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California Labor Unions Deal With Mixed Election Results

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Unions out at the May Day rally in Los Angeles, including SEIU local 99, United Here and Roofers Local 36.  (Deepa Fernandes/KQED)

Labor unions in California are known for capitalizing on their organizational strengths and vast memberships in election years. And 2020 was no different. Steve Smith, with the California Labor Federation, said union members played a critical role in helping Democrat Joe Biden win the presidential election.

“We had union members from California going to battleground states, including Nevada and Arizona," Smith said. "As well as a very robust phone bank program into battleground states.”

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But back at home, Smith admits the election results were more of a mixed bag. On the Legislative front, labor-backed candidates did very well — particularly in the state Senate.But several propositions supported by unions fell short.

That includes Proposition 22, which allows companies like Uber, Lyft and Doordash to keep classifying their drivers as independent contractors rather than employees. Smith said unions just couldn’t compete with the more than $200 million those companies poured into the campaign.

“They just simply spent so much money blanketing the airwaves for months with deceptive messaging that voters, I think, were confused at the end of the day in terms of what proposition did and who benefited," Smith said.

But Rob Stutzman, president of Stutzman Public Affairs, said Prop 22 wasn’t just about the money. He said it tapped into some negative feelings voters had about the issue.

“There's also a lot of other evidence that AB 5 — which is the independent contractor law that, of course, Prop 22 was addressing — has had some very unpopular fallout for a lot of Californians," he said.

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Voters also rejected Proposition 15, another labor backed measure that would have raised property taxes on commercial buildings by revising California’s exalted Proposition 13. Stutzman said that reveals something about voters' priorities as well.

“When you consider [Prop.] 15 failing, and the fact that the school bond failed in March in a primary that was dominated by Democrats — the primary that Bernie Sanders won — I think the education establishment may have to really start asking themselves if Californians think there's enough money," he said, "And the question becomes: how is it being spent?”

But Alma Hernández, Executive Director of SEIU California, said, despite some defeats, she’s proud of labor for going after bold initiatives.

“Labor is meeting the people of the streets," she said. "And we're seeking big structural changes and that attracts wealthy and powerful opponents and it doesn't happen overnight.”

Hernandez said the fight on Prop. 15 in particular demonstrates the progress unions are making.

“Whatever the result on that ballot measure, we succeeded in turning the 'third rail' of California politics into a serious dialogue and a very, very close contest about restructuring California's tax system," she said.

Hernandez maintains, if you follow the arc of California voters, they’re moving toward progressive candidates and policies. It just might take a few more elections to get there.

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