California Politics: Hot labor summer hits the California Capitol

Striking writers take part in a rally.
Striking writers take part in a rally in front of Paramount Pictures studio in May in Los Angeles. Television and movie writers launched a strike for the first time in 15 years, as Hollywood girded for a walkout with potentially widespread ramifications in a fight over fair pay in the streaming era.
(Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)

Good morning! I’m in your inbox a day late because we wanted to bring you the freshest news about all the action in Sacramento yesterday. It was the last day of the legislative session for the year and lawmakers worked late into the night.

The ball now moves to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s court. He has until Oct. 14 to sign or veto hundreds of bills lawmakers sent him in the final weeks of session. They include measures that would decriminalize magic mushrooms, ban the use of some chemicals used in snacks like Skittles, require condoms in every high school, force companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and make many other changes, big and small, to life in California. (You can read more about the most interesting bills lawmakers sent Newsom in this collection of articles by Times journalists.)

In the end, some key themes emerged, which I’ll break down in today’s newsletter. I’m Laurel Rosenhall, the Times’ Sacramento bureau chief.


Hot Labor Summer

The union energy that has fueled strikes by actors, writers and hotel workers this summer clearly hit the state Capitol as well. Even in a Legislature where unions have long-held clout, the run of wins for organized labor this year was remarkable. Lawmakers passed labor-backed bills that, if signed into law, will:

And even though it won’t get any votes in the Legislature until next year, a new bill introduced in the final days of session shows lawmakers’ willingness to go to bat for striking workers in the entertainment industry. The legislation seeks to protect workers from being replaced by their digital clones. It would give actors and artists a way to nullify provisions in vague contracts that allow studios and other companies to use artificial intelligence to digitally clone their voices, faces and bodies.

The tug of war between labor and business is a constant in the California Capitol. What was different this year: several new lawmakers with a progressive streak, a new Assembly Speaker who put his muscle behind some of labor’s priorities and ongoing strikes in Southern California that have pushed many politicians to publicly side with workers.

But Newsom has been cautious about taking sides in the Hollywood strikes. He’s also warned repeatedly that he won’t sign bills that impose costs for the state that are not accounted for in the budget, and he said this week that he’s concerned about the unemployment insurance fund’s debt. And ultimately, he has the last word — unless Democrats take the extremely rare, practically nuclear option and override his veto.

The first big test for Speaker Rivas

Speaker Robert Rivas, right, embraces Assemblymember Ash Kalra.
(Max Whittaker / For The Times)

It was the first end-of-session for new Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Hollister), who claimed the influential post this summer after a yearlong power struggle that divided Democrats, and Rivas displayed political acuity.

He appeased moderates in his caucus — and quelled a firestorm of public outrage — when he insisted on reviving and passing a Republican bill to stiffen penalties for child sex trafficking that some progressives wanted to quash. He showed allegiance to progressives by putting his name on measures asking voters to change how taxes are passed. (See more on those below.) And he displayed his skill for bringing different factions together by helping to negotiate an agreement between labor unions and healthcare companies on the contentious proposal to raise wages to $25 an hour.


Also worth noting: Under Rivas’ leadership, the Assembly passed measures that were fiercely opposed by a group with close ties to Rivas’ family. His brother and his cousin both work with Govern for California, a donor network largely made up of Bay Area venture capitalists, which lobbied against the bills to give unemployment benefits to striking workers and to allow legislative staff to unionize.

After the bills passed, the group’s president wrote a lamenting email to its supporters, saying, “It was a terrible year for [Govern for California].”

Your turn, voters

Some of the most consequential proposals lawmakers passed this year are not actually up to them. Instead they will wind up on the ballot next year for voters to have the final say.

Mental healthcare overhaul: With rare bipartisan support, Newsom successfully pushed through a plan to transform the state’s mental health system that’s part of his broader effort to reduce homelessness in California. The measure will appear as Proposition 1 on the March 2024 ballot. If approved by voters, it would create a bond to generate at least $6.4 billion to build mental health facilities including 10,000 new treatment beds. It also would expand substance abuse treatment and reconfigure existing mental health funding to set aside $1 billion a year for supportive housing.

Making it easier to build housing and infrastructure: A measure lawmakers are sending to the November ballot will ask voters to make it easier to pass bonds to build affordable housing and public infrastructure. If passed, it would lower the bar for voter approval from two-thirds to 55%.

A fight over how to approve tax increases: A measure lawmakers placed on the March ballot is the latest example of political gamesmanship in the battle between progressive unions and conservative business interests at the state Capitol. Business interests had already qualified a measure for the November ballot that would, if approved, make it harder for voters to increase taxes. Labor unions want to thwart that effort, so they convinced the Legislature to pass a measure asking voters to raise the bar for passing the business-backed measure. Yes, it’s confusing. We have a simple explainer for you here.


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