The Grand Bargain Faces Another Wrecking Ball
Picture credit: https://newint.org/features/2019/01/07/trade-turmoil-chance-justice
The “Grand Bargain” between employers and employees struck over 100 years ago in California was simple – employers could not be sued for injuries on the job in exchange for a “no-fault” workers compensation system with limited benefits and access to quality medical treatment.
Injured workers have honored their side of the deal. Employers remain protected from being sued for damages in Superior Court, even if they have been negligent. However, powerful business interests have continued to erode the already limited benefits injured workers with “caps” on benefits, methods to reduce Permanent Disability awards, and rationing medical treatment. Working conditions are supposed to be safe and sanitary.
Yet, even in 2021, new lows are reported.
Take, for example, what Amazon workers have reportedly endured – being forced to urinate in bottles to save time. While Amazon claims each fulfillment center has dozens and restrooms and employees are free to “step away from their work station at any time.” But former warehouse workers say restrooms can be a five- to 10-minute walk from their station, making it difficult to use the restroom in a 15-minute break. In addition, workers are written up if they run over their break time.
There has always been a tug of war between an employers’ profit motive and employees’ interests for fair wages, employee benefits, and a safe workplace. The California courts and legislature have served as the “referee” between these interests.
But a new threat to workers has emerged – and it aims to dismantle the very nature of the employee/ employer relationship.
The most recent example of this threat was California’s Proposition 22, which allows certain employers to sidestep their legal obligations to pay their workers minimum wage, health insurance, unemployment benefits, and worker compensation by classifying them as “independent contractors.” Of course, the billion-dollar companies that got Proposition 22 passed (and spending 200 million dollars in advertising to make sure it did) promised that workers would do better by having the “freedom” to be independent contractors.
Of course, gig workers now realize they were duped. “It’s clear that as soon as Proposition 22 passed, it was open season to start cutting my pay” said Peter Young, a rideshare driver in Los Angeles. Young said the incentives offered to drivers before Proposition 22 “disappeared” after the voters passed it. Young’s experience is not unique to him. A University of California study in October of 2019 found that Proposition 22 only guaranteed a minimum wage of $5.64 an hour.
So, now the Grand Bargain faces two threats: the decades-old effort by employers to reduce the workers’ compensation benefits and Silicon Valley’s app-based efforts to enlarge the “gig” economy preventing workers from claiming employee status in the first place.
Next time, voters shouldn’t be so quick to believe the “win-win” hype of billionaires, “thought leaders,” and consultants who claim at TED talks that the market, instead of the government, has the best interests of workers in mind.
The most powerful institutions that California workers have to protect them are the legislature and the courts. Let’s not let the billionaire class take them away.