Lorena Gonzalez is ready to unionize California

She pushed for gig workers’ rights as a legislator. Now she’s the new leader of California’s labor movement.

Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Our Streets

Our Streets is a column by writer and reporter Ray Levy Uyeda that highlights activists, artists, and organizers who are doing the work and reclaiming power for the people.

When Lorena Gonzalez was first elected to the California state legislature in 2013, gig work was just getting started. The food delivery service DoorDash launched that same year, and Uber had only been around for a couple years before that. Gonzalez had learned about labor issues growing up — Gonzalez’s father was an immigrant from Mexico who worked picking strawberries in San Diego, and her mother, a nurse, raised her as a single parent. But the ones she was asked to tackle in Sacramento were different.

After writing and lobbying for the passage of bills that guaranteed sick leave, pay increases, and worker benefits, Gonzalez tackled the exploitation inherent in gig work with Assembly Bill 5. The bill crucially flipped the calculus of gig work, mandating that employers consider workers to be full-on employees rather than independent contractors unless the company could definitively prove otherwise.

Misclassification of workers is a national issue, and it particularly harms BIPOC, immigrant, undocumented and women workers. The bill’s passage and popularity among the state’s voters showed a hunger for labor rights in the Golden State — and given California is three times more populated than the next-biggest state with similar labor protections, Gonzalez’s instinct with A.B.5 took the gig worker conversation nationwide.

“Until we get these workers a concerted voice on the job and actual way to organize that, we’re just playing around the edges.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed A.B.5 into law in September 2019. It took effect January 2020. But that fall, tech companies successfully lobbied to overrule A.B. 5 with a controversial ballot measure known as Prop 22, which stripped employer benefits from many app-based workers. The law is now embroiled in legal proceedings.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez’s tenure in the legislature is coming to an end: In July, she’ll take over as head of the California Labor Federation, one of the country’s largest labor organizations. In that position, she’ll have the authority to prioritize labor goals and impact statewide elections. She’ll also be tasked with weighing in on critical labor battles, like the ones currently surrounding fast food workers and her old foe, the tech companies. Mic spoke with Gonzalez by phone about her outlook for the labor movement nationally and what’s most needed to ensure labor victories in her home state of California. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

How did you get started in the labor movement?

My first job in the labor movement was the summer after senior year in high school. I filled in at the labor council’s Labor Community Services non-profit in San Diego, helping serve union members who were out of work. I spent a lot of time handing out food bags to striking workers that summer. I went away to school, then came back to San Diego. During those years I had worked on policy issues that affected labor and the environment, which later helped me land a job in the lieutenant governor’s office. Later, I was asked to be a political director at the San Diego Imperial Labor Council, and then I was asked to be chief officer. I went to the legislature to work on worker legislation in 2013, and then just recently was asked if I would consider returning to the labor movement.

We’re in the middle of a wave of labor organizing. Media calls it the great resignation; workers are refusing exploitative working conditions, and workers at companies like Frito-Lay and Kellogg are unionizing. How do you see California's role in that?

California has always led the way when it comes to worker protections. We have rights to work outlined in our state laws that no other state has — like with laws regarding farm workers [which guarantee a minimum wage and overtime pay]. But going forward I think California needs to utilize its position as the leader in workers rights and make sure that we continue to push for workers to actually have a voice on the job and make sure that they’re supported. Organizing in the private sector especially is very hard, but we're seeing workers across the states do it and I think California could see success there as well.

Lorena Gonzalez with then-Gov. Jerry Brown, at the 2014 signing of a bill she presented that made more California workers eligible for sick days.

Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The fact is that we can do a lot through the legislature and have done a lot, especially on transparency on ensuring that tips go to workers. But none of that helps organize them. These legislative wins make their conditions a little bit better, but what the food delivery and gig workers are missing is the right to organize. At the end of the day until we get these workers a concerted voice on the job and actual way to organize that, we’re just playing around the edges.

Is there a single overhaul that you think is crucial to changing working conditions?

I think it’s having a union. Unions are a preventative measure. It’s time that we organize more workplaces and give people that opportunity. What we saw during the pandemic, unfortunately, by some employers was a complete lack of respect for their workforce. I definitely think that [the best way] to prevent harm in the workplace is to have a union start on these things beforehand.

How else has the pandemic shaped movement awareness and organizing?

We’re seeing the impact throughout the United States — like with Starbucks, once people who worked there realized that, wait a minute, we could demand more, we could ask for more. We’re also seeing the impact in California with the fast food worker fight. Quite frankly, a lot of that came out of the pandemic situation where workers didn’t feel safe in the workplace, yet they continued to work while a lot of us didn’t. I think that you will continue to see workers in unions and other places have a better outcome and better working conditions coming out of the pandemic. More workers want to be a part of a union and want to understand what their rights are. Maybe they’ve seen how somebody in their family has better protections or more of a voice on the job. Coming out of the pandemic, I think that you’re going to have higher expectations by workers and workers demanding more out of employment.

“Whether it be climate, civil rights, or voting rights, labor has been a partner.”

The pandemic has also exacerbated income inequality. We know that billionaires have become even wealthier during this pandemic — think about workers in the Amazon warehouses while Jeff Bezos’s wealth continues to grow. The workers’ opportunities didn’t grow; they were fighting for better working conditions in Amazon warehouses. People were being asked to put their lives on the line for their job, often a job where they didn’t have a voice, where they were disrespected, and where the pay and protections are not adequate.

One of the other things that we have seen recently is a greater recognition of the overlap between different movements, like the labor movement and the climate movement. For instance, youth climate activists in California are protesting the use of educator pension funds to support fossil fuel extraction. How do we create policies with overlapping goals?

To put it simply, labor has always been an ally to so many progressive issues. Whether it be climate, civil rights, or voting rights, labor has been a partner. I think it’s really important that partnership goes both ways, which means we have to have some very real discussions. Individuals who are working in climate need to understand when we talk about people’s jobs and moving out of jobs, there has to be actual opportunities for work — I hate using the term Just Transition because I have yet to see one.

I think that there’s also a lot of room for cross-education on the issues. A good example about labor working with the climate movement is electrical workers with the IBEW have been able to work very well with the environmental community on different issues of electrification. But that has to extend beyond that one form of energy, right? We’ve got to ensure as we’re looking at ways to reduce our carbon footprint, or to capture and sequester carbon, we make sure that those are all going to be good union jobs.

That being said, when we’re moving forward, it’s not enough to simply ask labor to be a partner. I think about the housing crisis, for example, which has become a bigger issue in California. We have to understand that no one should be in poverty. We shouldn’t need affordable housing; everyone should have a good middle-class life. That’s part of the demands that have to be made.

It almost seems as if the term “affordable housing” is meant to obfuscate the fact that people don't have access to housing in the first place.

Yeah, and this has been a discussion that we’ve been having for a long time. The need for housing isn’t new. For a long time they suggested that the only way to build affordable housing would be a cheap workforce, and that hasn’t been a good policy. We’ve never had true discussions about what developers are making on affordable housing projects, yet we’ve had a lot of discussions about whether or not we can pay prevailing wage or a union wage to their workers.

“The ability to live near your work, near transit, and to be able to have housing is obviously a worker issue.”

At the same time, it’s amazing to me that much of the discussion has happened outside of organized labor given the fact that building housing is certainly a labor issue in and of itself. The ability to live near your work, near transit, and to be able to have housing is obviously a worker issue. It has been led too often by folks who don’t experience the pressures of being working- and middle-class, to be honest.

What are you most excited for in your new role?

I’m most excited about refocusing the unified labor movement on organizing and on young workers. We have a whole host of people who want a voice on the job and who want a union, but don’t necessarily know where to go to find that. We’re seeing the excitement spread, and Starbucks is the most obvious example. But we’ve got to be the voice to tell people this is how you start a union, this is where you go, and we can help with that. Unfortunately, there are a lot of young people who, when they were growing up, weren’t children of union members, so they don't have the exposure of what it really is to be a union member. They just know that they want more work and better conditions, so we've got to provide that.

There’s also the fact that our major cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, and even now in San Diego, have growing union movements. But we have a lot of working-class areas, like the Inland Empire and the Central Valley, that have really low union density, meaning that our efforts have to focus beyond the major cities so that our entire state can be considered pro-union.

Finally, it’s time to examine the state’s structural policies holding back progress. California has a two-thirds [Democratic] majority in both houses of the legislature, we have a pro-union governor, and yet we still have two public university systems that sometimes are hostile to organized labor, especially private sector organized labor. We have to ensure that our public institutions respect not only public employees, but also the private sector that so often does additional work associated with those facilities.

Is there legislation you feel is most important to pass with this next legislative term?

A fast food worker bill that I had previously authored [the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act] is in the legislature now. Hopefully, that’ll get through to really create some way for fast food workers to have a voice on the job. It won’t be a full union, but it would allow for some type of bargaining in their favor. Farmworkers in California are going to attempt to ensure that they can form a union without intimidation, as well as fight for the right to vote in union elections at home, the same way we can vote in legislative elections. That’s a really important bill because it highlights how our system is created in a way that doesn't allow for workers to organize, especially if they’re vulnerable workers.

And then of course, our push for universal health care. I’m excited to see where the discussion ends up.