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From the Dec. 15 UTLA march in downtown L.A.EXPAND
From the Dec. 15 UTLA march in downtown L.A.
Shana Nys Dambrot

Labor's California Renaissance

Believe the headlines — unions are in a period of deep decline, squeezed by government and corporate leaders actively hostile to collective bargaining and intent on rolling back what have long been considered intractable protections for the basic rights of working people. Proportionate to the overall workforce, union membership is plumbing the depths; only about 6 percent of private-sector workers are unionized, and public-sector unions (around 30 percent) are under constant assault. Rates in California are not much better..

But labor also is experiencing a kind of renaissance, not least in California, where public-sector unions have a strong hand in shaping the political landscape — and where a recent upsurge of vivacious private-sector organizing lends a certain promise to the otherwise dismal outlook.

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Last weekend, tens of thousands turned out for a United Teachers Los Angeles march, flashing a healthy vein of community support in advance of a potential strike looming over the new year. (The teachers union has announced a Jan. 10 strike date unless progress is made in negotiations with LAUSD, which have been ongoing for 20 months now.) Meanwhile, Southland hotel workers are poised to strike if contract negotiations falter. And mental health workers at Kaiser Permanente recently ended a five-day, statewide strike.

Kent Wong, director of UCLA's Labor Center, described these actions as part of a dynamic resurgence that has both improved the lives of workers and resulted in a more progressive political environment.

“I think the labor movement here in California is quite robust. I do think there’s still tremendous concern with economic inequality, poverty, low-wage jobs," Wong said. "But we have seen the significant role that a resurgent labor movement has meant in terms of launching major campaigns to defend the rights of teachers, hotel workers, janitors, university and home-care workers.”

Those actions also form part of a bigger wave — including in red states, he said. “With both hotel workers and teachers, it is part of a broader national trend. There have been a number of strikes across the country and overall success in securing better contracts.”

Members of Unite Here Local 11, which represents 30,000 hospitality workers throughout Los Angeles, Orange County and Phoenix, voted Dec. 6 to authorize a strike at two dozen Southland hotels after attempts stalled to negotiate a new contract. (They are asking, among other things, for a raise to $25 per hour minimum for non-tipped employees by 2022.)

Earlier this month, Unite Here members in San Francisco concluded a 2,500-worker strike against Marriott. It was the eighth city in what was billed as the largest coordinated hotel industry strike in history (another nine Marriott hotels are still in negotiations in Southern California).

Andrew Cohen, a UH Local 11 representative, pointed to L.A.’s consistently sanguine tourist industry — at a time when rent and living costs continue their vertiginous climb. “Our goal is twofold: One, to push living standards up for hospitality workers in membership, and the other in the whole industry — so that includes doing a lot of non-union organizing. It’s our plan to move … the whole industry up to $25 per hour.”

Labor leaders tend to describe their work with a certain measure of obligatory, ideological conviction, and L.A. unions have weathered the economic upheavals of the last decade. But the mood — energized, determined, effervescent — feels fresh, as if preceded by a restorative sleep. Against the dangers and humiliations of a Trump presidency, couching things like education, health care and worker safety in the language of human rights, while always appropriate, seems increasingly and more broadly resonant.

Cohen said it’s been a long time coming; things just feel more urgent under Trump.

“I think there’s been a number of things precipitous of what feels like this moment where organizing is exploding across the country — and it’s not just us,” he said. “I think Trump has been a factor in the same way Occupy Wall Street was, in the same way climate was a factor. We’re feeling the urgency and that results in us being more ambitious in how we organize and more aggressive in how we look to pushing the standards up.”

UH Local 11 shop steward Arturo Hueso, 46, has been a houseman at the Fairmont Miramar for 25 years, during which time he’s seen increasingly progressive gains for workers. He describes this contract negotiation as the most dramatic.

“We’re not afraid; we know we’re fighting a just fight. We’re asking something they can give. They have the money, they just don’t want to share it with working people,” Hueso said in a phone interview, pointing to obscene profits in the hotel industry that never seem to trickle down.

“We’re very sure that what we’re asking we deserve, and much more than that.” He cites a good salary that rises with the cost of living, an affordable insurance plan — and, “more than anything, the pension: We’re asking for a $3 (contribution), so when we retire they give us $1,000 a month. For those retiring now, they’re just giving them $300.”

Sonia Jungers, 49, a housekeeping manager at the Westin Bonaventure who started as a housekeeper there 15 years ago, described sitting in on recent negotiations.

“We had the contract and didn’t want to change it; we thought we deserve what we’re asking for, and the (hotel’s) lawyer said something that sounded like ridicule, sarcastic — he said, “You don’t think $25 an hour is a lot of money?’ We were observing and couldn’t say anything … but I would’ve liked to ask the lawyer, ‘What do you make in an hour?’ Because if you’re going to work just for the cost of living … when do you live?’”

Marriott (which owns Westin), Fairmont and Hilton did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

Jungers said she’s dedicated to her work at the hotel — “I love my job. I love what I do. And honestly I’m prepared to strike, but I wouldn’t want to. I don’t think anyone wants to. But we’re all prepared, and the company is obliging us to take those steps.”

Maria Isabel Garcia, 50, only joined Unite Here Local 11 six months ago, when she started working as a housekeeper at the Hilton Anaheim. (Like Jungers, she is a member of her union’s organizing committee at the hotel where she works.) Before that, she’d been a nurse’s assistant but never a union member. At Hilton, she started at $12 an hour, which increased to $14 after a few months.

“As a single mother it’s not enough, since Orange County is very expensive. I have a son in high school. I want to get him through college. I’ve talked to a lot of workers and they want to get their kids through college,” Garcia said, adding that she recently spent a 10-hour day supporting demonstrations in her area.

“I think it’s a fair thing they’re asking. The workers here are very hardworking. Some put a lifetime into the company — 10, 20, more than 30 years,” she said. “They’re asking for a fair working rate, better working conditions, better help to get health care and a retirement plan.”

Though not the biggest, Unite Here Local 11 (previously run by Maria Elena Durazo, former L.A. Federation of Labor chair and a newly elected state senator) is ambitious. Cohen notes the union has doubled in size since 2001; since then, he contends, overall industry standards have risen dramatically.

“This is one of the most dynamic unions in the country,” Wong said of Unite Here. “This is a very strong, very immigrant worker–led union that has done remarkable work in organizing at a time when private-sector organizing has been very difficult.”

Part of that dynamism is demographic. While some of the region’s most powerful unions are still in male-dominated industries (e.g., construction), most of the unions at the forefront of this resurgence — hotel, home care, teachers and university workers — are predominantly female, immigrant and people of color.

“The single largest victory was right here in L.A., within the home-care industry. Now more than 300,000 home-care workers are represented by a union,” Wong said of SEIU Local 2015, the state’s largest union. “The vast majority are women and people of color. And all are low-wage workers. … [This] has made a huge change in the culture of the labor movement.”

All of this, as well as the increasing presence of women in national leadership roles, he said, “is clearly a rising trend within the labor movement.”

Elizabeth White, a licensed clinical social worker at Kaiser Permanente and a chapter vice president with the National Union of Healthcare Workers (which ended a five-day strike on Friday but has yet to reach an agreement with Kaiser), said she became active in her union because of its progressive approach to issues she cared about as a psychologist and social worker.

“Mental health justice, universal health care, immigrant rights, [women’s rights]. … People like myself, trained social workers, we want to move social justice issues at the macro level,” White said.

“In my opinion, women have been standing up for their rights for a long time. But with the structure of a union, you finally have the apparatus or the protection of the law, and you have an understanding how to communicate to your co-workers — why we have to have solidarity, why we depend on each other to speak up, and get the community involved, other unions, the patients,” she said.

White characterizes NUHW — which is demanding an increase in provider-to-patient ratios to address long wait times — as a progressive proponent of social movement unionism, and acknowledges not all unions will follow suit. But she sees this as a critical juncture.

“Workers in the hotel industry, the teachers, the students they teach — these are all my patients. So these struggles are so interconnected in my mind,” she said.

Gloria Martinez, an 18-year LAUSD veteran and UTLA chapter chair for the past 12 years, acknowledged that within her union’s membership, there are more and less progressive voices, and some dissent when it comes to taking up social justice issues such as immigration. But as the potential strike nears and the magnitude of what’s at stake becomes clear, she said, those divisions tend to fade.

“We are taking on multibillionaire privatizers who have privatized jails, our medical system. Both of those systems have fractured black and brown communities — and that was done on purpose. We need to make sure that public education remains open for all in L.A.,” Martinez said.

In addition to asking for fair wages (“We don’t get regular cost-of-living increases”), she stressed that the fight is about fundamentals of quality education: a nurse at every school site, open libraries, accountability for co-located schools and smaller class sizes. (The battle is contentious; both sides accuse the other of failing to negotiate in good faith, and a recent fact-finding panel failed to bring them closer to an agreement. LAUSD cited financial limitations.)

“Why is that significant? We see the necessities in our community, we deal with them daily. We know the children who go hungry. We see the inequity. We know it’s being created on purpose,” Martinez said. “What’s happening is schools are being defunded and a push to segregate schools between communities that have and have not. So we’re fighting to not only make it past this wave of privatization but actually strengthen our schools so we fight off the privatization once and for all.”

Martinez said UTLA has learned from other states’ growing pains and describes this moment as the accumulation of collaborative work. “A lot of eyes are on us right now.”

While the issues Martinez highlighted are the focus of the L.A. campaign, Wong said, “It very much speaks to national trends with regard to defunding of public education and overall decline in teacher salaries. So I think what we see here is a dynamic resurgence of labor activism.”

In turn, he said, such public-sector unions, which for the first time in history outnumber private-sector unions, are playing an increasing role in California’s progressive politics.

“The presence and the activism within labor has absolutely helped secure much more political power for workers. It’s no accident that you have a super majority for Democrats in both the state Senate and the state Assembly. … Now the Republican party in California is increasingly becoming irrelevant. So that is in direct relation to rise of labor activism,” he said, noting California’s relatively recent transition from purple to bright blue.

With heightened awareness of inequality (it’s getting rather hard to ignore), an understanding of interconnected imperatives and the political weight to advance them, California seems like a good place to ride out the potential of a more progressive unionism, toward a radically different model than the one we’ve inherited from the latter half of the 20th century.

Progress across the country may seem sporadic, but labor leaders like Martinez are working with affiliates in other states (Arizona, Louisiana, West Virginia) as they activate their own communities. Unions in politically diverse terrain are showing collective vital signs, and the promise of something more than occasional isolated victories.

Beyond the current contract negotiation, Cohen looks toward the many non-union hotels where he’d like to see change — as well as those not yet in existence.

“Workers are organizing across the city. … There are so many new hotels being built and these companies are hoping to get large tax subsidies from cities and in return hand out poverty-wage jobs to employees.”

In the meantime, Hueso contemplates the 5 percent rent increase he’ll be paying next year, and Jungers points to the inevitability of spending one paycheck entirely on rent.

“I imagine all families have the right to send their kids to school. Many families are not able to because they can’t save,” she said. “Don’t we deserve that?”

Hueso said employee morale is high. “We’re ready when the call comes.”

Update: As of press time, the union has reported reaching an agreement with nine of the 24 hotels at which membership voted to authorize a strike  including the Beverly Hilton, Sheraton Grand, W Hollywood and JW Marriott L.A. Live.