Gavin Newsom Is Anti-Worker Purely by Choice

Gavin Newsom is governor of deep-blue California, so he doesn’t have the excuse that Republicans are torpedoing his progressive aims. Yet he’s still selling out workers — including, this week, by killing unemployment insurance for striking workers.

California governor Gavin Newsom speaks during the Clinton Global Initiative meeting on September 18, 2023, in New York City. (John Nacion / WireImage via Getty Images)

When the Democratic Party wields power at the national level and fails to realize a stated progressive goal, mainstream Democrats invariably offer the same response to critics: we’re pushing progressive agenda as forcefully as we can, but those dastardly Republicans are in the way. As Thomas Frank puts it in his book Listen, Liberal:

When you press Democrats on their uninspiring deeds — their lousy free trade deals, for example, or their incomprehensible Wall Street reform legislation — when you press them on any of these things, they reply automatically that this is the best anyone could have done. After all, they had to deal with those awful Republicans, and those awful Republicans wouldn’t let the really good stuff through. They filibustered in the Senate. They gerrymandered in the congressional districts. And, besides, it’s hard to turn an ocean liner. Surely you don’t think the tepid-to-lukewarm things Clinton and Obama have done in Washington really represent the fiery Democratic soul.

Whatever you think of this defense, it is at least somewhat grounded in reality. America’s political system is wildly undemocratic. Its congressional map has been gerrymandered. The Republican Party does obstruct, almost by definition.

But, as Frank points out, there’s an obvious problem with the argument even if you accept its underlying premises. In solidly blue states, the Democratic Party frequently enjoys total control of government and thus an unobstructed power to legislate. If the argument were correct, places like California would be mini-progressive utopias. A cursory glance at the recent exploits of that state’s liberal governor, Gavin Newsom, underscores how often the opposite is true. (Two notable exceptions are Michigan and Minnesota, where Democratic trifectas recently passed ambitious legislation.)

This week, Newsom opted to fill the Senate seat vacated by the late Dianne Feinstein with a former lobbyist for Uber previously at the forefront of the company’s efforts to limit the workplace rights of its drivers. That move came only days after Newsom’s veto of a bill that aimed to extend unemployment benefits to workers on strike for more than two weeks. Both New York and New Jersey have similar laws on the books already, and amid significant strikes by the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the Writers Guild of America (WGA), and hotel workers unionized with UNITE HERE, a coalition of progressive and labor groups has pushed for it in California as well.

The logic for extending such benefits is obvious. If employers know they can wait out any strike action by bleeding workers dry until they accept a bad contract, most will opt to do so. In recent months, Hollywood executives have been quite open about this very strategy. As one anonymously remarked to Deadline in July: “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.”

Arguments against giving unemployment benefits to those on strike are effectively arguments for institutionalized serfdom. As my colleague Alex Press put it last month: “Objections that extending benefits encourages strikes, or that falling behind on one’s bills and facing eviction is the cost of deciding to walk off the job, are arguments for an economy built upon heavily coerced labor.”

Particularly given California’s ongoing labor actions, one would think that providing unemployment benefits to striking workers would be a no-brainer for any progressive government. In recent weeks, aided by ironclad Democratic supermajorities in both the California Assembly and Senate, SB 799 made its way through the legislature — passing the former 59-18 and the latter 27-12. Yet when it finally arrived at the desk of Newsom, a man who never tires of grandstanding about his progressive bona fides, he could only offer as justification a bland statement of fiscal conservatism that might as well have been drafted by the California Chamber of Commerce. And despite vetoing the legislation, Newsom still had the gall to tout of his “deep appreciation and respect for workers who fight for their rights and come together in collective action.”

It’s remarkable, really. Mere days after a Democratic president’s unprecedented visit to the picket lines in Michigan, California’s governor has reminded us all how many of America’s most powerful liberal politicians choose to operate even in the absence of the usual political constraints. Maybe, just maybe, simply electing more Democrats isn’t enough.