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NEWS ANALYSIS

Gov. Jerry Brown is giving unions most of what they seek

In Jerry Brown's first legislative session in nearly three decades, no group won more than organized labor.

October 11, 2011|By Michael J. Mishak and Anthony York, Los Angeles Times
  • Jerry Brown didn't give labor unions everything they wanted during his first legislative session back in the governor's office, but their success rate was high.
Jerry Brown didn't give labor unions everything they wanted during… (Jeff Chiu, Associated Press )

Reporting from Sacramento — When the dust settled on Gov. Jerry Brown's first legislative session in nearly three decades, no group had won more than organized labor, which heralded its largest string of victories in nearly a decade.

At the urging of the food workers' union, Brown agreed to crack down on the use of automated checkout machines in grocery stores. At firefighters' request, he approved new restrictions on local governments seeking to void union contracts. He guaranteed wages for workers in public libraries that are privatized — a bill sponsored by another labor group.

Those unions and others helped bankroll Brown's campaign last year.

Brown has long compared governing to steering a canoe — you paddle a little on the left, he says, and a little on the right. And indeed, he signed some measures desired by key interest groups this year while vetoing others.

Labor was no exception: He rejected a proposal to unionize tens of thousands of child-care workers, a measure to hamper new development by big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart and one to limit fees that banks can charge on workers who use company pay cards — debit cards issued by employers instead of paychecks.

But in the end, no group scored as much as labor. Brown embraced much of its wish list, an agenda his predecessor had thwarted.

"Finally, after seven long years of [Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger, we're moving in the right direction again," said Steve Smith, a spokesman for the California Labor Federation.

Brown has said he reviewed each bill on its merits after considerable research. "There were some tough calls, but in each case he acted in the best interests of the people of California," said Brown spokesman Gil Duran.

The governor has a complicated relationship with labor. More than three decades ago, during his first stint in the office, he marched with Cesar Chavez and farmworkers and granted collective-bargaining rights to state workers, giving rise to a politically potent public sector. But he also vetoed pay raises for public employees and sought to curb generous public pension benefits.

Last year as he campaigned, Brown pledged to be a "hard bargainer for the public interest," saying he had the freedom to buck special interests in the twilight of his political career. Still, labor invested heavily in him, spending more than $29 million on his behalf and contributing millions more directly to his campaign.

Republicans and others said the governor succumbed to union influence this year.

"He's provided huge protections for labor," said Assemblyman Curt Hagman (R-Chino Hills). "He talks a lot about wanting to be bipartisan, but he has not been a very good example of bipartisanship."

Most egregious, he said, was Brown's signing of a bill that shifted all citizen initiatives to November ballots. Republicans contend that the move was pushed by labor to delay an upcoming fight over whether unions may use members' dues for political purposes.

Brown says the change will ensure the most voter participation; more people tend to go to the polls for general elections than for the earlier primaries.

On the final day of the legislative session, Brown signed more than a dozen labor-backed bills, ensuring prevailing wages for trash haulers, increasing fines for employers who violate labor laws and restricting the use of non-union contractors for certain state services.

Local government leaders said some of the legislation hamstrings their abilities to cope with fiscal crises and stands at odds with Brown's own plans to shift more state responsibilities to cities and counties.

"You can't say you have local flexibility and authority while bills that micromanage different areas begin to limit your flexibility at the local level," said Dan Carrigg, a lobbyist for the League of California Cities.

Brown also sided with developers and unions over environmentalists, streamlining environmental regulations for the development of a professional football stadium in downtown Los Angeles and other projects around the state.

Even on bills that favored business groups, whose support he has courted for a campaign to raise taxes next year, Brown showed he was amenable to compromise.

After vetoing legislation in June that would have made it easier for farmworkers to organize, the governor ultimately signed a scaled-back version. It gave state regulators new powers to crack down on employers who break the law during union elections and accelerated the mediation process for employees in workplace disputes.

"We work with the administration to find the policy solution the governor deems better," said Smith, the California Labor Federation spokesman. "The door is always open for those discussions."

Brown also rejected a measure that would have imposed new rules on banks and employers that issue cards to workers, a measure that business groups opposed. In his veto message, he said the bill imposed costly requirements on financial institutions, but he vowed to revisit the issue.

"I strongly believe that reasonable protections are needed for those who use pay cards," he wrote. "I will work with the bill's proponents and the financial institutions to forge a better solution that I can sign into law."

michael.mishak@latimes.com

anthony.york@latimes.com

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