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California redefines gig economy: Will rest of country follow?

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As California winds up its first legislative session under complete Democratic control this week, it’s taking up pathbreaking legislation. Perhaps the most groundbreaking might be the redefinition of what it means to be a worker in today’s flexible “gig” economy. A controversial bill passed Tuesday by the state Senate, which Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he will sign, could remake 1 million jobs from Uber to DoorDash.

It is just one of several measures that would reinforce California’s image as a national trendsetter: New laws include the nation’s first trapping ban on fur animals and a crackdown on doctors granting vaccine exemptions. 

“It’s something that other states will look at,” says California political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, of the gig economy legislation that would turn independent contractors for companies like Lyft into employees with protections. Even if the companies succeed in some later modification, whatever the ultimate outcome, it’s bound to have a national impact, observers say.

Why? Because “we’re big,” says Dr. Jeffe. “We’re the fifth-largest economy in the world.”

Pasadena, Calif.

As California winds up its first legislative session under complete Democratic control this week, it’s taking up pathbreaking legislation.

Perhaps the most groundbreaking is the redefinition of what it means to be a worker in today’s flexible “gig” economy. A controversial bill passed Tuesday by the state Senate, which Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he will sign, could remake 1 million jobs from Uber to DoorDash.

It is just one of several measures that would reinforce California’s image as a national trendsetter: New laws include the nation’s first trapping ban on fur animals and a crackdown on doctors granting vaccine exemptions. Still on the agenda is the possible approval of legislation to force single-use plastics manufacturers to make their products recyclable.

“It’s something that other states will look at,” says California political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, of the gig economy legislation that would turn independent contractors for companies like Lyft into employees with protections. Even if the companies succeed in some later modification, whatever the ultimate outcome, it’s bound to have a national impact, observers say.

Why? Because “we’re big,” says Dr. Jeffe. “We’re the fifth-largest economy in the world.”

California’s size and economic might, its diverse population, its frontier and entrepreneurial spirit – these are key reasons why the nation’s most populous state has that “as goes, so goes” reputation. The state has essentially served as a tabula rasa, or clean slate, for Americans, says Erendina Delgadillo, associate curator of history at the Oakland Museum of California.

Fifteen years ago, the state’s eminent historian, the late Kevin Starr, told the Monitor that California’s influence – from the environment, to fashion, to cuisine – was “done.” In a “very big sense,” he said, “the battle is over. The country has been California-ized.”

One could argue that the world has been California-ized, given the reach of Silicon Valley’s tech giants, of Hollywood, and of the state’s environmental mandates and regulations.

This summer, for example, automakers Honda, Ford, Volkswagen, and BMW struck a deal to adopt the state’s higher tailpipe emissions standards, rather than go with the Trump administration’s plans for lower national standards. More automakers are expected to sign on with California, even as the administration moves to revoke the state’s ability to set its own emissions standards.

“I don’t want to play into the smugness thing, but when it comes to the environment, California has not just been a leader in the United States, but a global leader,” says Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley.

California State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez speaks at rally calling for passage of her measure to limit when companies can label workers independent contractors in Sacramento, Aug. 28, 2019. The Senate passed the bill Tuesday, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he will sign it into law.

But in this period of intense political polarization, some of California’s values appeal more to blue states than red ones – especially as they eye the high-tax state’s severe challenges with housing, homelessness, and education.

“There are many states that don’t want to take the direction of California,” observes Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California in San Diego. On issues such as gun control and immigration, “it’s created legislation that other like-minded states will follow, but that red states will absolutely rebel against.”

California, for instance, was the first state to ban assault-style weapons (this after a fatal 1989 mass school shooting with a semi-automatic rifle in Stockton). There is also a law banning high-capacity magazines, whose constitutionality is being decided in the courts. But a young man was able to buy a semi-automatic rifle in Nevada, drive it over the border to California, and use it to kill three people and wound nearly 30 others at the popular garlic festival in Gilroy in July.

Meanwhile, scores of cities and counties across the country have declared themselves sanctuaries for unauthorized immigrants. But only California, Connecticut, Illinois, Oregon, and Vermont – all blue states – have passed statewide laws limiting deportation cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to Pacific Standard, which reports on social and environmental justice.

Interestingly, it was business considerations that motivated automakers to cut a deal with California on tailpipe emissions, says Mr. Elkind. Together, California and the 13 states, plus Washington, DC., that follow its standards account for about 35% of the U.S. auto market.

California could well get caught up in a legal battle with the administration over its ability to set its own emission standards, with automakers looking at years of uncertainty ahead. So it made sense to strike a deal with California, given the legal uncertainty and the possibility of having to produce vehicles to meet two different standards – a national one, set by the Trump administration, and the stricter one followed by California and the other states.

“There’s strong legal reasons that created strong business reasons for why the automakers needed to cut this deal now,” says Mr. Elkind.

But behind the market and business forces driving the state’s national impact on auto emissions and other climate-related areas, lies California’s historic and broad dedication to the environment generally. “The political support for climate is a values question,” says Mr. Elkind – one that has bipartisan support in California and increasingly in the nation, he says.

That translates into state mandates and regulations – mandates on renewable energy, on electric storage, on low-carbon fuels, on building and appliance standards. “These mandates – you hear business complaining about it, but you’ve seen it scale up,” he says.

Dr. Jeffe, the political analyst, points to California’s leadership role in the resistance to the Trump administration – obviously a role not endorsed nationwide but one of national consequence, given the dozens of lawsuits it has filed against the administration. The state also played a role in Democrats retaking Congress last year. And of course, there’s California Sen. Kamala Harris’ long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination.

“The most important trend, now, I think, is the trend of California to fight back against Donald Trump every time he tries to stab us in the back on immigration, on water, on the environment,” she says.

Perhaps even some of the state’s more controversial attitudes, such as its stance on unauthorized immigrants, will eventually spread more widely, she says. Non-Hispanic white people are now in the minority in California. “As demography changes across the nation, we’ll have to watch to see whether California is influential in the direction of the culture.”

Larry Gerston, a political scientist and analyst lecturing at the University of California Santa Cruz, admits the state has serious problems. He suggests it can perhaps act as a “canary in a coal mine” and point the way in solving them.

But he doesn’t doubt the Golden State will continue to lead the nation on many fronts – though some outcomes may not be known for another 20 years, given issues that are still in play.

And yet, he’s certain about one thing. “You won’t be buying a fossil-fuel car in 20 years. You just won’t. You’ll see them in museums.”



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