Democratic assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher’s high-profile bill to restructure wonky-sounding SANDAG may be getting all the attention, but San Diego's Democratic legislative delegation is also busy doing quiet favors for the county's labor unions, a prime source of political cash for California Democrats.
A key measure in a passel of organized labor-favored legislation flying below the radar that could impact taxpayers here is SB 285, a bill by Democratic state senator Toni Atkins to make it harder for public agencies to discourage their workers from belonging to unions.
"Currently, there is nothing to stop public employers from engaging in unfair tactics in an attempt to convince or coerce their employees to withdraw from union membership," Atkins is quoted in an analysis by legislative staff as saying,
"If employers successfully convince their employees not to become union members or to withdraw from the union, this weakens employees' collective power through union representation and unfairly increases the employer's power in what should be a level playing field. This effectively undermines California's collective bargaining statutes.
"SB 285 strengthens the law by making it clear that not only do public employees have the right to form a union or engage in union activities without interference — they also have the right to become members or remain as members of a union without interference, intimidation, or coercion."
According to the legislative counsel's digest, "This bill would prohibit a public employer from deterring or discouraging public employees from becoming or remaining members of an employee organization. The bill would define a public employer for this purpose to include counties, cities, districts, the state, schools, transit districts, the University of California, and the California State University, among others. The bill would grant the Public Employment Relations Board jurisdiction over violations of its provisions."
Critics maintain the law would handcuff the ability of public officials to express their side of issues in labor disputes, therefore reducing their leverage during contract disputes, and ultimately adding to the cost of government.
"One major concern I have is that the terms 'deter' and 'discourage' are not defined," noted employment lawyer Tim Yeung in an April blog post.
"What if an employee comes to an employer with questions about what it means to be a member of the union, and the employer provides truthful responses. For example, assume that the employer confirms that being a member will mean paying dues. What if that has the effect of deterring or discouraging the employee from joining the union?"
With little public spotlight, the bill quietly made its way through the Democratic-controlled legislature and was passed by the Assembly on Thursday, August 24, on a 52-19 vote, advancing it to the desk of Democratic governor Jerry Brown.
Assembly Democrats Todd Gloria, Shirley Weber, and Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher lined up in favor, and Republicans Rocky Chávez and Marie Waldron voted no. Among the eight Assembly members sitting out the vote, according to the state's website, was the GOP's Brian Maienschein
The bill passed just as the largest union representing San Diego County employees began preparing to strike as soon as September 5 over what they say are unfair labor practices. Service Employees International Union, Local 222, represents about 10,000 of the county's 17,000 employees
Atkins has long been a major beneficiary of labor's financial support, with this year's biggest donors to her 2020 reelection fund including the California State Council of Laborers PAC on April 21 ($8800); California State Pipe Trades Council PAC on June 30 ($7500); and the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters PAC on June 15 and June 30 ($6000).
The business lobby also has provided significant donors for Atkins, with $2600 arriving from the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce PAC on May 5, and controversial health insurer VSP Vision Care coming up with a non-monetary contribution valued at $5600 on January 17.