María Elena Durazo talks about pandemic-era gains for workers and undocumented people
The gap between the rich and the poor in California continue to grow, spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. So what are Golden State politicians doing to turn the tide?
Capital & Main spoke to California State Senator María Elena Durazo, who has represented the Downtown and East Los Angeles neighborhoods contained in District 24 since 2018, about her efforts to build worker power, expanding access to health care and ensuring immigrants are included in the safety net. Durazo is running for re-election to the state senate this year.
Durazo joined the labor movement in the early 1980s as a member of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union, known as UNITE HERE, where she fought to give immigrant workers in Los Angeles a voice in local government. In 1989, she became president of Local 11 of the Los Angeles Hotel Workers Union.
For nearly a decade, Durazo served as executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, a coalition of hundreds of unions and labor groups advocating for the rights of low-wage and immigrant workers. Durazo also served as Chairman of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) Immigration Committee, among other roles with the National Coalition of Labor.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Capital & Main: The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened and exposed inequality in the United States. How have you and other California lawmakers tried to solve this problem?
California State Senator María Elena Durazo: We haven’t solved it, but we are starting to break into the safety net for workers and undocumented people.
Even though it’s temporary, we’ve had paid sick leave, for example. This mainly affects low-income workers, although all workers have been able to obtain it. We opened the door. I think we can continue to push for a version of it in the future, as people realize that it is these essential workers – many of whom are low-wage, undocumented, immigrants, Latino and people from color – who were injured. So we need to keep talking about a more permanent solution, not just a temporary one.
For hospitality workers in the hospitality industry, we won the right for them to return to their jobs as business began to normalize. UNITE HERE Local 11 had a case in which Hotel Terranea was found to have violated this law. So these workers are going to earn money, they are going to get their jobs back. And all because we fought for this kind of protection.
“We can only solve all the problems of poverty if, in the workplace, workers have the power to negotiate higher wages.
California remains one of the states with the highest economic inequality, despite progressive laws and union organizing successes. What is your vision for reducing inequality and improving the lives of workers in California?
There are a number of ways we are looking for more permanent solutions, not just to deal with the immediate crisis. One is to empower workers in various industries.
My Garment Worker Protection Bill was created in connection with Garment Worker Center field organizers, mostly women, who needed stronger tools to organize their co-workers. While the bill was intended to make employers more responsible for paying wages and cracking down on wage theft, it was primarily about providing workers with the tools to do it themselves.
That’s where I think you start to see worker empowerment, not just a law that gets passed and shelved. In this case, the California commissioner of labor stepped in and has a much larger team under her who will work with the Garment Worker Center. Now you’re talking about an industry-wide impact.
When it comes to tackling economic inequality, where do you agree with Governor Gavin Newsom? Where do you hope to push him if he gets a second term?
We can only solve all the problems of poverty if, in the workplace, workers have the power to negotiate higher wages. And that is what is currently lacking in a number of industries.
The governor has done well in a number of areas, but he needs to do a better job and be more committed to winning more rights so farmworkers can organize. Last year he vetoed a bill that would have allowed farm workers to vote for the union by mail, just like we do for president or governor or anything else.
There are many things workers should be able to do for themselves when empowered through collective bargaining.
For domestic workers, we have taken a big step forward. We didn’t get where we should have, which is that domestic workers are covered by Cal/OSHA. So we’re not quite done.
Much of the public sector work that was unorganized, such as child care providers, SEIU managed to get them recognized last year. Tens of thousands of child care workers are now unionized. They are getting the kind of rate increases they should be getting to make a living providing something our communities and our families need.
Then there’s legislation being proposed for fast food workers to have wages set industry-wide, rather than job-by-job.
“We’re trying to help about 40,000 immigrant students who don’t have the usual visas and don’t fall under the DACA category, so they can access in-state tuition.”
Every year for more than two decades, the California Chamber of Commerce has helped block scores of bills on its so-called job killer listing. How do you and other legislators make sure this doesn’t get in the way of your priorities?
The Garment Workers Bill was a “job killer” for the House, and we got it passed. The governor signed it.
We just have to stick with it. And our arguments aren’t, “Well, no, it’s not a job killer, blah, blah, blah.” Nothing is going to kill jobs, but I’m not going to use their arguments, I’m going to use our reality, the workers’ reality.
You will see that more bills can be passed this way, not because I fight with a House.
A current bill that the House called a job killer right after our first hearing on it is SB 1044. It aims to allow workers to protect themselves in times of disaster and emergency. For example, if there is a shooting at the school where your children are, you can go and take care of your children. If there’s been an earthquake, if there’s been a fire, if you’re in a dangerous situation, if your life is at stake. It’s all common sense, and anyone who doesn’t support the sane ability of a worker leaving or having access to a communication device, I think they really crossed the line in trying to prevent workers from protecting themselves and their families.
Many bills you support are intended to support California immigrants. While the President and the US Congress are blocking immigration reform, what is California doing to protect these residents?
We don’t have the ability to change immigration laws so they can get citizenship. But we push the boundaries on every other level we can.
There are issues that we have addressed with respect to detention centres. We won last year on one of my bills requiring detention centers to be insured with all the types of coverage that other employers and businesses have. This will require transparency.
We also continue to remove all barriers to education one by one. Education is extremely important to all of us, but it is especially important to immigrant families. That’s why they take the risks they take. The first step was in-state tuition and then access to financial aid for those pursuing higher education. We are trying to help approximately 40,000 immigrant students who do not have the usual visas and who do not fall under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) category, so that they can access fees education in the state.
So there are a number of fronts—education, workplace, health and safety—on which immigrants are at the heart. And we will continue to do so in the California State Legislature. We have great lawmakers who are hardcore on this, from Assemblymen Eloise Gómez Reyes, Miguel Santiago and Wendy Carrillo to State Senator Lena Gonzalez, and especially in the Latino Legislative Caucus.
California has become a national pioneer in extending government-funded health coverage to nearly all residents, regardless of immigration status. How did we come here?
We began, under then-Governor Jerry Brown and State Senator Ricardo Lara, to break through a remnant of former Governor Pete Wilson’s Prop. 187 days, when there was a distinction between undocumented and others on the right to health care.
The first bill I introduced was to cover low-income, undocumented Californians ages zero to 18 through Medi-Cal. It took us two years, but we moved on to the next point, advocating for seniors. Unfortunately, the pandemic hit. But there was more money in the budget, and it looks like we’re going to have more money in the budget for several years to come.
The pandemic has shown the inequity of the healthcare system for immigrants in particular, and Latinos in particular. We were able to highlight the fact that they do not have access to health insurance. This was one of the reasons these families did not have access to coverage, along with a number of things like lack of trust in the system and language issues.
Last year, we were able to advance the expansion of Medicaid so we could cover more uninsured, low-income, and undocumented workers, now including those 50 and older. And then in this year’s budget, Governor Gavin Newsom proposes to cover all remaining undocumented immigrants between the ages of 26 and 49.
This would cover everyone at all levels. And that’s great. We want this to be implemented in one year, not two years as proposed. But ultimately, all undocumented, low-income immigrants will be covered by Medi-Cal.
We still need to do more for undocumented immigrants who earn a little more, just as we do for legal residents and citizens covered by grants from Covered California, the state version of Obamacare. We want to be able to treat everyone with the same subsidies, with the same safety net at all levels. There is a bill introduced this year by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia to say the safety net should be available to all undocumented people.
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