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Striking City Workers Add to Labor Strife in Los Angeles

Following labor unrest with writers, actors and hotel workers, a one-day strike by city workers in Los Angeles was aimed at getting stalled negotiations going again. It also reflected a desire for respect.

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Striking union members gather outside Los Angeles City Hall.
(All photos by Carl Smith/Governing)
In Brief:
  • An estimated 11,000 public service workers in Los Angeles, members of SEIU Local 721, walked off the job on Aug. 8.
  • The walkout was prompted in protest to the decision by city negotiators to put off hundreds of issues raised by the union until the next round of contract negotiations.
  • Concerns expressed by these workers, such as insufficient pay and lack of acknowledgement of their service from city leaders, exist among public-sector employees across the country. They are at odds with efforts to build this workforce back to pre-pandemic levels.

  • Hundreds of public service workers gathered at Los Angeles City Hall on Tuesday for the second major protest of a one-day strike by members of SEIU Local 721. The labor action had begun at 4:00 a.m. with a picket line at the LAX Tom Bradley International Terminal. A reported 11,000 union members took part in the day’s walkouts and picket lines.

    The crowd at City Hall was friendly, but energized, joining in call-and-response chants that included phrases such as “shut it down” and “burn it down” to describe what might come if good-faith negotiations were not forthcoming.

    Local 721 of the Service Employees International Union (SEUI), the biggest public-sector union in Southern California, would be capable of shutting essential governmental functions down. Its 95,000 members include persons who work in sanitation, parks services, hospitals, foster care, law enforcement, libraries and beach maintenance. (The city fire service is covered by a separate union, the United Firefighters of Los Angeles, IAFF Local 112.)

    “Today boils down to two things,” said David Green, the president of 721. “It's about dignity and respect for all of our workers.”

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    Local 721's president, David Green, addresses the crowd: "We've been slapped in the face with a lack of dignity and respect."
    (Carl Smith, Governing)
    Green emphasized that the strike was not against Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, who he described as “always there” for working people. Instead, he said, it was a response to “knuckleheads in that building right there” (city hall) who had walked away from the bargaining table, leaving hundreds of union concerns unaddressed until the next round of contract negotiations.

    “This is what happens when you disrespect public-sector employees,” he said of the walkout.

    “The weatherman said that it was cooling off today, but he forgot that this is a hot labor summer,” Yvonne Wheeler, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (LA Fed), told the gathering.
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    Yvonne Wheeler, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor: "You were essential then, you're essential now and you'll forever be essential."
    (Carl Smith, Governing)
    Wheeler leads an affiliation of more than 300 union and labor organizations with more than 800,000 members. “You are joining over 100,000 workers here in Los Angeles who are currently out on strike,” said Wheeler, including writers, actors and hospitality workers.

    The office of the city’s chief administrator has “forgotten about” the essential roles that city workers play, Wheeler continued. “You were essential then, you’re essential now and you’ll be essential forever.”

    Up Against the Wall

    In a statement issued the day before the walkout, and another issued on Aug. 8, Mayor Bass expressed support for the workers. “They deserve fair contracts and we have been bargaining in good faith with SEIU 721 since January. The city will always be available to make progress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

    Good intentions count, but public service workers in Los Angeles are up against the challenges of daily survival in the second most expensive city in the U.S. They’re not the only government workers living with economic pressures.

    Fewer than three in 10 public-sector employees responding to the most recent national survey by MissionSquare Research Institute said that they felt “very” or “extremely” financially secure. More than a third said it was difficult for them to pay their bills on time and in full. Seventy-seven percent said their debt level interfered with their ability to save for retirement.

    Increased workloads add to these pressures. Only 23 percent of survey respondents said that workforce departures had no effect on their workload and more than a third stated that the added strain was “significant.”

    Darryl Mims was among those at Los Angeles City Hall on Tuesday. He works in the sanitation department, in the unit responsible for cleanup inside and around the city’s homeless encampments.

    It’s not just a shortage of sanitation workers, he says. “We need to have more police presence when we’re out there — we have crews that work at night, and they need to know that there’s some security in being out there.” No one wants to be kicked out of their home, he says, and there have been incidents where workers have been threatened with guns.

    “It’s not a complicated job, but sometimes it can be quite dangerous,” says Mims. He’d like to see more eyes and ears on the workers, more personal protective equipment and more caring and awareness around the work he and his co-workers are doing.
    Public pools bring relief to Los Angeleans during days of extreme heat. Lifeguard Grace Kehr would like to make enough money to live in her city.
    (Carl Smith, Governing)

    Staffing the Front Lines

    The Saturday before the walkout, a “Staff the Front Lines” bus tour by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) made a stop in Los Angeles. It was the first stop in a Western swing devoted to highlighting the need to fill open public service jobs.

    “If our residents want a better running city, if they want the streets to be clean, if they want their libraries open, they’re only going to get it done if our workforce is compensated, has good benefits and we are doing the business we need to take care of,” said California Assemblymember Miguel Santiago at a press conference for the event.

    Grace Kehr is a lifeguard for the city. Public swimming pools are a more significant public health resource than ever as extreme heat events become more frequent.

    She’d like to see the city recognize and respect her as a front-line worker, especially considering the current shortage of lifeguards. “We’re saving lives, making sure people stay safe,” she says. “As L.A. city workers, they need to be paying us L.A. city wages.”

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    Sanitation workers Darryl Mims (left) and Eric Crayton share concerns about safe working conditions.
    (Carl Smith, Governing)
    Sanitation worker Eric Crayton sees his job in the same way. He and his colleagues stayed on the job during the pandemic, putting themselves and their families at risk. The department is currently understaffed, leading to forced overtime.

    Crayton wants the walkout to bring the city back to the bargaining table to address issues it has set aside. “We’re hoping that the City Council and the mayor will let the CAO’s office know that they shouldn’t treat their employees this way,” he says. “We should be treated with respect and dealt with fairly.”

    Not Just a Union Matter

    “L.A. is a union town,” said LA Fed’s Wheeler at the rally. Public-sector workers are five times more likely to be union members than those in the private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even so, the membership rate is just 33 percent of the overall public-sector workforce.

    There may be unique dynamics when unions are involved, but there are good reasons for jurisdictions without a union presence to pay attention to the worker concerns that surfaced during the walkout. Public-sector employment still remains below pre-pandemic levels.

    One advantage that government employers have over private companies is that they offer workers the chance to make positive contributions to their communities. But when workers don’t feel respected and valued by their government employers, it can increase job dissatisfaction. That, in turn, can impact the ability of cities to hire workers and fill the backlog of unfilled positions.
    Picket signs outside Los Angeles City Hall, where public service workers gathered on August 8 to protest stalled contract negotiations.
    (Carl Smith, Governing)
    Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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