By October’s second weekend, it was clear to everyone in town that an end to labor strife was somewhere in the unseeable distance.
The MTA outage was in its fourth week. Daylong, rolling strikes closed King-Drew, the county‘s third busiest public hospital, and curtailed services at Harbor-UCLA, the number-two medical center. The increased confidence of county executive David Janssen at his Thursday and Friday media briefings symbolized the Board of Supervisors’ rising rectitude as they held fast to a 9 percent final wage-increase offer — less than 60 percent of the 15.5 percent demanded by Service Employees International Local 660. Janssen said this week‘s countywide walkout was ”not inevitable.“ But he threw a very hard pitch when he said there would be no negotiations until the rolling strikes stopped. He said that the county would agree to negotiate if SEIU canceled the general strike. The union responded that without a return to the table, the big strike was on.
As this is written, the impasse practically mandates the county’s first complete service-union walkout in its 150-year history. (Excuse my avoidance of the abused term ”general strike,“ which would only apply if L.A. County‘s deputies, firefighters, lawyers and doctors also hiked.) How did we get to this point, never reached even in the depths of the 1930s Depression? Isn’t this the California that‘s ”awash in prosperity,“ as one Associated Press reporter recently put it, that reinvented and innovated itself out of the decade-old crash of its defense economy?
But this new prosperity’s rising tide has left too many boats submerged: hogged under by ballooning costs of housing and transportation, low wages and puny raises. To too many, the effects of 21st-century prosperity are net negative. The result is a broadening class separation, carefully documented early last year by the Public Policy Institute of California, which found that the bottom 25 percent of California male workers now earn 40 percent less than they did 32 years ago.
Unsurprisingly, this report‘s become a union manifesto. The County Fed’s John Barton said its conclusions show ”the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us.“ By no coincidence, most SEIU Local 660–represented county employees fall into the bottom 25 percent income segment.
The other key factor was millennial coincidence: 45 percent of all the union contracts in Los Angeles County fall due this year. Which is why we‘re also coping with the MTA drivers and screen actors’ strikes, and may yet face school walkouts. We‘re in destiny’s unmarked intersection in which the wrecks are already beginning to pile up.
But the logistical problem is that by going after the county, the SEIU is nowhere near those dot.com deep pockets. Instead, it‘s assailing a weak governmental institution barely out of its own recent fiscal ordeal. Union leaders make much of the county’s new-won prosperity and its purported $109 million surplus. But there‘s no one on the current Board of Supervisors who wasn’t on that recent roller-coaster ride through near bankruptcy. And that surplus money — which is public money, not private-sector profits — is only half the additional funds that the county claims it would necessarily pay out annually if the SEIU gets the contract it‘s asking for. It’s also a piddling sum in the vast numerical contexts of county responsibility: 95,000 employees, 4,300 square miles, 3.7 million near-indigent people depending on county health services. Divided among every county resident, that $109 million would bring each around $10.
Put another way, though: If the county‘s too cheap to come up with an additional buck an hour — as has every other public authority in the state — to pay a Sacramento-mandated raise to its 70,000 literally impoverished home health-care workers, what can we expect it to do for Local 660? Yet the union has its own constituency in which $15 an hour plus 9 percent is no longer enough.
The wonderful new economy’s put a big squeeze on these public employees, and, as of this week, they are ready to squeeze back.
The Real Outsiders
On the further fringes of municipal employment are the thousands who work part time for both the city and the county. Next week, for the first time, a City Council committee will look at part-timer issues that, in some cases, run even deeper than salary.
Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg‘s Personnel Committee is beginning with part-timers who work for the Department of Recreation and Parks. ”We’re talking about the long-term, committed employees here,“ Goldberg said. ”Not the kids who work in the summer. We have to look at our policies — sick days, vacation days.“ And other, long-term benefits. Goldberg‘s effort is being shadowed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the part-timers who help with recreation, child care, exhibitions and many other jobs within the parks system. This happens also to be a category of employees who tend, more than most other city employees, to be in love with their jobs.
Honey Green, for instance, works at Jim Gilliam Park near her Baldwin Village home. She typifies the most stressed category of part-timers, because she has two other part-time jobs, one with a private school in Culver City and the other as a (low-paid, as noted above) county health-care provider. Which means that ”Since my car broke down during the MTA strike, I’ve had to take cabs to my other jobs“ at up to $15 a ride. Green loves her work, and like many others, began as a volunteer. She‘s also a single parent of a 13-year-old boy, who, because she works in a park, can meet her and keep himself busy until it is time for her to leave.
Green is a typical ”full-time“ part-time worker, working the equivalent of full time at several jobs, none of which has benefits. ”One of the most important things would be to have sick days,“ she said. ”Or vacation. I could spend more time with my son.“ She’d also like to be able to work a regular 20-hour week, but notes that often she can‘t, due to seemingly arbitrary rules and schedules. Many part-time employees say they fear they’ll be punished for taking unpaid sick days by being given fewer working days.
That 20-hour week is the most a part-timer can have under city rules, which allow just over 1,000 work hours per year. Of course, most voluntarily work longer hours. As Green notes, you can‘t walk away from an uncompleted task.
For some Rec and Parks workers, 20 hours a week can fill their life. Travel Town is Griffith Park’s slightly threadbare mechanical wonderland, full of fire trucks, locomotives, old cars and other real-life toys. Plus, on a typical weekend, working trains and screaming tots. As far as the work goes, John Coghlan, 59, couldn‘t be happier here. A slender, curatorial-looking man who once held a full-time, senior position at the El Pueblo monument downtown, he works a 20-hour schedule. The collection of aging artifacts seems his natural environment. ”I hammered that out of copper,“ he said, pointing to a vintage trunk’s restored, faux-rusty corner piece, which he‘s managed to make look like ancient iron. Coghlan restores and maintains the dozen or so old fire engines and ”maintains the 160 wooden spokes“ on all the old trucks, cars and wagons in his care. He also keeps close records of the exhibits, their condition and care. He seems to burn with curiosity and an endless desire to do things.
”No complaints about the pay,“ Coghlan said. ”But I miss my old medical benefits.“ He has to pay his own, to a private provider, for $2,700 per year. Coghlan’s in a skimpy, city retirement program, but he doesn‘t get Social Security. Like many other parks part-timers, doing what he loves is a key benefit. But he also wants a proportional share of the full-timer benefits. ”The question is,“ he asked, ”Do they want long-time employees in positions like mine?“
At 72, Eleanor Aguilar is impassioned by her work. ”Seniors need to be spoiled like children,“ she said. ”I do a lot of touching.“ At the Boyle Heights Senior Center near Evergreen Park, Aguilar’s clients are as old as 100. Like Honey Green, she would like a 20-hour workweek, but often gets only 12. (Like Green and Coghlan, she works many unpaid hours without complaint.) And of course, she wants sick-day eligibility.
”Just a few benefits would help us keep a stable, happier staff,“ she said. Would, in other words, help the little-noted people who help the people who use the city‘s museums, parks and senior centers do an even better job.