Despite strong objections from state theatrical talent and modeling agencies, Levine sponsored Assembly Bill 2539, referred to as “Promoting Healthy Images,” which recently passed out of Committee on Labor and Employment on a five-to-two vote and is headed to the State Assembly floor.
Although Levine claims his legislation is part of the “struggle” to protect women’s health, the real struggle he is focused on is the “struggle” to rescue the collapsing union movement. Levine’s legislation is aimed at converting models from independent contractors into employees of modeling agencies licensed by the California Labor Commission.
California, with 2.4 million union members out of a population of 38.8 million, has the largest number of unionized workforce members in the United States, and the second largest unionized percentage of the workforce at 16.3 percent, second only to New York at 24.6 percent.
When 36.1 percent of California’s workforce was unionized fifty years ago, there were almost no government union members. But the state’s public sector union membership now equals 1.3 million, while private sector union membership has fallen to just 1.1 million.
According to the “On Labor blog,” which represents “workers, unions, and their politics,” there is a “current crisis in the traditional union movement” that can only be turned around with “new and contested forms of worker organization that are filling the labor union gap.”
That “contested form of worker organization” is the effort to unionize so called “gig economy,” which has been revolutionizing employer/employee relationships by shifting what has traditionally been considered full-time work into a series of short-term engagements filled by legally contracted individuals as “free agents.”
Unions have been the main supporters of class-action litigation in northern California, O’Connor v. Uber, that seeks to eliminate Uber Technologies Inc.’s contract arbitration agreements, with the goal of unionizing 240,000 Uber drivers.
Models have always been part of this “on demand economy,” because their “work” is structured into small projects of limited duration. Although only about one percent of U.S. adults are engaged in “gig jobs,” a study by tax experts at Intuit suggests that with employee benefit costs exceeding 46 percent of wages, and workplace litigation spiking, gig employment will rise to 40 percent of employment.
At the committee hearing, Assemblyman Levine paraded through a group of ex-models who told horror stories about the use laxatives and diuretics; binging and purging; exercising to exhaustion; eating only one rice cake per day; or swallow cotton balls soaked in orange juice to fill their stomachs and stop their hunger pains.
Levine argued that fashion models face widespread and dangerous occupational demands to maintain extreme and unhealthy thinness. He stated, “We want to make sure we are able to protect people in the workplace and make sure, quite frankly, that the images that young people see are healthy images.”
Opponents of the proposed legislation include a number of modeling agencies and the Association of Talent Agents. The group argues that their member agencies are already committed to promoting the health and well-being of all artists, but that the bill “creates major disruption and legal confusion for state licensed talent agencies, doesn’t resolve the real issue, and is unworkable.”