Los Angeles: From anti-union town to Strike Central

In July 2023, UNITE-HERE Local 11 hotel workers picket in downtown Los Angeles. PHOTO: Val Carlson / FS
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Los Angeles used to be an anti-union town, with the downtown press egging on a police department with anti-red squads looking for unionists, strikers, and frequently, immigrants. But that was then.

This year, LA has become the epicenter of surging labor militancy, cross-union solidarity, and powerful community support. Diverse and usually-disconnected workers are united in fighting for their future. Most of the film, radio, and TV industry is shut down. Hotel workers have joined in to demand tolerable workloads and wages that allow them to live in the area.

One August day outside the Sheraton Gateway in Los Angeles, mariachi trumpets and chanting confronted hotel guests. The best word to describe the scene — the picket line encircling a group of dancers; the mass of UNITE-HERE Local 11 red T-shirts; cooking pots clanging in concert with the music; the confidence reverberating in every “Si, se puede!” — is joyful.

Fifteen thousand hotel workers now strike in a wave of disputes across LA that began with major actions at UCLA last winter. Then, the walkout of 11,000 Writers Guild (WGA) writers sparked strikes by 160,000 SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Actors) entertainers, and 10,000 city workers in SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Locals 99 and 721. The organizing efforts of Marvel VFX artists and protests against poverty wages by Universal Hollywood employees followed.

Challenge to corporate greed. “We live in a city that is very expensive,” Karen, a Sheraton striker, explains, “We have to have two jobs to support our families.” Academics, writers, performers, and workers from various sectors all face rising rents, record inflation, and the end of Covid-era rental assistance. “We are asking for better wages, respect, better insurance, and benefits,” says Mirna, another striker. Women, in particular, grapple with such added challenges as childcare and family leave.

Employers squeeze their employees dry by slashing long-established standards. Streaming is used to undermine residual payments to writers and performers. Hotels keep skeleton Covid-era staffing, regardless of the workload doubled by heightened occupancy.

The LA strikes spotlight robust labor and community solidarity. Slogans like “Union Baristas Stand with WGA & SAG-AFTRA” adorn picket lines. The Teamsters, then on the brink of a nationwide UPS walkout, refused to cross picket lines and pledged $2 million in June to support WGA strikers. Karen and Mirna described the morale boost to their picket line when it was visited by WGA strikers the previous day. The community rallies behind broad demands that affect the entire working class. Hotel workers demand their employers contribute to affordable housing. Writers and actors protect humanity in art and entertainment. SAG striker Sara declares: “If we give in to AI [artificial intelligence], we’re giving in to the powers of evil for the rest of humanity.”

Solidarity is the strategy capable of elevating LA’s overworked and underpaid working class. When the community rallied against employer-tolerated assaults on striking HERE members, workers noted feeling closer together and stronger than ever. Striker Abel calls the bosses pollos — chickens. Their violence exposes their cowardly nature, and these “chickens” fly the coop when pitted against a well-organized and militant labor movement.

Movements built under adversity. Los Angeles wasn’t always a union town. However, LA’s current labor renaissance has historical precedent. Its large immigrant population plays a pivotal role. Immigrants often have more radical political experience, and an instinct for cooperation and connecting issues. In 1903, 500 Mexican workers went on strike against the Pacific Electric Railway, marking the first collaboration between white unionists and Mexican laborers in the region.

The 1965 Immigration Act ushered in a wave of Latin American and Southeast Asian immigrants to California, and reinvigorated the entire labor movement. The 1990s witnessed significant union victories. The Justice for Janitors strike in Century City, for example, propelled janitor union density from 10% to 90% in Los Angeles.

Labor’s strength continued to grow. Freedom Socialist Party comrades remember standing in solidarity with thousands of grocery workers during a heroic 5-month strike in 2003–2004. And this writer remains personally electrified by the 2019 walkouts of 30,000 LA teachers and the 2023 strike by 30,000 blue-collar school employees joined by the teachers.

The fight grows daily. Striking hotel workers have called for a boycott of all hotels with expired contracts, and urge organizations and individuals to cancel reservations. The writers forced bargaining to resume with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) after 102 days of walking the picket lines. However, AMPTP continues to refuse to negotiate with SAG-AFTRA as of mid-September. Still, the writers and actors remain united in declaring: “This is a fight we can’t afford not to win. So, we will!”

The same fervor that permeates LA is sweeping across the nation. This year, over 323,000 U.S. workers have taken up picket signs, including 2,300 University of Michigan graduate employees and 1,400 locomotive machinists in Pennsylvania. And the overwhelming willingness of 340,000 UPS workers to strike forced management back to the bargaining table (see “UPS contract approved”).

Workers are rising internationally, too. South Korea has a burgeoning entertainment industry. The Korean Directors Guild is fighting against companies like Netflix and Disney who regularly stiff these directors and screenwriters on residual payments.

The workers who run LA today have the power to reclaim our city. Striking is contagious, and this activity in LA has the potential to inspire an international movement. Workers worldwide are watching LA unionists, who have a lesson to teach about class solidarity and hopeful resistance.

¡Estamos en la lucha!

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