Schwarzenegger and Democrats Gut Workers’ Compensation in California
By STEVE ARGUE
Last year Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger speaking of the changes he was proposing stated, “I do not want to move the boxes around, I want to blow them up.” With the backing of the vast majority of state representatives, Democrat and Republican alike, this is exactly what Schwarzenegger has done to workers’ compensation. Both parties have handed a gigantic victory to their corporate backers, especially the insurance industry, on the backs of injured workers.
This new law that took effect immediately after being signed on April 20th forces workers to seek the medical care and injury assessments of company doctors selected by employers in an HMO-style doctor’s pool. Doctors of a worker’s own choosing are ruled out unless they are pre-designated before the injury, while doctors who have a financial stake in finding you well will dictate your medical treatment as well as potential compensation.
With the new law, the definition of what makes a worker fully disabled will be re-written to include fewer disabled workers. Doctors are now directed to use the anti-worker guidelines of the American Medical Association (AMA). The proposal to use these same guidelines is currently being rejected in New York by the state’s labor movement there. In addition, in California, a two-year cap has been placed on payments for most workers with partial disabilities although exceptions do include amputations and burns where the five-year cap still applies.
Making matters much worse, the burden of proof that an injury took place on the job now falls on the worker. A person hurt while working alone that has no witnesses will have a much harder time getting the compensation they need. The possibility of outside judicial review of the decisions made in special workers’ compensation courts is also eliminated.
Schwarzenegger argued that compensating workers for their on the job injuries was costing employers too much money through higher insurance rates and thus, was costing California jobs. Upon signing the new legislation on April 20th he said, "Today I delivered on my promise to create real workers' compensation reform. This bill completes a process that brought together Republicans and Democrats, business and labor, and all the affected parties to produce billions of dollars in savings, protect workers, and root out fraud and waste in the system. No longer will workers' compensation be the poison of our economy. Our message to the rest of the country and the world, is that California is open for business. We are making our state once again a powerful, job-creating machine."
Will insurance rates for employers actually go down as a result of this new legislation, or will this just translate into higher profits for the insurance industry? This is hard to say for certain, but if there is real competition in the insurance industry there should be some decrease. Thus the profitability of the capitalists will be assured by simply disposing of responsibility for workers once they become injured and useless for exploitation. The human beings who create capitalist wealth are to be treated like spent machinery and injuries that are often due to employer criminal negligence will often no longer be compensated.
Workers in other states should beware of the state-by-state race to the bottom in workers compensation that this signals. The need for a nationwide workers’ compensation bill that assures all workers are equally covered across the nation has become very clear.
There is a working class solution to this entire problem. That solution is called single payer health care. Under a single payer plan the waste in profits that go to the insurance company middlemen is eliminated. Instead, all pay into a universal system through our taxes that is cheaper and covers everyone. No longer will workers or the unemployed be uninsured, nor would employers be responsible for the skyrocketing insurance rates to cover their workers.
Instead of advocating and fighting for this obvious alternative to cuts in workers’ compensation, the top leadership of the AFL-CIO took a neutral position on the bill and the Democrat Party in the state of California backed Schwarzenegger’s plan. The lack of action on the part of the labor federation’s president, Tom Rankin, in opposition to Schwarzenegger’s bill amount to nothing less than a total betrayal of the members who pay his salary with our dues.
There is no excuse for Rankin’s lack of action and he should be removed from his post. The explanation put forward for Rankin’s support for the bill were extremely minor differences between the bill that was passed and the wording of a Schwarzenegger backed ballot initiative that would be on the ballot had this bill not passed.
Likewise the almost total support of the Democrats in the State Senate and State Assembly points to the bankruptcy of the union strategy of giving away our dues money to elect Democrats.
Like Tom Rankin, the excuse of the Democrats for their vote was that Schwarzenegger was threatening to bring the issue to the voters and had the signatures to put it on the ballot. Yet the worst possible outcome that could have come from that would have been loosing, the same out come that occurred due to the Democrat votes. Small changes like giving partially injured workers two more months of compensation amount to nothing when looking at the scope of the entire bill.
Voting for the bill in the State Senate were: Aanestad, Ackerman, Alpert, Ashburn, Battin, Bowen, Brulte, Burton, Cedillo, Chesbro, Denham, Ducheny, Figueroa, Florez, Hollingsworth, Johnson, Karnette, Kuehl, Machado, Margett, McClintock, McPherson, Morrow, Murray, Oller, Ortiz, Perata, Poochigian, Romero, Sher, Soto, Speier, and Torlakson.
Voting against the bill in the State Senate were: Alarcon, Dunn, and Escutia.
Voting for the bill in the State Assembly were: Aghazarian, Bates, Benoit, Berg, Bermudez, Bogh, Calderon, Campbell, Canciamilla, Chan Chavez, Chu, Cogdill, Cohn, Corbett, Correa, Cox, Daucher, Diaz, Dutra, Dutton, Dymally, Firebaugh, Frommer, Garcia, Harman, Haynes, Jerome, Horton, Shirley, Horton, Houston, Keene, Kehoe, Koretz, La Malfa, La Suer, Laird, Leno, Leslie, Levine, Lieber, Liu, Longville, Lowenthal, Maddox, Maldonado, Matthews, Maze, McCarthy, Montanez, Mountjoy, Mullin, Nakanishi, Nakano, Nation, Negrete, McLeod, Oropeza, Pacheco, Parra, Pavley, Plescia, Reyes, Richman, Ridley-Thomas, Runner, Salinas, Samuelian, Simitian, Spitzer, Steinberg, Strickland, Vargas, Wesson, Wiggins, Wolk, Wyland, Yee, and Nunez
Voting against the bill in the State Assembly were: Goldberg, Hancock, and Jackson.
The chairman of the California Democratic Party, Art Torres, blamed the vote outcome on Schwarzenegger's influence stating, "No governor has had at his command the rapt attention of the business community and the enormous donations to do as he wants. To use the initiative process and the strong-arm tactics that characterize this administration, I don't think it is right."
The response of organized labor should be that if the Democrats actually didn’t think the bill was right they should have fought Schwarzenegger instead of backing him.
Break with the anti-labor Democrat Party to run and support our own candidates!
Reverse the gutting of workers’ compensation in California! Defend worker’s compensation elsewhere!
For single payer health care as the alternative to abandoning injured workers!
Fire Tom Rankin to save our union from those who’ve forgotten what it was like to be a worker!
Steve Argue is a member of the Executive Board of SEIU Local 415 and a delegate to the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council and a candidate for delegate to the SEIU’s international convention. He is also a member of the Santa Cruz and State Central Committees of the Peace and Freedom Party.
To pre-designate your physician before being injured fill out the following form. The doctor must agree to being pre-designated and the form must be turned into your employer: