San Francisco: City government by and for unions?

How does a bill become a law? In the city of San Francisco, it’s nothing like the process you learned about in high-school civics class.
The Retail Workers Bill of Rights (RWBOR), a first-of-its-kind package of employee scheduling mandates passed by the Board of Supervisors in November 2014, was hailed in the press as a historic victory for employees. Now, using hundreds of pages of emails obtained under the California Public Records Act, we know how this radical new mandate was passed.

The story starts with the brothers Mar — Eric Mar, who represents District 1 on the Board of Supervisors, and Gordon Mar, the executive director of Jobs with Justice-San Francisco and a one-time political consultant for his brother. In a phone call in January 2014, representatives of Gordon Mar’s group, the Washington, D.C.-based National Employment Law Project (NELP), and San Francisco’s AFL-CIO-affiliated Labor Council solicited ideas for future employment regulation changes. After the call, NELP followed up with suggestions for a new set of restrictions on employee scheduling.
It’s worth pausing briefly to understand just how onerous these proposals are. For instance, in the final law passed in San Francisco, a scheduling change by the employer made up to six days in advance triggers a penalty of one to four hours of pay for work not performed. (There’s a similar penalty for “on call” employees who aren’t called in.) Employers are also required to offer more work to part-timers before bringing on additional staff members.

You can’t run a lemonade stand like this, much less a major retail store or restaurant facing an unexpected change in customer traffic. In most state and city legislative bodies, these considerations would put a quick halt to a law like this.

Not so in San Francisco, where labor-funded special interests know how to play the power game.

Jobs with Justice registered the campaign website that promoted the legislation before the bill was even drafted in early May. At the same time, emails show that Conny Ford of the Labor Council and Jobs with Justice staff held the hand of the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office (which is responsible for assisting supervisors in drafting legislation) to draw up the bill’s provisions.

Help also came from NELP, which has received nearly three-quarters of a million dollars ($730,000) from labor unions in the past five fiscal years. Its legal staff on the East Coast — Tsedeye Gebreselassie and Paul Sonn — drafted legislative language in Eric Mar’s bill and had significant input into its provisions.

The scheduling coalition had to enlist then-Board of Supervisors President David Chiu to their cause, and they convinced him they weren’t attempting to co-opt his earlier effort to take action on the scheduling issue with input from the business community. Of course, that’s exactly what Gordon Mar and his labor allies were trying to do, and Mar wasn’t being honest when he assured Chiu’s team in a late July 2014 email that the Labor Council “played no role” in the development of the policy.

Late in the game, the Service Employees International Union United Service Workers West (USWW) wanted mandates extended to security and janitorial employees, who are often USWW members or targets for USWW organizing. Similarly, labor union UNITE HERE argued for an exemption from the law for hotel restaurants it had organized. Ultimately, both the broadened contractor requirement and a union exemption became part of the final legislation.

The emails tell a succinct story about how the scheduling law came into effect: Unions and their front groups wrote the bill, massaged politicians and rallied supporters for the benefit of Big Labor. San Francisco isn’t alone: We’ve seen similar efforts in other California municipalities, New York state and Seattle, Wash. For all unions whining about free-market groups’ involvement in the political process, they’ve set a new low in the influence-trading game.

Michael Saltsman is the research director at the Employment Policies Institute.

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