caregivers are some of the lowest paid workers in health care. Organized by SEIU Local 2015, after months of negotiation, home care workers with Ventura County’s In-Home Supportive Services program won a new contract with raises. Pressured by union workers, San Francisco and Los Angeles counties approved legislation increasing pay and benefits for IHSS workers. San Francisco IHSS workers are now the highest paid in the country.
IHSS workers also threw up pickets at Los Angeles’ Mid-Wilshire Convalescent Hospital and held a two-day strike at River Valley Healthcare & Wellness Centre in Redding. SEIU 2015 has filed dozens of legal charges against River Valley alleging “worker intimidation and refusal to bargain in good faith.” River Valley was recently acquired by billionaire investor Shlomo Rechnitz, a Democratic donor.
Cafeteria workers at Yahoo and Nvidia are also in the process of negotiating new contracts.
After months of organizing, 1,200 interns, residents and fellows at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA joined Committee of Interns and Residents/SEIU, which also represents workers at Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center and Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. In September, the union started negotiating with UCLA over stipends and increased campus security. Negotiations are still on.
Into the Valley
Silicon Valley’s major tech companies have long resisted organized labor. Despite long work hours, engineers, programmers and others see big paychecks and good benefits. High wages, great perks and the Valley’s libertarian undercurrent are difficult for union organizers to overcome. However, Silicon Valley isn’t just techies. There are thousands of low-wage employees who provide services for the tech workforce. These folks are struggling to make it and very open to unionization.
In 2017, 500 food-service workers employed by Flagship Facility Services at Facebook’s Menlo Park joined Unite Here. In February, they ratified their first contract, which runs for five years and includes wage hikes, health care benefits and a defined benefit pension plan. Bon Appétit Management Company’s 150 food service workers at Airbnb joined the United Automobile Workers in 2017, and in February 2018, they ratified their first union contract.
Cafeteria workers at Yahoo and Nvidia are also in the process of negotiating new contracts.
In August 2018, security guards who protect Google, Facebook and other campuses, organized by SEIU, ratified their first contract. They negotiated so that more than 3,000 guards will see wage increases, vacation days, paid holidays and an increase in paid sick days.
The closest that tech workers at Google, Salesforce and other giants have come to organizing is pressuring their bosses to drop controversial contracts.
According to Maria Noel Fernandez, campaign director for Silicon Valley Rising, more than 5,000 of the Valley’s service workers are union, most of them joining over the last few years. Success with service workers does not spill over to tech, however.
In January 2018, San Francisco-based Lanetix, a cloud-based logistics software company, allegedly violated federal labor laws by firing 14 software engineers who filed a petition seeking union representation by the Communications Workers of America. The case is currently in front of the National Labor Relations Board.
The closest that tech workers at Google, Salesforce and other giants have come to organizing is pressuring their bosses to drop controversial contracts. At Google, it involved contracts with the Pentagon regarding drone warfare and with the Chinese government over a censored search engine. At Salesforce, it involved work with the U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These campaigns have had mixed results.
One of the main attractions charter schools have had for investors is that they come without union contracts. That seems to be changing.
California Virtual Academies, a division of the charter company K12 Inc., is one of the country’s biggest online public charter school operations. It has enrolled about 15,000 students from 42 California counties. In 2013, its 750 teachers formed California Virtual Educators United and affiliated with the California Teachers Association.
In June 2018, the United Teachers of Richmond won the fight against the West Contra Costa Unified School District for a 15% salary increase.
After years of failed negotiations, CVEU members authorized a strike, forcing K12 Inc. to the table, resulting in CVEU/CTA teachers’ first contract. One notable issue: California Virtual Academies is an online operation, so its teachers work remotely. To organize their union, CVEU teachers communicated mostly though conference calls, texts, emails and social media.
The United Teachers Los Angeles also targeted charters. Over the last three years, UTLA tried to organize all 25 of Los Angeles’ Alliance College-Ready Public Schools. That didn’t work, so the union decided to pick off Alliance schools one by one. By the spring, workers at three Alliance schools were represented by UTLA.
The UTLA is also fighting for a new contract for its L.A. Unified School District members. After months of protests and a 50,000-person march demanding that L.A. Unified spend some of its $2 billion reserves on schools and teachers, UTLA members authorized a citywide strike to take place Jan. 10, 2019.
In June 2018, the United Teachers of Richmond won the fight against the West Contra Costa Unified School District for a 15% salary increase. The raise will make them the highest paid teachers in the county. Teachers in Oakland have not been as successful in their battle with the Oakland Unified School District.
Struggling with the high cost of living in the Bay Area, teachers represented by the Oakland Education Association have been fighting for better pay. They cite the district’s 571 teacher vacancies as proof that current wages cannot recruit or retain teachers in one of the most expensive areas to live in the country. Teachers have protested, and now there is talk of a strike January 2019.
The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, once a loud voice in state politics, came to a quiet agreement with the Brown administration on a new contract.
In Berkeley, clerical and maintenance workers set a June strike date, leading to a last-minute deal to give workers cost-of-living adjustments and increase job safety
In exchange for some givebacks on retirement benefits, prison guards will see a 9.3 percent raise over the next three years. The state also inked deals with the California Association of Professional Scientists and Professional Engineers in California Government.
Meanwhile, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen and the state have not agreed to a new contract, the last having expired July, according to the California Department of Human Resources.
Oakland city workers, represented by SEIU Local 1021, had a hard 10-month negotiation with the City of Oakland. The negotiations were supplemented with protests of Mayor Libby Schaaf, a half-day strike and the threat of a longer one. Things got so contentious that former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was brought in as an “informal mediator.” In March, workers ratified a two-year contract that increases worker safety, provides cost-of-living adjustments, and improves public services to Oakland residents and businesses.
In Berkeley, clerical and maintenance workers set a June strike date, leading to a last-minute deal to give workers cost-of-living adjustments and increase job safety. The city might tap into its cannabis-tax revenue to pay for it all. At UC Berkeley, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees held a three-day 50,000-worker strike in May 2018, demanding higher pay and an end to job outsourcing.
SAG-AFTRA members ratified a three-year contract with ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, as well as a two-year contract for television and basic cable animators.
There’s labor peace in Hayward, now that the city and SEIU Local 1021 settled grievances over the city’s 2014 contract imposition.
In Riverside County, SEIU Local 721 took the county to court over imposing a unilateral “last, best and final” offer. The court sided with the workers, ordering Riverside to clean up 21 labor violations, negotiate a contract in good faith and reinstate nurses who were fired in a strike.
Things are a bit more tense in Stanislaus County where, since April 2018, workers represented by SEIU Local 521 have been fighting to “prioritize staffing and funding for services that children, the elderly and disabled, veterans and the public in general need.” In November, workers went on a one-day strike. They have a longer strike set for Jan. 9, 2019.
The Screen Actors Guild ‐ American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA for short, says it represents approximately 160,000 members and is one of the most vociferous unions in the state. In 2018, SAG-AFTRA organized Spanish-language radio presenters at Chicago’s La Ley radio station and workers at Al Jazeera English television channel and signed new labor agreements with Telemundo Studios; actor Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company; New York Public Radio; and Zeus TV, a video-on-demand streaming service.
SAG-AFTRA members ratified a three-year contract with ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, as well as a two-year contract for television and basic cable animators. The union and major record labels agreed on a three-year on sound recordings, mostly based on streaming revenue. It has not been ratified. The union is also striking ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and it issued a shutdown order for Executive Media Services and issued more than a dozen do-not-work orders.
The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy has greatly impacted the UFW members, a large majority of them Latin American immigrants.
Disneyland calls itself the “Happiest Place on Earth,” though some workers would argue. Low pay, poor benefits and harassment by parkgoers are top of the list of worker complaints. In June 2018, Anaheim’s Disneyland Resort—made up of Disneyland Park, Disney California Adventure Park and the Downtown Disney District—agreed to a contract with the 9,700 workers represented by Master Services Council, a collection of unions representing resort workers, setting minimum wage at $15 per hour.
Odds and Ends
The loudest Bay Area labor action was the Marriott Hotel worker strike in San Francisco, where strikers serenaded management and guest with a drum line in October 2018. The San Francisco workers were part of the largest hotel worker strike in American history. After summerlong negotiations with Marriott failed, workers from 23 hotels in Detroit, Boston, San Diego, San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco, Maui and Oahu started walking off the job in September. Hotel after hotel gave into Unite Here’s demands for a pay hike; pension security; and better security for hotel staff, particularly installation of “panic buttons.”
The drums went silent in December when San Francisco workers, the last ones on strike, went back to work.
The United Farm Workers have had more to worry about than its members’ wages and working conditions. The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy has greatly impacted its workers, a large majority of them Latin American immigrants. On March 5, 2018, UFW protested increased ICE activity in the Central Valley and on the Central Coast, with pickets in Hanford, Visalia, Modesto, Salinas, Bakersfield, Merced and Orosi. Union members also occupied the offices of Reps. David Valadao, Devin Nunes and Jeff Denham.
Rite Aid workers and the company agreed on a new three-year contract.
Trump’s policy and ICE’s aggressiveness has led to an agricultural labor shortage, something that has strengthened the UFW’s bargaining position. June negotiations with D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of California won 1,200 union members substantial hourly and productivity wage hikes, full medical and dental coverage, and increased paid holidays. The union is also engaged in organizing workers at Gerawan Farming and fighting for a contract at Premiere Raspberries, among other places.
After summertime negotiations petered out in 2018, Rite Aid’s 357 Southern California stores went in to September under a boycott and expecting a strike by its 6,000 employees, represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. The workers and their company greeted fall with a new three-year contract.
Lastly, the Teamsters union had a couple organizing successes. In February 2018, after a second election, workers at Wismettac Asian Foods voted to join the Teamsters. And, in April, landfill workers at Chula Vista’s Republic Services joined the union. These heavy-equipment operators, mechanics, weigh station attendants and laborers are the third company-affiliated unit in the San Diego area to join the Teamsters.