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The California Senate has taken a significant step in supporting workers’ rights by voting in favor of granting unemployment benefits to those on strike. The bill, which received a 27-12 vote, has garnered support from prominent unions like the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and SAG-AFTRA. If it receives approval from Governor Gavin Newsom, this groundbreaking legislation will take effect on January 1, potentially reshaping the landscape of labor disputes in the state.
A Milestone for Worker’s Rights
For workers engaged in strikes, the prospect of unemployment benefits represents a crucial lifeline during challenging times. Currently, only New York and New Jersey extend such benefits to striking workers. California is now poised to join their ranks with the bill authored by Senator Anthony Portantino, a Democrat. Under this legislation, eligible workers would be able to claim unemployment benefits if their strike endures for a minimum of two weeks.
Union Support and Business Opposition
The bill has found enthusiastic support from numerous unions, a testament to its potential to enhance the well-being of workers facing the hardships of prolonged strikes. The Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA, in particular, have thrown their weight behind the legislation. However, it’s not without its detractors. The California Chamber of Commerce, along with over 130 business groups, has voiced opposition to the bill.
Debate on the Senate Floor
During the Senate debate, Senator Portantino emphasized the need to bring stability to labor disputes. He characterized strikes as challenging experiences and underlined the bill’s role in providing support to workers facing these difficulties. Portantino’s sentiments reflect the broader aim of this legislation—to humanize the labor dispute process and offer a safety net for workers.
However, not everyone in the Senate shared this perspective. Senator Brian Dahle, a Republican, vehemently opposed the bill. He argued that it would compel businesses that contribute to the unemployment system to effectively subsidize labor strikes. According to Dahle, this was an inappropriate application of unemployment benefits.
Defining Unemployment Benefits
One of the key points of contention revolves around the purpose of unemployment benefits. Critics argue that these benefits are intended for workers who have lost their jobs, not those using strikes as a bargaining strategy. The California Chamber of Commerce has even suggested that the bill might clash with federal law, which mandates that claimants must be “able to work, available to work, and actively seeking work.”
A Plea for Workers’ Rights
At a rally held at Paramount, Joely Fisher, the secretary-treasurer of SAG-AFTRA, passionately advocated for the bill. She expressed her deep offense at the notion that unemployment benefits are exclusively for those actively seeking employment. Fisher emphasized that she and her fellow workers are eager to work and are merely leveraging their collective power for better conditions.
The Path Forward
The bill successfully passed through the state Assembly with a vote of 59-18 earlier in the week. However, Governor Newsom has yet to announce whether he will sign it into law. In a recent interview with Politico, Newsom acknowledged the financial challenges facing the state’s unemployment insurance program, which currently owes $18 billion to the federal government. While he refrained from taking a definitive stance, he highlighted the need for caution when considering the expansion of such programs.
It’s worth noting that a similar bill faced defeat in the state Senate in 2019, falling short by just two votes. The renewed effort to pass this legislation demonstrates the ongoing struggle to balance the rights of striking workers with the complexities of the unemployment system.