L.A. Workers Are Feeling Emboldened as Unions Pressure Employers in California

In the two months since they went on strike, screenwriters have become a fixture outside studios in Southern California, signs aloft as the traffic roars past. In many parts of America, theirs would be a lonely vigil.

Not in Los Angeles.

At the behemoth ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, operations were disrupted for weeks until West Coast dockworkers reached a tentative contract deal in mid-June. Across the city, schools shut down for three days this spring when bus drivers, cafeteria workers and teachers walked out.

On Sunday, thousands of hotel workers in Los Angeles went on strike demanding higher pay and better benefits, just as hordes of tourists descended on the region for the Fourth of July holiday. And more than 160,000 actors are poised to shut down Hollywood productions if they cannot reach a new contract deal later this month.

Unions have been embattled nationally, but in California they are having a moment.

“We’re calling it the ‘hot labor summer,’” said Lorena Gonzalez, the chief officer of the California Labor Federation, which represents more than 2.1 million union members statewide. “We have sparks and fires everywhere, and we’re not letting it die down in California. We’re fanning the flames.”

California has long been a labor stronghold, with Democrats in control of state government and most large cities. Despite a string of labor wins in recent years — including a minimum wage of $15.50 an hour, more than double the federal rate — workers say they are feeling ever more pressure from inflation, housing shortages and technological disruptions.

The unemployment rate remains below 5 percent in California, so workers know they have leverage. And numerous contracts are expiring this year, forcing California employers to negotiate with unions as they watch picket lines form daily in Los Angeles. Roughly half of the large work stoppages in 2023 have taken place in the state.

The actors’ union said that it would extend its expiring contract through July 12, buying more time to continue negotiations.

Operators of hotels might be able to muddle through a short-term walkout, but a longer one could deter tourists from visiting Los Angeles in the busy summer months, and erode the convention business that has rebounded since the beginning of the pandemic, said Kevin Klowden, chief global strategist with the Milken Institute, an economic think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif.

Simultaneous strikes of hotel workers, screenwriters and actors would ripple first through Los Angeles businesses that rely on the region’s signature tourism and Hollywood industries. And they could have a broader effect beyond Los Angeles; during the 2007 screenwriters strike, the California economy lost $2.1 billion, according to one estimate.

The Hotel Association of Los Angeles said in a statement that hotels had bargained in good faith and would continue to serve tourists during the walkout. Keith Grossman, a spokesman for the coordinated bargaining group consisting of more than 40 Los Angeles and Orange County hotels, said in a statement that it had offered to increase pay for housekeepers currently making $25 an hour in Beverly Hills and downtown Los Angeles to more than $31 per hour by January 2027.

A recurring theme this year among striking workers has been the unbearable cost of living in Southern California. School employees said in March that they had to take two or three side gigs to afford their bills. Screenwriters have echoed that lament. A University of Southern California survey recently found that 60 percent of local tenants said they were “rent-burdened,” spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

“How can anyone keep living here?” asked Lucero Ramirez, 37, who has worked as a housekeeper at the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills since 2018.

On Thursday, Ms. Ramirez gathered inside an office space near downtown Los Angeles with dozens of other hotel workers represented by Unite Here Local 11 to decorate poster boards and staple together fliers ahead of a planned strike. Earlier that day, the Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites announced that it had staved off a walkout with a contract deal.

The union has asked that the hourly wage, now $20 to $25 for housekeepers, immediately increase by $5, followed by $3 bumps in each subsequent year of a three-year contract. Hotel workers — and their employers — are well aware that this deal will set pay levels ahead of the 2026 World Cup and 2028 Olympics, when tourists will flood the region.

Ms. Ramirez, who earns $25 an hour, has lived in a rent-controlled, one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood for the past decade, where she pays $1,100 a month. The hot water often goes out, and the flooring in her unit is cracked and decaying, she said.

“The landlord wants me to leave so they can boost the rent,” she said. “They want me out, but I cannot afford to go anywhere else, I would have to leave the city.”

Labor power is a function of the electorate in California, where Democrats have nearly a 2-to-1 edge over Republicans, supermajority control of the state Legislature, a lock on state offices — and owe a debt to unions, whose members routinely knock on doors and contribute money to liberal candidates.

Next year, voters in California will consider an initiative that would raise the minimum wage to $18 an hour. In Los Angeles, members of the City Council are weighing a plan that would raise the minimum wage for tourism workers to $25 an hour. Maria Elena Durazo, a Democratic state senator and former head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, is carrying legislation that would give all health care workers a $25 minimum hourly wage.

Tens of thousands of unionized teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other employees at the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest district, won major raises this year after their high-profile walkout in March.

Smaller labor actions have proliferated as well, including strippers organizing in May at a North Hollywood club, and Amazon drivers walking out in June at a warehouse in Palmdale, Calif. The Los Angeles Dodgers averted a strike by giving ushers, groundskeepers and other workers significant raises.

Across the country, union membership as a percentage of the labor force has dropped to a record low of 10.1 percent of employed wage and salary workers. In California, however, such membership rose last year to 16.1 percent of wage and salary workers, compared with 15.9 percent in 2021.

“This is a tug of war between inflation and wages,” said Sung Won Sohn, a finance and economics professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “Inflation has been winning and workers are trying to catch up with inflation that’s been persistent.”

Nancy Hoffman Vanyek, the chief executive of the Greater San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce, which represents about 400 businesses from one-person operations to Hollywood studios, said that workers should be able to afford to live in Los Angeles. But she said simply forcing employers to pay more was a Band-Aid for a much deeper problem in California.

“It’s business that always has to bear the brunt of fixing these issues, when we’re not looking at what’s causing them,” she said. “What’s causing the high cost of living in our state? What’s causing the high cost of housing?”

Workers nationally are trying to lock in gains from a job market that has remained tight, as employers brace for a possible recession. Rail workers were on the brink of a strike last year, while employees at manufacturing companies like John Deere and Kellogg went on strike in late 2021.

In California, the activism has been further driven by white-collar workers, whose jobs have been threatened by the rise of artificial intelligence and the gig economy.

“It’s remarkable, the degree to which they are getting support from other unions,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “There’s a new sense of commonality between the retail clerk who is being told to come in every other day from 3 to 7 p.m. and the screenwriter who is suddenly being offered seven episodes to write and then, goodbye.”

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