Would Reform-Minded Gov. Hiram Johnson Back Gig Worker Freedom?

Would Reform-Minded Gov. Hiram Johnson Back Gig Worker Freedom?

A photo of Hiram Warren Johnson from the Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

John Seiler
John Seiler


Updated: 5/30/2024


When Gov. Hiram Johnson convinced California voters to pass his Progressive Era good-government reforms in 1911, he never could have imagined the crazed state California would be in today. Yet his reforms instituting recalls, initiatives, and referendums are all that is keeping what’s left of livability in this state.
That’s especially true of attempts to overthrow Proposition 22 from 2020, which restored to app-based drivers in such services as Lyft and Uber the right to remain independent contractors. It passed with a hefty 59 percent of votes.
Prop. 22 was needed to counter Assembly Bill 5 from 2019 which, in Ballotpedia’s summary, “created the presumption that a worker is an employee, rather than an independent contractor.” And it created a complicated set of parameters, called the ABC Test, for drivers to get out of the AB 5 restrictions. AB 5 was strongly backed by labor unions hoping to unionize the ride services.
AB 5 was written by then-Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego). She left that office in 2022 to become the chief officer of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. That showed her fealty all along was to union power, not the actual gig workers.
The current situation is before the California Supreme Court, which took up the case on May 21. Calmatters reported, “The specific question before the state’s highest court is whether Prop. 22 conflicts with the state Legislature’s constitutional power to enforce a complete workers’ compensation system. Because of a clause in the initiative declaring gig workers independent contractors not eligible for workers’ comp, the whole law could be thrown out. But the justices did not seem to want to do that.”
Also at issue is the extent to which Gov. Johnson’s initiative reform can be used. Scott Kronland is the lawyer for the ultra-powerful Service Employees International Union, which brought the lawsuit along with four gig workers who say they have been hurt by Prop. 22. He argued the Legislature has total authority over the workers’ compensation system, and the Legislature’s actions cannot be changed by an initiative.
Jeffrey Fisher is the lawyer for the gig companies. He said the California Constitution, that is the initiative system, “lets voters act on any subject,” even entirely eliminating workers’ compensation. Which would mean privatizing it.

Hiram Johnson for the People

Let’s see what Gov. Johnson said in his First Inaugural address back on Jan. 3, 1911. His reforms advanced direct democracy against the powerful special interests of his day, especially the monopoly railroads. He specifically mentioned the Southern Pacific Company.
Today the most powerful special interests by far are the unions. Through their near total control of the Legislature, the unions have entangled all Californians in an expensive, labyrinthine web of laws and regulations. Only the initiative process has brought some relief to those not in unions.
“In the political struggle from which we have just emerged the issue was so sharply defined and so thoroughly understood that it may be superfluous for me to indicate the policy which in the ensuing four years will control the executive department of the State of California,” Johnson began. “The electorate has rendered its decision, a decision conclusive upon all its representatives.”
He was referring to his own election the previous year. And he was advancing what was to become Proposition 7, which instituted the initiative process. Voters passed it the a few months later on Oct. 10, 1911, by 76 percent to 24 percent. And Proposition 8, which gave us the recall process for state and local officials. It passed 77 percent to 23 percent.
He continued, “Successful and permanent government must rest primarily on recognition of the rights of men and the absolute sovereignty of the people. Upon these principles is based the superstructure of our republic,” quoting from a speech by Oregon Sen. Jonathan Bourne Jr. from 1910.
I don’t think he could be more clear on “the absolute sovereignty of the people.” That includes for workers’ compensation, which also was on the ballot that October 1911. Proposition 2 gave the Legislature the authority to set up a workers’ compensation system. It passed 69 percent to 31 percent—that is, less than the 74 percent for Prop. 7 setting up the initiative process.
That clearly also means lawyer Jeffrey Fisher is right: Potentially, voters could repeal Prop. 2, ending the government-controlled workers’ compensation system.
But let’s look at what Johnson said about the initiative process itself: “When, with your assistance, California’s government shall be composed only of those who recognize one sovereign and master, the people, then is presented to us the question of, How best can we arm the people to protect themselves hereafter? If we can give to the people the means by which they may accomplish such other reforms as they desire, the means as well by which they may prevent the misuse of the power temporarily centralized in the Legislature, and an admonitory and precautionary measure which will ever be present before weak officials.”
Note: “the one sovereign and master, the people” only “temporarily” allow their power to be “centralized in the Legislature.” But the people clearly can take that power back any time they wish through recalls and initiatives.
He continued: “I commend to you the proposition that, after all, the initiative and the referendum depend on our confidence in the people and in their ability to govern. The opponents of direct legislation and the recall, however they may phrase their opposition, in reality believe the people can not be trusted. On the other hand, those of us who espouse these measures do so because of our deep-rooted belief in popular government, and not only in the right of the people to govern, but in their ability to govern.”
Again, he was clear: the people, not the Legislature, are the ultimate authorities and can do anything they want with “direct legislation,” that is, initiatives.
“And while I do not by any means believe the initiative, the referendum, and the recall are the panacea for all our political ills, yet they do give to the electorate the power of action when desired, and they do place in the hands of the people the means by which they may protect themselves,” the honored governor said. Today, the people need to protect themselves against massive union power.

Conclusion: The Justices Read the News

There’s an old saying about the U.S. Supreme Court: “The justices read the news.” Likewise the justices on the California Supreme Court. And I hope they’re reading The Epoch Times.
They also can see the homeless crisis just by walking around the streets near their courthouse, which is in San Francisco. They read the average price of a house in that city is $1.3 million, pricing all but the most affluent out of the dream of owning a home. They see the inflation eating out family budgets, including their own.
They read the California unemployment rate in April was 5.3 percent, the highest in the nation. If a recession hits as hard as did the 2007-10 Subprime Meltdown, unemployment again could soar above 10 percent.
We’ll have to wait to see how the court rules. It will decide whether union power, which has made this state unaffordable for most, can be curbed by Hiram Johnson’s “hands of the people.”

John Seiler is a veteran California opinion writer. Mr. Seiler has written editorials for The Orange County Register for almost 30 years. He is a U.S. Army veteran and former press secretary for California state Sen. John Moorlach. He blogs at JohnSeiler.Substack.com and his email is writejohnseiler@gmail.com

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