Unemployment for Hollywood’s Striking Writers and Stars? It’s Newsom’s Move Now.

Governor could leap past politics and sign unemployment bill just to keep striking workers in an uneven game. At a glance, the California Legislature’s passage of a bill extending unemployment benefits to striking workers appears to throw Gov. Gavin Newsom onto the horns of a dilemma.

At a glance, the California Legislature’s passage of a bill extending unemployment benefits to striking workers appears to throw Gov. Gavin Newsom onto the horns of a dilemma.
If Newsom signs Senate Bill 799, the entertainment industry and the state Chamber of Commerce will pounce, claiming he is putting his thumb on the scales of the ongoing labor dispute pitting Hollywood writers and actors against the major studios. If the governor vetoes, he risks the ire of the unions and progressive groups that support the measure — and him. 

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 That is a political calculation, and it is one way to look at the decision Newsom has to reach by Oct. 14. But it’s not the only way.
Long before the strikes in Hollywood and elsewhere inspired activists to declare this a “hot labor summer,” the imbalance of labor laws in the country was screamingly obvious. For decades, the table has been tilted toward employers, some of whom have almost casually ignored the laws pertaining to contract negotiations because enforcing them is so difficult and the penalties so weak.
In that context, what is SB 799? A small counterbalance, supporters say. Nothing more.
“The federal labor laws are 50 years out of date, and they overwhelmingly favor management over labor,” said Peter Dreier, an Occidental College professor and author of several books on labor history and urban planning. “Businesses willfully break the law, knowing that the fines they’re going to pay — if they pay any at all — are the small cost of doing business.”
The bill, introduced by Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-Burbank), wouldn’t take effect until January. That means that for all the hubbub surrounding the Hollywood strikes, the measure is actually unlikely to affect members of the Writers Guild of America or SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union. With the fall TV season approaching and urgency for deals increasing, the WGA and studios resumed negotiations this week.
The measure also would block unemployment insurance (UI) benefits until workers have been on strike for at least two weeks. According to Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker, only eight labor actions in California this year have lasted more than seven days. The fact that high-profile actors and writers, who have been on strike for months, are among them and would qualify for benefits may skew the perception, but not the reality. 
Unemployment insurance in California is worth a maximum of $450 per week, but to receive it, applicants must meet several requirements, including actively searching for other work. (The UI benefits expire after 26 weeks.) In terms of benefits to striking workers, meanwhile, both New York and New Jersey already have similar laws on the books. California would be following precedent, not setting it.
The shadow cast by Hollywood might be unhelpful if the public viewed those striking workers as privileged, but polling so far indicates strong support for the writers and actors. And the revelation in July that the production studios’ long-haul strategy was to intentionally drag out contract talks until writers began missing rent or mortgage payments underscored what a massive advantage employers can have in labor negotiations, even if they break the law along the way.
“A lot of times it’s about waiting and delays and an employer trying to hold off on any agreement,” said Michelle Kaminski, a labor relations expert at Michigan State University. “That would be a common violation of labor law. But it can take a long time to get the National Labor Relations Board to agree that the law was broken — and even then, the remedy is nothing more than to tell the parties to go back and bargain in good faith.”
It’s possible that the WGA and SAG-AFTRA have sufficient strike funds (or the ability to raise them) to keep some of their members out of the most dire circumstances. But SB 799 would significantly benefit lower-wage workers like those embroiled in the current hotel strike in Los Angeles, many of whom could not survive long without pay — a fact that their employers can use to their own advantage in negotiations.
“SB 799 is the right bill for California workers,” WGA West President Meredith Stiehm said last week, after the measure passed the Senate by a 27-12 vote. “Striking can be long and uncertain, and this bill addresses the most basic need to make ends meet.”
It’s not at all clear what Newsom will do. The governor has publicly vowed to work with both sides of the Hollywood disputes, and he may not want to be seen as playing favorites. He also noted recently that he is concerned by the UI fund’s current $18 billion debt, saying, “I think one has to be cautious about that before you enter the conversation about expanding its utilization.”
The powerful California Chamber of Commerce placed SB 799 on its job killer list, suggesting it will force businesses to pay additional taxes to the UI fund. That job-killer designation by the Chamber often gets bills snuffed before they reach this stage. Not this time.
This time, it is for Newsom to decide. But if he wants to, the governor can vault past pure politics and claim a larger context: All the bill does is help keep striking workers in the game.

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