An ominous anti-labor shadow hangs over pro-worker California

The first day of February was, like so many others this year, an eventful one. 

The new president – Donald J. Trump – had just introduced his first U.S. Supreme Court nominee. His secretary of state was confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Iran had just conducted a ballistic missile launch. And, as if that weren’t enough, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the country was on the precipice of a bacon shortage. 

Amidst the day’s national tumult was a barely-noticed footnote: The United States Congress introduced what it called the “National Right to Work Act”. The deceptively-named law is engineered to drain away the operating resources of a labor organization by forcing them to negotiate for workers who “opt out” of paying any dues or fair-share fees. Dozens of state legislatures have adopted cookie-cutter versions of the policy, which have coincided with lower wages, less health care and retirement security, higher poverty rates and a dramatically higher risk of workplace death in those states. 

With a legislature and a public that is sympathetic to the labor movement, California is a defiant dissenter from these and other assaults on the rights of working people. But the signs from the nation’s capital suggest that, if anything, the war on labor will escalate.

“The winds blowing West from Washington are not good for labor,” said CPF President Lou Paulson, who serves on the executive board of the California Labor Federation. “The powers that be in Washington have their sights on your rights, benefits, safety and possibly even the resources you need to do your job.”



The proposed “right to work” law is just a drop in a torrent of bills, executive orders, policy pronouncements and threats coming out of Congress and the new administration:

Eliminate federal employee pensions: U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffez (R-Utah), considered a rising star in Congress, has proposed eliminating the Federal Employees Retirement System, which protects the retirement security of millions of federal workers;

Roll back workplace safety regulations: Legislation approved by Congress and signed by Pres. Trump eliminates workplace safety regulations for federal contractors, one of a “wish list” of worker safety regulations targeted by employers. The new federal budget also targets funding for OSHA, workforce development and basic oversight of federal labor laws; 

SAFER grants: Though the proposed federal budget doesn’t specifically mention this critical source of fire service resources, fire chiefs warn that a proposed $667 million cut for FEMA includes language that could make SAFER vulnerable;

“War on unions”: In the aftermath of his election, then-President-elect Trump personally attacked a steelworkers union leader in Ohio, and appointed virulently anti-union cabinet secretaries at Labor and Education. Trump’s first Labor Secretary designee – Andrew Puzder – had to withdraw amid bipartisan rebuke for his business record and personal history. His Health Secretary, former U.S. Rep. Tom Price, led an effort last year to impose a “paycheck deception” law specifically intended to reduce union membership.

Anti-union Supreme Court: Last year, a divided U.S. Supreme Court – absent one justice – defeated a national “right to work” court case – Fredrichs vs. CTA. An identical case – Janus vs. AFSCME – is working its way to the high court. The newest justice – Neil Gorsuch – has historically sided with employers and is expected to tip the balance against labor.

“No matter where you stand politically, the facts speak for themselves: Labor is under attack,” said Art Pulaski, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the California Labor Federation. “If Washington succeeds in nationalizing an anti-union agenda, decades of work protecting safety, health, retirement and workplace rights for millions of Californians could be lost.”



Although the shadow hanging over California is cause for concern, the cause is aided by a powerful force: the people of California.

Over the years, California voters have repeatedly shown their sympathy for firefighters, unions and the rights of working people. Voters have routinely elected large pro-firefighter legislative majorities, which on many issues stretch across party lines. When confronted by efforts to restrict union rights and decimate pension security, California voters have responded with a resounding “No”. 

While the support for protecting your hard-won protections is broad, now is not the time to be complacent. Rather, it’s a time to get involved – attend union meetings, get active in local campaigns and stand up to be counted when the wolves are barking at the door. 

“Here in California ... we have made workers and their families even more secure, and workplaces and communities safer and less hazardous,” said Robbie Hunter, President of the State Building and Construction Trades Council in an online message earlier this year. “This progress can be sustained only by a never-ending quest by determined working people. We must never allow this unity and determination to weaken. Our children and grandchildren are counting on us.

“Our firefighter family is a proud union family, and we stand up for each other when it counts,” added Paulson. “The union really is all of us.” 



In California, public and private-sector workers have benefitted from some of the nation’s strongest workplace protections. Firefighters have won groundbreaking cancer presumption laws, workplace safety standards and the right to a meaningful, secure pension for the work they provide. All California public workers enjoy strong rights to negotiate their pay, benefits and working conditions and the right to make the case for their workers in the court of public opinion.

On the surface, this strong basis in state law would seem to shield California from the worst of the federal attacks. Here’s why these hard-won victories are at risk:

Federal preemption: Many of the more sweeping proposals, notably those before the Supreme Court, would be imposed on all states, potentially superseding state laws. Many of the state’s most important workplace safety protections are made possible because federal regulators give deference to state standards.

National anti-worker groups: A network of non-profit “foundations” – many allied to oil tycoons Charles and David Koch – are openly working to break unions in California. One such organization – The Freedom Foundation – has launched an outspoken attack on the United Domestic Workers, which represents nearly 100,000 in-home caregivers who assist low-income elderly and disabled patients.

Doubling down on pension attacks: Another national campaign openly targeting firefighters is the effort to roll back pension security. Former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed’s so-called Retirement Security Initiative is bankrolled by billionaire pension-hater John Arnold. Arnold-backed groups have funded unsuccessful pension-abolishing initiatives in three cities.

Retribution against California: It may seem silly, but the leadership in Washington doesn’t like California very much. While the hostility is largely based on non-labor issues, federal threats to withhold or divert funding away from the state could find their way into law.