Los Angeles-area strikes show: Labor’s sleeping giant is awakening

School workers on the picket line in Los Angeles. Photo: SEIU Local 99

A series of strikes in the Los Angeles area provide an example of what has been happening across the U.S. 

Having been in a defensive mode for decades, union workers are chipping away at the widest income gap since the 1970s. Successful strikes are giving confidence to other workers, who then go on strike. That was the case after a successful academic workers’ strike at the University of California reportedly inspired nearby University of Southern California academic workers to walk out and win. 

Soon after the USC workers won their strike, shuttle bus drivers for the USC campus held a rally, petitioned for a union, and in late March, won their election.

There is also an uptick in efforts to unionize workers in the service, tech, and retail sectors of the economy – most notably, but not exclusively, Starbucks, Amazon, and Apple. 

It isn’t that the billionaire owners and investors in giant corporations, nor the officialdom of various government entities and private universities, are suddenly softer. On the contrary, a Feb. 26 Guardian article reported on “Old-school union busting tactics” being carried out by companies such as Starbucks and Amazon, that simply thumb their billionaire noses at any labor law that doesn’t work in their favor. 

But workers across the U.S. economy have been pushed to the brink and are more willing to strike or unionize. They are finding solidarity and support. A Gallup poll conducted in August 2022 found the highest support for unions since 1965, at 71%. 

On Jan. 3, pro-business website Marketplace.org reported,“In the past decade, people in their teens and 20s have been on the front lines of strikes and organizing drives across the country…”

It all lends credence to the notion that the “sleeping giant” is stirring.

Teachers in solidarity

In what has to be considered a labor struggle milestone, some 30,000 workers, who are vital to keeping Los Angeles public schools running, called a three-day strike. Service Employees International Union Local 99 represents cafeteria workers, janitors, building maintenance experts and teachers’ assistants who struck. 

Their absence from the job would’ve already been a major disruption. The fact that 30,000 educators from United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) refused to cross the picket lines made the strike even more potent. 

Polls showed support by parents, and there was vibrant, active support from a group called “Students Deserve,” a group of high school students from Dorsey High School who fight for student’s rights, including opposition to armed police being placed in public schools. 

The community-based organizations Unión del Barrio and Association of Raza Educators called a news conference in support of the strike that was swamped by local media and attended by 40 or more participants.

The workers that struck are a microcosm of Los Angeles’ multinational population. Their wages and work conditions are lopsided and unfair when compared to their white counterparts. Their average pay was a poverty wage of $25,000 a year. Staffing shortages and lack of health insurance for part-timers were also issues. 

Up until the strike, negotiators from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) were using a familiar refrain – no money. But a proposed settlement was announced on the third day of the strike, and there were no longer any claims by LAUSD that the money wasn’t available.

Voting on the settlement by the full membership will take place between April 3-7. If agreed on, it won’t solve every problem. The average wages will be bumped to $32,500 – a 30% increase. Health care will now be provided for part-time workers and for their dependents. So much of the tentative settlement appears favorable for the workers. 

In Los Angeles, the proposed wages still fall far short of what can be considered good pay, especially given the high cost of housing. But anecdotal reports of union members’ satisfaction, the significance of a quick settlement, the lack of major concessions and the provision of health care for part-time workers seem to be important steps forward. 

Like previous strikes in recent years in Southern California, the results of the strike seem like a welcome change for anyone organizing for economic justice.

Hospital workers held a one-day strike in Santa Clarita.

Unfair labor practices

Another labor battle in nearby Santa Clarita is ongoing. Seven hundred workers at Henry Mayo Woodhall Hospital struck for one day and are still negotiating. In addition to many similarities between the two workforces, these battles share another important feature in common. 

In each of them, there were claims by the bosses before the workers walked out that any strike should be prevented in the courtroom because an economic strike is barred by labor law when negotiations are ongoing. In both cases, the bosses failed because the strikes were, in fact, over unfair labor practices and it is legal to call such a strike at any time. 

In spite of all the rosy post-strike statements about “working together” and finding “solutions that benefit everyone,” LAUSD is still disputing the legality of the Local 99 strike in an effort to keep a weapon in its arsenal for the future.

Bosses across the economy feel confident that they can break labor laws, prevent workers from talking to each other about their issues and grievances, and ignore union power. But the strikes by Henry Mayo Hospital workers, LAUSD workers, and others across the country have shown how workers’ confidence is growing everywhere.

From the hallways of higher education institutions like Temple University, UCLA, and USC, to the factory floors of John Deere, to Starbucks coffee counters and Amazon warehouses, the ugly days of wage cuts, mandatory overtime, and the general bombardment against workers’ rights are coming to an end!

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