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As Gavin Newsom Builds His National Brand, Will He Leave California Workers Behind?

He’s blocked a bill to make it easier for farm workers to organize. Now Democrats are worried he’ll do the same for a bill to improve working conditions in fast food.

Mindy Schauer/Orange County Register/Getty
Fast-food workers take part in a rally and caravan across California demanding the passage of A.B. 257, landmark legislation to protect and empower the state’s fast-food workforce.

The room in San Jose, California, went quiet when Perla Hernandez spoke about the trials she’d faced working at a Burger King in Campbell, near the southernmost edge of Silicon Valley. One afternoon, she said through a translator, she heard two people yelling in front of her restaurant. When she went outside to see what was happening, one of the men pulled a machete and raised it over his head to strike the other person. The sight was especially terrifying for Hernandez, as it invoked a childhood memory of seeing her father trying to kill her mother in the same way. Crying and shaking with fear, she rushed to the store manager and asked him to call 911, but the manager refused and told her to return to her station. It was a busy afternoon, and, per usual, worker safety was a low priority compared to filling orders of burgers and fries.

Hernandez was one of dozens of mostly female Spanish-speaking fast-food workers from across California who took a precious day off last month to share their stories with self-described “progressive capitalist” Ro Khanna and make the case for a state-level bill that could materially change their lives. If it is signed into law, Assembly Bill 257, otherwise known as the FAST Act, would form a council of fast-food workers and industry representatives and give it the power to enact health and safety rules for fast-food workers throughout the state. The bill passed the state legislature on Monday. Its next stop will be the desk of Governor Gavin Newsom who, with a pen stroke, could turn it into one of the most consequential pieces of labor legislation in decades.

Khanna, who represents San Jose and surrounding cities in Congress, has never had the opportunity to vote on the bill, but he has been outspoken about his support. Listening to Hernandez’s story, he looked stunned for a moment before raising the microphone to speak. “I wish every politician in California could hear these stories,” he said, in what seemed like a direct message to Newsom. “You’d have to be inhumane not to support A.B. 257 after you hear these stories.”

Khanna’s call to action might have been easier to ignore if the bill’s passage was more certain. While the bill sailed through both chambers of the state legislature with wide margins, Newsom has yet to announce his own stance. More concerning for labor organizers are his recent positions on other progressive bills. Earlier this month, he vetoed a bill that would have allowed the cities of Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, as well as Los Angeles County, to open monitored injection sites for drug users, as all four municipalities had requested. Days later, he declined to sign another major labor bill unless it was changed in a way that organizers consider antithetical to its purpose.

The latter decision was something of a surprise. While Newsom had not announced a stance on the safe injection bill, he had vetoed a version of the labor bill—which would have made it easier for farmworkers to join unions—last year and requested a list of changes, which the bill’s chief backers in the United Farm Workers union had largely accommodated. Opposition now looks more like backtracking, and the reason, California political observers suspect, comes down to the governor’s national prospects. 

As mayor of San Francisco and later as a gubernatorial candidate, Newsom was hailed as a moderate on economic issues by the standards of the famously liberal state. But as a leading member of the pool of Democrats under 80 who could best challenge either Ron DeSantis or Donald Trump for the presidency in 2024, he’s had to appeal to an electorate that’s wider and more moderate than the base of California liberals who have carried his political career until now. If President Biden chooses not to run for reelection, Newsom might have a place waiting for him on the national stage. For progressives, and especially labor organizers, the problem is that he’s stepping on their legislation to get there.

California has long had an outsize influence on American politics. As a huge state with all the diversity and most of the same problems as the United States as a whole, its policies have been touted as models for the rest of the nation for decades. And as Democrats have stiffened their hold over the state’s government in recent years, California’s political brand has only become more liberal, with legislative battles in Sacramento now hinging on compromises between the progressive and moderate wings of the same party, while Republicans have fallen into near-total irrelevance. For progressives around the country, the sharp tilt in the state’s balance of power has made it something like an alternate version of the nation at large, where the legislative process actually leads to bills and laws, up to and including the kinds of sweeping policies more liberal members of Congress, like Khanna, favor but can’t pass themselves.

Yet instead of ushering in that legislation, Newsom is instead burnishing his national credentials by tamping it down—a fact that has left many in the labor movement wondering what happened to the rising sense of possibility they felt not long ago.

On Friday, August 26, thousands of people rallied at the Capitol building—including some fast-food workers who had already been camping there in support of A.B. 257—as  United Farm Workers members finished a 335-mile journey through the fields of California’s Central Valley. After marching for three weeks, often in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, the workers and their supporters asked Newsom to sign their own bill, the Agricultural Labor Relations and Voter Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers in California’s fruit and vegetable fields to join unions.

There were reasons to be optimistic. After Newsom vetoed a prior version of the bill last year, the UFW had worked with his office to come up with something they could agree on. Newsom had expressed support in principle. But despite the outpouring of support, just hours before the marching workers arrived at the Capitol building, the governor said he couldn’t sign without certain revisions. The UFW compromised on most of them. But by the end of the day, with the window for passage disappearing, the governor was still insisting on a provision ensuring employers learn exactly when an organizing effort is afoot, starting from the moment the ballots go out to workers. 

“[T]hat’s a problem, given [employers’] documented history of intimidating and even deporting workers who are known to support the union,” Sacramento Bee columnist Melinda Henneberger wrote of the news. “Employers will eventually know when an election will be held, of course, and they might even know it from the beginning.… But telling employers from the outset when to coordinate with ICE—yes, this happens—would rob workers of even a fighting chance to organize.”

As of now, the bill looks like it’s headed for an unceremonious end, raising the prospect of a similar fate for a fast-food labor bill.

From march to rally, the UFW’s entire demonstration this summer was reminiscent of the 1966 march to Sacramento, which Cesar Chavez led in the union’s early days to bring national attention to the plight of some of the state’s most important yet most neglected laborers. That march was one of the first big gestures of a long campaign that culminated nine years later when Jerry Brown, another Democratic governor considering a presidential bid, signed the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 into law, granting farmworkers the right to join a union for the first time. It was a historic achievement for farmworkers, much like A.B. 257 would be for fast-food workers. 

At the 1976 Democratic National Convention in New York, where he nominated Brown for president, Chavez said, “For years and years, millions of dollars were dumped into the farmworkers’ problems in California and never solved anything until we were able to get a governor in California who listened to us and gave farmworkers an instrument—collective bargaining—so the workers can begin to deal with their own problems. Not until then did we start making headway.”

For the UFW’s organizers this week, the parallel imagery was anything but coincidental: Just as Chavez and other farm labor leaders of his generation presented their cause as a civil rights matter, at a time when the civil rights movement was the talk of the nation, the current UFW leadership pressed for their own bill amid a national reckoning on racial justice. And just as Brown wanted to be president, Newsom likely does as well. With the UFW’s current legislative efforts stalled, the hope for progressives now is that Newsom will at least do right by fast-food workers.

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