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Political ritual: California labor priorities and business ‘job killers’ again on a collision course

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An annual political ritual was repeated Wednesday when the California Chamber of Commerce released its 2024 list of “job killers” – nine bills that business executives consider to be the most burdensome.

“These proposals would add significant costs and burdens to California’s small businesses, creating an even more challenging business climate in our state,” chamber president Jennifer Barrera said in an accompanying statement.

Two hours later, the California Labor Federation released its list of high-priority legislation – 17 bills that it says will enhance the security and safety of California workers.

“Labor’s agenda is focused on empowering workers to shape the future of work, instead of allowing corporations and tech companies to continue playing by their own rules and amass wealth while workers struggle to get by,” the federation’s chief officer, Lorena Gonzalez, declared.

With that, two of the Capitol’s most influential interest groups renewed what has been one of California’s most enduring rivalries.

Somewhat surprisingly, only one bill appears on both lists. Senate Bill 1116, which would provide unemployment insurance benefits to striking workers, is nearly identical to legislation that was on the chamber’s 2023 job killer list and passed the Legislature only to be vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

In his veto, Newsom cited the Unemployment Insurance Fund’s huge deficit, upwards of $20 billion borrowed from the federal government to cover jobless benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers are now paying higher payroll taxes to shrink the debt.

The labor federation says the new legislation, carried again by Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Glendale Democrat, “will help workers make ends meet and protect them from going into debt.” The chamber, on the other hand, says it would “effectively force employers to subsidize strikes at completely unrelated businesses,” and increase the unemployment fund’s debt.

The chamber’s list of targets includes another unemployment insurance measure, Senate Bill 1434, which would raise taxes on employers to beef up the unemployment fund, although the extent of the increase is not yet specified. The measure, carried by Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, a Los Angeles Democrat, would also create a new unemployment insurance benefit for workers who do not now qualify for them.

One reason for little overlap in the two initial priority lists is that many of the labor federation’s measures affect public employees, who are the majority of unionized workers in California, while the chamber concentrates on legislation affecting the private sector.

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story.Since 1997, when the chamber launched its job killer campaign, it has defeated or neutralized  about 90% of its targeted bills. In recent years, labor unions have gained more political clout as union-friendly Democrats captured about 75% of the Legislature’s seats.

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While serving in the Assembly, Gonzalez was one of the most successful legislators in getting bills enacted despite being designated by the chamber as job killers. She left the Legislature two years ago to become the labor federation’s top executive and the organization has since become a more aggressive Capitol gladiator.

Gonzalez cites legislation raising minimum wages for fast food workers and those in health care, increasing paid sick leave from three days a year to five and allowing legislative staffers to unionize, as union victories last year.

However, the chamber also had a fairly good record in 2023. It designated 19 bills as “job killers,” seven of which made it to Newsom, who signed four of them and vetoed three, including the one granting unemployment insurance benefits to strikers.

The fast food and health care wage bills had been on the chamber’s 2023 list but were removed after being amended to reduce their impacts on employers.

Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.

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