September 8, 2023
A wave of strikes across work disciplines and professions has made summer 2023 a Solidarity Summer for Los Angeles labor activism.
Labor Day Weekend in Los Angeles produced the area’s latest worker activism, as hundreds of health care workers protested and at least 25 were arrested in a boisterous rally against health care provider, Kaiser Permanente.
As she was arrested, Kaiser employee Tracy McDaniel, declared, “I was never in handcuffs. I felt like I was liberated today.”
Organized by SEIU—United Health Care Workers West, rallying protested Kaiser’s foot dragging in negotiations. The workers seek improved wages, stronger benefits, and more staffing. The contract expires September 30th.
“We are burnt out, stretched thin, and fed up after years of the pandemic and chronic short staffing” said Datosha Williams, a union representative.
Jessica Cruz, a Kaiser nurse, claimed, “We have health care employees leaving left and right, and we have corporate greed that is trying to pretend that this staffing shortage is not real.”
According to Kaiser’s own documents, the corporation earned $3.3 billion in net income for the first half of 2023, and Kaiser CEO Greg Adams’ 2021 compensation package was $16 million. The union notes that Kaiser’s corporate investments of $113 billion are in fossil fuels, casinos, alcohol companies, for-profit prison, and military weapons—to put it mildly, the investments are somewhat at odds with health care concerns.
The coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions represents 85,000 workers across seven states. If the contract expires, the union could lead the biggest health care strike in U.S. history. NBC reported that 99% of Colorado’s 3000 Kaiser employees (SEIU Local 105) have already voted to authorize a strike.
In November 2022, University of California (U.C.) graduate student workers launched a statewide strike.
Across ten campuses, 48,000 teaching assistants, tutors, research assistants, and postdoctoral fellows showed remarkable solidarity as three different unions carried out the most massive job action in U.C. history. More than 1000 U.C. faculty members signed a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom in support of the strikers’ demands. Broad public support for the strikers resonated throughout the state but especially in Los Angeles, San Diego, and the San Francisco Bay area where housing costs have skyrocketed and the cost of living has become unbearable.
The traditional “apprentice” system of graduate students who are asked to live as paupers because they will theoretically gain a lucrative career via their studies has largely subsided. Ultimately, the three union groups were successful though there was some dissension between them as they each settled separately. Significant salary gains totaled approximately 46% across all bargaining units, which were considerably greater than recent contracts at Harvard, totaling 9%.
In March, 2023, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 99, representing 30,000 of the lowest paid employees of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) went out on strike.
Cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, special education assistants, secretarial staff, after-school program minders, and maintenance workers have suffered terribly low wages in what is one of the nation’s most expensive cities to live in. Housing costs and part-time status contributed to this historic job action. Only about 6000 or 20% of these workers are full-time with benefits. Significantly, they are almost all workers of color, immigrants themselves, or the children of immigrants.
While LAUSD sits on a billion-dollar surplus, its leadership, including President Jackie Goldberg an erstwhile socialist, allowed these vital workers to subsist on poverty wages. Massive public support, and solidarity from United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), representing teachers, counselors, librarians, and nurses, carried the day. Workers gained age increases of 30%, but considering their base salaries this was a modest improvement.
Not since 1960, have the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) been on strike at the same time.
Over 160,000 media professionals and performing artists constitute the largest strike in the entertainment industry in decades. Both groups challenge the media corporations represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Traditional media giants, including Disney, Fox, Universal, Paramount, Time-Warner, and more recently, Netflix, Amazon, Apple, HULU and other “streaming-first” business models have generated tens of billions in revenues in the last decade.
Writers and Actors identify three areas of concern—unfair wages, insufficient benefits, and lack of job security. According to union sources, roughly 87% of actors earn less than $26,000 per year. Writers report receiving residual checks totaling less than five dollars. for previously completed work.
The walkouts by writers and actors have received much attention, partly because of the very high profile of some striking members. George Clooney, Susan Sarandon, Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Bryan Cranston, Rosario Dawson and scores of other actors have actively picketed or expressed support.
Both writers and actors have identified Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a potential threat to their livelihood. Theirs is not a narrow luddite argument as they freely acknowledge that AI has been part of media creativity for years. They claim that the use of AI must be negotiated, clear guidelines established, and financial terms agreed upon.
Anti-striking propaganda has emerged as claims have been made that Los Angeles has lost two to three billion dollars due to the strikes. Recently elected, Mayor Karen Bass, a liberal, has uttered no support for the strikers but issued innocuous statements that she wants “a fair and equitable solution.” In her August 20th, Face the Nation broadcast, she avoided any statements of support for the strikers and uttered vague remarks that she is in discussions with all the parties involved.
After their contract expired on June 30, 2023, hotel workers in UNITE HERE Local 11 with 15,000 members, went on strike against 60 major hotels.
“Que queremos? Contrato! Cuando? Ahora!” (What do we want? A contract! When? Now!
The current strike recalls the Justice for Janitors movement twenty years ago in which custodians struck Century City and Beverly Hills offices but were notoriously attacked and beaten by police. This time, tactics have featured rolling picket lines across Los Angeles, targeting the largest hotels. Downtown L.A.’s Bonaventure Hotel quickly settled with the union to avoid further job actions.
The most significant victory thus far for the union has been to convince the American Political Science Association (APSA) to alter its annual convention with 4000 attendees. After many professors and academicians declared their support for the strikers, APSA leaders announced their conference would be held mostly on-line, and partly at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Additionally, Lionel Messi, Argentina’s famous soccer player, refused to stay at Santa Monica’s luxury hotel, the Fairmont Miramar in support of the strike.
Los Angeles City Council members, Katy Yaroslavsky, Hugo Soto-Martinez, Eunisses Hernandez, and Nithya Raman attended rallies and marched on picket lines in solidarity with striking hotel workers. Last year, Yaroslavsky proposed a minimum wage increase to $25 per hour and to $28 per hour by 2028 for any hotel with 60 guest rooms or more. This is a strike in which a workforce of largely immigrant women and some of the city’s most exploited workers show a robust activism not seen before.
On August 8th, Los Angeles City Workers went on a one-day strike.
Organized by SEIU, local 721, which represents 7000 city workers, it was the first walkout of L.A. workers in forty years.
Union leaders argued the city has engaged in Unfair Labor Practices regarding 400 side proposals that it claims have not been addressed since the last round of contract negotiations. Specific complaints come from city custodians, gardeners, mechanics and trash truck drivers who claim that they are woefully under staffed and thus forced to do the work of two or three people. Mayor Bass stated the city was organizing in good faith.
Bass’ disingenuous statements follow an August 1st City of Los Angeles contract settlement totaling $1billion that provided substantial pay increases for LAPD officers. Including a 13% increase for new police recruits and 5% increases for health care subsidies, the settlement will lead to starting annual salaries of $94,000 by 2027.
Viewed as a progressive African-American, Mayor Bass was heavily backed by organized labor in the last election. This story continues to evolve as negotiations proceed.
Several hundred nurses in SEIU 121 RN, launched a 10-day walkout against the Garfield Medical Center in L.A. suburb, Monterey Park.
Union leader, Rosanna Mendez said the 210-bed hospital was out of state compliance because of under staffing as many nurses have left for other health care facilities due to low pay. Nurses are overworked and patient care is jeopardized. Christina Smith, an RN who has been at the hospital for thirty years, said “When you’re doing the job of two or three people, it limits our ability to meet all the needs, because we’re spread out too thin.”
Health care and hospitalization in Los Angeles County have recently undergone huge consolidations. Major medical groups like the Keck Corporation, affiliated with the University of Southern California, have acquired numerous smaller facilities, in suburban Arcadia and Glendale. Cedars-Sinai, largely associated with the county’s west side, has now “partnered” with Huntington Hospital in Pasadena. Could Garfield Medical Center’s parent company, Alhambra Hospital Medical Center (AHMC) be ripe for an acquisition? Possibly. The political economy of health care may dictate a takeover. Meanwhile, the nurses are fighting for themselves and their patients’ well-being.
Strikes dynamically engage workers in militant activism, empowering them to overcome cynicism, passivity, and fear.
As the potential railroad workers strike was squelched by Democratic Party leadership and the potential Teamsters walkout against United Parcel Service failed to materialize, the Los Angeles job actions exemplify a sharp contrast and show a vibrant grass roots activism.
Strikes demonstrate the power of workers, and strikes can also expose the weakness or hypocrisy of elected politicians. Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass has not helped the L.A. city workers, the LAUSD workers, or the UNITE HERE hotel workers. In one striking example of hypocrisy, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Congressional Representative from New York, picketed on behalf of the writers and actors strikes, but most significantly opposed the railroad workers, last November, in their attempt to get a better contract, including paid sick leave.
Will the great wave of strikes across Los Angeles lead to a general strike that shuts down the city. Probably not. Or, shall we say, not this time? The inspiring labor activism now needs to develop and grow, there needs to be increased solidarity across unions, and there needs to be an enhanced class consciousness that wages war on the enemy of all workers–capitalism itself.
-Roger Marheine is a retired English professor and the past president of the Pasadena City College Faculty Association, the faculty union, which represents 1500 teachers, librarians, and counselors.