Labor tensions are simmering across the Southland. In Hollywood, the Writers Guild of America has entered its second month of striking, and Screen Actors Guild workers are poised to join them on the picket lines if they don’t hammer out a deal soon.
Meanwhile, workers in hotels, fast food restaurants, at the LA ports, Dodger Stadium, Medieval Times, UPS are all enmeshed in their own negotiations and strikes, and the list seems to grow longer every day. That’s prompting some experts to predict that it’s going to be a “hot labor summer” in Los Angeles and beyond.
“We have workers who are organizing, we have workers who are fighting for a better contract, we have workers who are fighting for a first contract,” says Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, executive officer of the California Labor Federation. “All of this means that they're taking to the streets, that they're getting out there. They're ensuring that their bosses know that they're gonna expect a little bit more and it's about time.”
Dolores Huerta, the 93-year-old civil rights icon and co-founder of United Farm Workers of America, tells KCRW that it’s one of the most difficult times she’s seen workers face in her life, both because the cost of living is skyrocketing amid stagnant wages, and because more companies are refusing to engage with workers’ demands.
“The employers refuse to bargain,” says Huerta. “They tie their labor unions up in court. And oftentimes, [the workers] don't even get what they struck for. So we know things are upside down, and the country is paying for it.”
This means that despite the wave of organizing that has happened at large companies like Starbucks, it can be challenging for new units to secure union contracts. Gonzalez Fletcher notes that unions need to push for large-scale changes to keep companies in check.
“This is why we need federal labor law reform,” she says. “We see companies like Starbucks, even Planned Parenthood, totally, totally ignoring the law … despite having rules here in California.”
In the meantime, Gonzalez Fletcher says that unions in California are showing “record solidarity” by supporting each other on strike. In March, the Los Angeles Teachers’ Union and SEIU hit the picket lines together for a multi-day strike that shut down schools, and unions like SAG-AFTRA and the Teamsters have been providing support to striking film and television writers.
Gonzalez Fletcher says this is because workers are recognizing that they all face common challenges.
“It used to be that we thought about it like, ‘Oh, the minimum wage workers are having a hard time,’” she says. “Well, that has grown and grown, where we have an insecure middle class, and yet we have the very rich and these mega million corporations who keep paying their CEOs and and their stockholders enormous amounts of money. There's tons of corporate profit. And yet none of that is getting to the average worker who's doing the work. And because of that, workers are aware of what's going on, and they're showing support for one another.”
When asked about small businesses that don’t have the highest paid CEOs and executive teams and where the income disparities are much smaller, Fletcher Gonzalez says, “Collective bargaining isn’t always about wages, it’s about giving workers voices on the job. … Sometimes it has to do with some reliability in scheduling, or it has to do with sick days or paid family leave.”
And to the companies that say they can’t afford to do business under these conditions, Dolores Huerta says, “If they can’t pay their workers, they should not be in business to begin with.”
Huerta, who has been fighting for workers rights since the 1950s, says in her eyes, the workers’ struggle still has a long way to go.
“I think we have a lot of work to do,” she says. “And we've got to elect representatives to our state legislators into our Congress that are going to support working people and that are going to support labor unions. And unless we do that, I don't think it's gonna get any better.”