Opinion: Special treatment for unions should be denied

Governor Schwarzenegger has another chance this year to serve all, not just some, of the people of California. He can veto AB 569 and encourage labor unions to negotiate in good faith to solve one of the most intractable problems in the California labor code.

It is widely agreed that the mandatory meal and rest labor laws in California are unworkable and lead to frivolous litigation. Employees complain when they are forced to take meal periods at certain times or risk getting fired, while employers pay millions in settlements rather than face penalties in class action lawsuits. No one likes the status quo, including labor unions, who want relief for employees covered by collective bargaining. But they strongly oppose fixing the law for anyone else refusing to negotiate improvements that would work for all workers and employers.

The narrow group of workers covered by AB 569 include union commercial drivers, utility workers, construction contractors and security guards. All other union workers and non-union companies will operate at a disadvantage under AB 569.

Previous attempts to “carve” union workers out of the law have been vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. He believed that the priority should be to clarify the law for both union and non-union industries. The Governor’s previous AB 2593 veto message stated, “I cannot support this bill because it singles out a specific group of employers and employees for relief from a problem that plagues almost every industry in this state.” He should ‘cut and paste’ this sentence into the veto message for AB 569.

We hope he is not swayed by support recommendations by a small part of the business community. Companies and their trade groups with mixed membership of union and non-union employers might support the bill despite its shortcomings.

For example, the California Retailers Association and their large member Safeway Stores supports AB 569 even though many retailers and store clerks are not covered. However, the largest part of the economy, represented by the California Manufacturers & Technology Association, the California Restaurant Association, and the National Federation of Independent Business are strongly opposed to the bill.

The bottom line is that employers want to comply with the law and provide adequate meal and rest breaks for employees. Expanding the hours in which a meal can be taken, allowing flexibility for workers, making it harder to file frivolous lawsuits, are some of the reforms that would benefit both employers and employees. Signing AB 569 would push that ultimate solution far out of reach, and send the message that labor union employees are the only workers deserving fair treatment.

Jack Stewart is the president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association

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