DNC Dumps UCLA as Debate Site -- a Self-Inflicted Calif. Wound

DNC Dumps UCLA as Debate Site -- a Self-Inflicted Calif. Wound
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File
DNC Dumps UCLA as Debate Site -- a Self-Inflicted Calif. Wound
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File
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The University of California’s labor policies aren’t liberal enough for the Democratic National Committee.

That’s what the DNC abruptly decided this week when it pulled the plug on using the UCLA campus for its presidential primary debate in mid-December. The decision was based on pressure from a union that has been engaged in a three-year boycott of the school -- and all nine of the universities that make up the UC system.

The issue at the heart of the dispute centers on the UC’s increased spending in recent years on contract workers instead of full-time employees. After the HuffPost broke the story Wednesday, a DNC spokeswoman confirmed that “concerns raised by the local organized labor community” prompted the decision, according to an emailed statement to Politico, which is co-sponsoring the debate with “PBS NewsHour.” (An alternative site has not been announced.)

AFSCME 3299, an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, says the “outsourcing” of these jobs has increased as much as 52% in the past three years, disproportionately impacting some of the lowest-paid workers at the universities.

AFSCME claims the University of California is breaking the law by “secretly contracting out the work,” the HuffPost wrote. The UC argues that its workers “are not displaced as a result of service subcontracting” because they are using the contract workers for short-term needs or when services aren’t available.

The DNC’s decision to side with unions in its clash with one of the most prestigious university systems in the country, run by former Obama Cabinet secretary Janet Napolitano and decried by conservatives as a hotbed of leftist thinking, offers a window into why the Golden State has lost its lure for businesses and residents alike. (Both are quitting California in record numbers.)

The news comes amid a public furor over another new state law that cracks down on gig-economy companies – such as ride-sharing giants Uber and Lyft – for classifying some of its full-time workers as independent contractors, thereby denying them certain benefits of full-fledged employees.

The new law tried to codify the 2018 Dynamex ruling by the California Supreme Court, which rocked the business world last year by making it more difficult to designate workers as independent contractors. In the process of carving out exemptions for specific professions, including freelance Hollywood screenwriters and journalists, the law has kicked up a firestorm – fueling fierce tweetstorms between freelancer writers and liberal Democratic state lawmakers who authored the statute.

One of the law’s many exemptions limits freelancers from completing more than 35 assignments per news outlet per year. If the new operation wants someone to work more than that, it must hire them. Responses from writers, many of them saying they much prefer the flexibility of freelance work, have triggered a torrent of negative headlines.

“‘Everybody is Freaking Out’: Freelance Writers Scramble to Make Sense of New California Law,” cried one in the Hollywood Reporter. A Wall Street Journal editorial blasted the law as a “dim policy that could harm contract workers, from cleaners to columnists.”

Yashar Ali, a magazine writer and regular contributor to the HuffPost who has 478,000 Twitter followers, used the social media platform last month to slam the law’s main sponsor, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a former labor organizer.

Gonzalez, he tweeted, “has launched a direct attack on press freedoms with her bill. I’d say she should be ashamed of herself, but knowing her, shame is not a sensation she’s familiar with.”  

Gonzalez punched back, accusing Ali of not being a real journalist; she also retweeted another person’s comment calling him a “selfish piece of s---.”

Then her husband, a San Diego County supervisor and University of California, San Diego political science professor, called Ali a “total a------ without any grasp of the facts” in a separate tweet.

When it comes to yanking the Democratic debate away from UCLA, there has been little intra-Democratic dissent over the decision since the story was broken in the HuffPost, which came down clearly on the side of the unions.

“It was surprising that UCLA was chosen as the venue for the debate in the first place. Democratic campaigns are generally careful to stay in unionized hotels and use unionized venues for events, since labor is an important constituency of the party,” the piece noted.

The story also pointed out that several Democratic presidential candidates have already shown support for the workers in this dispute. Kamala Harris, for instance, canceled a planned commencement address at UC-Berkeley last year “in solidarity with the workers” and Bernie Sanders and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro have joined the picket line with striking UC employees.

Missing in the media coverage is the pressure the UC Board of Regents has been facing from the Democratic-run state legislature to control its spending.

The UC system is roughly 30% funded by tax dollars, about 10% from general state funds, and 20% from government contracts and grants, and the UC Board of Regents has a fiduciary duty to constrain its already ballooning $36.5 budget.  

In fact, Napolitano submitted her resignation, effective next year, after a scandal involving the legislature’s attempts to more closely track the university system’s finances.

The UC system had long resisted such attempts to oversee the way taxpayer dollars are spent, using its constitutionally guaranteed autonomy to push back against calls for more transparency. In fact, Napolitano’s top aides were accused of tampering with a state-run audit of the University of California’s president’s budget -- alleged wrongdoing considered so extreme the state legislature passed a law making it a crime to interfere with a state audit.

It’s in this tense budget atmosphere that the Board of Regents has increased its own contract workers, important context that has been lost in the flood of articles and social media posts heaping praise on the DNC for dumping UCLA.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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