Gavin Newsom Keeps Throwing Workers Under the (Self-Driving) Bus

California governor Gavin Newsom, who has been dubbed the "leader of liberal America," has snubbed labor repeatedly in recent weeks — eliminating union jobs by allowing self-driving buses and vetoing a bill to extend unemployment to striking workers.

California governor Gavin Newsom talks to reporters in the spin room following the FOX Business Republican Primary Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on September 27, 2023 in Simi Valley, California. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

At the end of next month, California governor Gavin Newsom will face off against Florida governor Ron DeSantis in a ninety-minute debate on Fox News. It’s one of the least subtle signals that Newsom has thrown out lately that he has presidential ambitions.

Florida’s governor is the perfect foil for Newsom, who’s been called the “leader of liberal America.” Newsom has carefully cultivated an image as something like DeSantis’s opposite — as “progressive” as DeSantis is conservative.

But what does that actually mean?

If “progressivism” just means taking the liberal side of every culture-war skirmish and giving members of every demographic group an equal (vanishingly slim) opportunity to rise to the top of our deeply unequal society, the label fits. If, on the other hand, “progressive” values have something to do with wanting to raise the floor for everyone, Newsom’s claim to the label gets a whole lot more dubious.

Newsom’s Record

On one hand, Newsom just signed a bill raising the wages of fast food workers and creating a mechanism to raise them more in the future. That’s a good thing, even if it included some extremely strange compromises to blunt industry opposition, like a provision exempting any chain that makes its own bread (sorry, Panera workers!). On the other hand . . . well, there’s a lot of other hand.

Are you a Californian who wants financial aid to pay for your community-college classes? In 2021, Governor Newsom vetoed a measure that would have expanded the program. Are you battling the utility giant PG&E — which donated generously to his campaign — to get the compensation you’ve long been owed because your home burned down in the fires caused by the company’s criminal negligence? Newsom worked with lobbyists to systematically rewrite the rules to make it easier for the company to duck the bill or pass it on to working-class costumers.

A couple of weeks ago, he vetoed a bill to ban self-driving trucks from being on the road without a safety operator on board. In one veto, that was Newsom eliminating thousands of jobs and endangering the lives of just about everyone who can’t afford to get around in a private helicopter.

And within the last week, Newsom has made back-to-back decisions to throw the working class under the bus. When California senator Dianne Feinstein died in office, Newsom got a chance to fill the seat. In a typically Newsom-ish gesture, he’d promised to fill the seat with a black woman — as if what mattered most was the race and gender of the new senator, and not what any particular black woman stood for or what interests she represented. Many commentators and politicians urged him to appoint Barbara Lee, a black woman who had previously served in Congress, where she was the only representative brave enough to vote against going to war in Afghanistan.

The Congressional Black Caucus had written to Newsom urging him to appoint Lee. Instead, he appointed Laphonza Butler. Many headlines in the mainstream press accurately but misleadingly called her a “former labor leader.” It’s true that Butler spent a decade as president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2015 and that she later served as president of the SEIU California State Council. But those jobs ended several years ago. More recently she “worked as a consultant for SCRB Strategies and helped Uber to pass Proposition 22 in California.” This allowed Uber and similar app-based companies like Lyft and DoorDash to classify their workers as contractors rather than employees — thus “bypass[ing] essential worker rights like a minimum wage, time-and-a-half for overtime, expenses reimbursement, and benefits like unemployment compensation.”

Speaking of unemployment benefits, the decision to appoint Butler instead of Lee came right on the heels of Newsom’s veto of a bill overwhelmingly passed by both houses of California’s legislature to extend unemployment benefits to workers who have been on strike for more than two weeks. This mimicked laws already on the books in New York and New Jersey, and was spurred by the Hollywood writers’ strike, where one executive infamously admitted that the studios’ strategy was “to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.”

As Jacobin staff writer Luke Savage put it, arguments against extending unemployment benefits to striking workers are “effectively arguments for institutionalized serfdom.” They’re arguments that it’s important that workers who don’t accept whatever deal their boss offers them have to worry about how they’re going to pay for rent and groceries — because if they’re not worried about that, workers will cause too much disruption and the economy won’t keep humming smoothly.

Giving workers a backstop to soften the financial damage of lost wages as strikes drag on would have been a massive boon to the bargaining power of California workers. If Governor Newsom had wanted to increase the wages, benefits, dignity, and job security of every unionized worker in the state — and any other workers, perhaps even at fast-food chains that make their own bread, for whom unionization might now be a bit more attractive — this was a no-brainer. He didn’t even have to do anything. The thing had already passed. All Newsom had to do was not veto it.

But he did.

And that should tell us everything about which side he’s on.