Column: Lorena Gonzalez is a foul-mouthed Latina troublemaker. That’s good for California workers
Lorena Gonzalez, former politician and current union troublemaker, dislikes a lot of things — and people, for that matter.
Cancer, arsonists who light her house on fire, Elon Musk, Pearl Jam, being called Lo-rain-a instead of Lo-wren-a, just to name a few.
But what she hates most are toxic employers. The kind who don’t pay overtime, who bring on expensive lawyers to keep unions out, who laid off folks during the pandemic and tried to hire back cheaper workers when business picked up. When she talks about such predatory bosses, it’s sometimes with an intense, no-holds-barred disdain that includes more than occasional F-bombs.
Once, she ran an entire bill about holiday pay after being outraged that her waitress at a Thanksgiving meal wasn’t getting extra money to work the day. Gonzalez cried when the bill failed (though it’s true that even a well-done cat commercial can get her tears flowing). When a colleague told her weeping on the Assembly floor made her look weak, “I was like, come at me, I dare you,” she says. And she meant it, because she’s fine with metaphorically stepping out into the alley, if that’s how things go.
“The passion was never a sign of weakness. It was always the sign of my strength,” she says.
Which is why a few weeks ago, she resigned from the state Legislature (where she was representing parts of San Diego) and her very important job as head of the Assembly Appropriations Committee (which decides money matters and where the ax comes down on a lot of bills) and signed up to lead the California Labor Federation. There were political considerations, too — the governor passed her up for secretary of state, and she was facing a Democratic challenger for her seat thanks to redistricting. But mostly, she wanted to seize a chance to be true to herself and the values she’s most passionate about — in a job that harnesses the might of 2.1 million workers across 1,200 unions.
“Nothing you can legislate ever makes the world as good for workers as a union contract,” she told me, evangelist-style, a few weeks ago in her new office a block from the state Capitol. And it feels “so good” to be free of the constraints of the Legislature, where being herself was often a drawback.
“I felt confined. And you don’t even realize how confined you feel until you’re gone,” she says. “It is a building with rules and norms that were created by white men who were very old like 100 years ago.”
When she officially takes over the Labor Federation in July, almost a year to the day she was diagnosed with breast cancer (which is now in remission after a double mastectomy), she’s going full-Lorena to help unions fight for more collective contracts for more kinds of workers, and more legislation to keep California on the cutting edge of labor rights. Expect talk of raising the hard-fought $15-an-hour minimum wage ever higher, and continuing battles over gig workers (who by some estimates make up 40% of the state’s labor force) and their status as employees or contractors.
Few California politicians have written more far-reaching laws in recent years, from workplace rights to election rules, than Lorena Gonzalez. Now the San Diego Democrat faces what could be her toughest fight of all.
And California, I would not bet against her.
Gonzalez has a way of delivering against the odds. Having her at the helm of union labor in the state is a shake-up that, to use a phrase her frenemy Gavin Newsom is fond of, meets the moment.
Unions are enjoying a popularity and approval not seen in decades across the country (remember Strike-tober?). Biden is arguably the most union-friendly president ever, and California the most union-friendly state — in 2020, about 16% of California workers were in a union, compared with about 11% nationwide. There’s momentum for workers’ rights, fueled by the inequalities the pandemic laid bare and anger over the increasing difficulty of earning a paycheck that covers the basics — especially for young people and people of color (women in particular) who are over-represented in low-wage jobs.
In an era when political power is as much about personality and presence as it is about actual wrangling of votes and allegiances, Gonzalez delivers much-needed charisma. In recent years, the visibility of organized labor largely has come from individual unions — Hollywood crews fighting for contracts, nurses demanding healthcare for all, fast food workers striking for higher pay, and most recently, Starbucks baristas organizing. Though California has a storied history of turning out labor icons (Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Larry Itliong among its most famous), labor in California has long lacked a visible leader, the kind who’ll take on an Elon Musk or even Newsom, and do it with a vivacious, pugnacious appeal.
Though Art Pulaski (the current head of the Labor Federation) may not be a household name, there’s not a politician in the state who doesn’t know him, or of him, or the power he’s wielded behind the scenes for years. The Fed is the umbrella under which many of the state’s largest and most influential unions come together to pass legislation and win elections — Democrats need labor to win elections, its money and its people, who go out in the thousands to knock on doors, run phone banks and have the one-on-one conversations that change minds.
But despite his heft, Pulaski is the kind of guy who only makes himself known when it serves a goal. He’s tough and dedicated, but a consensus builder who stays out of the spotlight. His last tweet (on an account I seriously doubt he handles himself) was in September.
Gonzalez, by her own description, can’t help talking smack. I guarantee her last tweet was about 10 minutes ago, and could have involved anything from Ukraine politics to why her kids are interrupting her Zoom because they can’t find the ketchup. It’s hard not to know her biography or what’s happening in her life — daughter of an immigrant farmworker and a nurse, raised by her single mom who died of breast cancer, degrees from three prestigious universities, five kids Brady Bunch-style with her husband, Nathan Fletcher, a politician in San Diego. She puts it all out there, often in provocative ways.
Recently, she tweeted about waking up in the middle of night to find her family’s house on fire (which is being investigated as arson), coming into the hallway and for a moment, without her glasses on, thinking her son was on fire. It’s a trauma so deep that the idea someone targeted her family is one of the few things she won’t talk about after that post in the immediate aftermath, though last week she tattooed “unbreakable” from elbow to wrist on her forearm.
But on being told she’s too in-your-face?
“I’m not yelling at you. This is just how I talk.”
On the anger she’s provoked in her fight with gig companies?
“I take a lot of crap. It doesn’t bother me to take a lot of sh—.”
On her viral F-bomb tweet about Elon Musk?
“It’s the only time I’ve been invited on CNN so whatever.”
On being the first Latina to head the Labor Federation?
“It’s more than symbolism. It’s a background.”
That last one may be the heart of it all. Gonzalez has the background of the women of color she will need to reach to preach her love of unions and grow their power in California. She’s one of them, and she understands that unionism isn’t and can’t just be about work. It’s about education for the children of working families. It’s about race, gender equity, housing, immigration, LGBTQ rights, pathways to the middle class and all the other concerns that working-class families grapple with, on and off the job.
But she’s also a troublemaker — a good thing in the union world — the kind old-school unionists love because organized labor is built by troublemakers, the ones who aren’t afraid to stand their ground and curse at you while they’re doing it. The ones who don’t care if they offend, because they find oppression offensive.
And without the constraint of being a publicly elected official, Gonzalez is about to show us even more of her earnest, profane, vulnerable, fierce authentic self — and cause a lot of conspicuous trouble along the way.
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