In many ways, American workers have been taking it on the chin. The federal minimum wage hasn’t increased in a decade. Millions of workers don’t receive paid sick days or paid parental leave, while companies increasingly force employees to work unpredictable schedules that change from week to week, creating havoc in workers’ lives. The Trump administration has rolled back a regulation extending overtime protections to millions more workers and made it harder for Uber and Lyft drivers and gig workers in general to receive basic worker protections.
In an era when workers are in many ways moving backward, California — and various cities and groups in the state — has vigorously pursued a counter-strategy that might even be called a pro-worker resistance. California has led the way in embracing strategies that have lifted workers even as — or perhaps because — Washington has done so little. And some of these pro-worker efforts, adopted in the last few years, have proven to be durable and effective, and could be models for rebuilding worker power in other regions of the country.
This is particularly true for partnerships between labor and the environmental movement. Elsewhere in the country, union leaders and environmental groups have often clashed over the proposed Green New Deal. Some unions complain that the green push to slash use of fossil fuels (for instance, by shutting down coal- and gas-fired power plants) will destroy many good-paying union jobs.
But the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, or LAANE, for example, has built an unusual labor-environmental partnership that has made important strides in improving the environment while increasing workers’ pay and economic security.
Working closely with the Natural Resources Defense Council, LAANE brought unions, environmentalists and community groups together to develop a plan that has greatly reduced air pollution at the nation’s largest seaport, the combined Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Not only did this effort bring in a new generation of trucks that polluted far less, but it raised port truck drivers’ pay and helped unionize hundreds of port drivers. This plan had Teamsters working hand in hand with green activists.
Similarly, LAANE, which was founded by a group of unions to be an incubator of pro-worker ideas, helped forge a coalition that played a pivotal role in revamping L.A.’s waste-hauling. This effort — which involved dividing the city into 11 zones and awarding a franchise in each zone to one waste-hauling company through competitive bidding — has increased recycling, reduced the number of polluting garbage trucks on L.A.’s streets, and improved pay and conditions for many waste-hauling and recycling workers.
While worker advocates cheered the plan, many waste-hauling companies that didn’t win franchises criticized it bitterly. Some businesses and homeowners said they were paying more for garbage pickups. And there was a deluge of complaints about missed pickups when the program rolled out in 2017, as well as lawsuits brought by commercial customers.
After the troubled start, the program’s performance improved with some adjustments, and many environmentalists and worker advocates praise its achievements. “LAANE’s an inspiration for us,” Matt Ryan, executive director of the Alliance for a Greater New York, a labor-environmental group, told me. “They’re proof that you can change an economy, lift workers, and improve the environment at the local level.”
LAANE has also worked with the electrical workers’ union to expand apprenticeship programs for installing solar panels and making homes and office buildings more energy-efficient. With Mayor Eric Garcetti vowing to shut three gas-fired power plants, LAANE hopes to work with unions to ensure a “just transition” plan to find good-paying jobs for the laid-off workers and retrain them, if necessary. In these ways, LAANE is a model for other groups — and states — on how worker advocates and environmentalists can cooperate rather than cross swords.
On another front, LAANE persuaded L.A.’s City Council to enact a $15.37 minimum wage in 2014 for the city’s hotel workers, leapfrogging the Fight for $15. While workers cheered, the hotel industry warned that the $15.37 wage would cripple new hotel construction in L.A. Industry advocates say a few hotels have been built in Glendale, rather than in L.A., to skirt the wage law, but supporters of that wage say the industry’s dire predictions were overblown. In 2017, two years after the $15.37 wage took effect, 19 hotels with 3,880 rooms opened in Los Angeles County, with at least 5,000 new hotel rooms planned for downtown L.A.
There have been other trailblazing pro-worker developments in California, which was one of the first states to enact a $15 minimum wage. San Francisco was the first city to enact a fair scheduling law to make working life less unpredictable for retail workers. Emeryville, a town in the Bay Area, enacted the nation’s highest minimum wage: $16.30 an hour. (Some businesses and economists argue that such moves result in fewer jobs, but a new UC Berkeley study released in July found that lifting the minimum wage to $15 doesn’t reduce jobs.)
In Sacramento, lawmakers are pushing to enact a law that would make Uber and Lyft drivers employees, instead of independent contractors, making it easier for them to unionize and obtain basic worker protections like workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance. And Jobs to Move America, a nonprofit based in L.A., has pioneered ways to get cities to use their public transit spending to pressure Japanese and Chinese companies to build bus and train factories in the U.S.
States can serve as laboratories of democracy, as Justice Louis Brandeis once suggested. It’s fitting that California, as the most populous state, has become the biggest laboratory in developing new ideas to lift up workers. The 49 other states have a lot to learn from California.
Steven Greenhouse covered labor and workplace matters for the New York Times for 19 years. His latest book is “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.”