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LA workers feel emboldened as union pressure from California employers

    In the two months since going on strike, screenwriters have become a fixture outside Southern California studios, holding signs in the air as traffic races by. In many parts of America, their vigil would be a lonely vigil.

    Not in Los Angeles.

    In the colossal ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, operations ground to a halt for weeks until the West Coast longshoremen reached a tentative contract in mid-June. Schools across the city closed for three days this spring as bus drivers, cafeteria workers and teachers walked out.

    Now the union representing some 15,000 hotel workers in Los Angeles is threatening to strike this July 4 weekend just as the summer tourism season gets under way. And more than 160,000 actors are on the brink of halting Hollywood productions if they can’t reach a new contract deal later this month.

    Unions are nationally contested, but in California they are having a moment.

    “We call it the ‘hot labor summer,'” said Lorena Gonzalez, the chief executive officer of the California Labor Federation, which represents more than 2.1 million union members statewide. “We have sparks and fires everywhere and we will not let it die in California. We fan the flames.”

    California has long been a labor stronghold, with Democrats in control of the state government and most major 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 feel increasing pressure from inflation, housing shortages and technology disruptions.

    California’s unemployment rate remains below 5 percent, so workers know they have influence. And numerous contracts are set to expire this year, forcing California employers to negotiate with unions as they see picket lines springing up in Los Angeles on a daily basis. About half of the major work stoppages in 2023 have occurred in the state.

    A major contract for the hotel staff expired on Friday, with the actors’ union saying it would extend its expiring contract until July 12 to buy more time to continue negotiations.

    However, hotel employees could leave as early as this weekend. Hotel operators may be able to muddle through a brief strike, but a longer strike could deter tourists from visiting Los Angeles in the busy summer months, erode the convention business that has recovered since the pandemic began, Kevin Klowden said , global chief strategist at the Milken Institute, an economic think tank based in Santa Monica, California.

    Simultaneous strikes by hotel workers, screenwriters and actors would be first through the Los Angeles businesses that rely on the region’s signature tourism and Hollywood industries. And they could have a wider effect than Los Angeles; during the 2007 screenwriters’ strike, the California economy lost an estimated $2.1 billion.

    The Hotel Association of Los Angeles said in a statement it had negotiated in good faith and would continue to serve tourists during a strike. Keith Grossman, a spokesperson for the coordinated bargaining group made up of more than 40 hotels in Los Angeles and Orange County, said in a statement it had offered to raise wages for housekeepers who currently earn $25 an hour in Beverly Hills and downtown Los Angeles. Angeles to over $31 an hour by January 2027.

    “If there is a strike, it will happen because the union is committed to having one,” Mr Grossman said. “The hotels want to continue to offer strong wages, affordable family health care and a pension.”

    A recurring theme this year among striking workers is the unbearable cost of living in Southern California. School employees said in March they had to do two or three gigs to pay their bills. Screenwriters have repeated that lament. A University of Southern California survey recently found that 60 percent of local renters said they had “rent burden” and spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

    “How can someone continue to live here?” asked Lucero Ramirez, 37, who has been working as a housekeeper at the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills since 2018.

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

    The union has called for the hourly wage, now $20 to $25 for housekeepers, to be raised immediately 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 wage 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 for the past ten years in a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood, where she pays $1,100 a month. The hot water often goes out and the floor in her unit is cracked and rotting, she said.

    “The landlord wants me to leave so they can raise the rent,” she said. “They want me out, but I can’t afford to go anywhere else, I’d have to leave town.”

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

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

    Tens of thousands of unionized teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other employees of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest district in the country, have won big pay raises this year following their high-profile strike in March.

    Smaller labor actions have also increased, including strippers organizing at a North Hollywood club in May, and Amazon drivers running away from a Palmdale, California, warehouse in June. The Los Angeles Dodgers have averted a strike by ushers, gardeners and other workers in significant gains.

    Across the country, union membership as a percentage of the workforce has fallen to a record low of 10.1 percent of wage earners. In California, however, this membership rose to 16.1 percent of wage earners last year, compared to 15.9 percent in 2021.

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

    Nancy Hoffman Vanyek, the chief executive of the Greater San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce, which represents about 400 businesses from sole proprietors to Hollywood studios, said employees 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 should always bear the brunt of solving these problems, if we don’t look at the root cause,” she said. What is causing the high cost of living in our state? What causes the high housing costs?

    Workers at the national level are trying to make a profit in a labor market that has remained tight, while employers brace for a possible recession. Railroad workers were on the verge of a strike last year, while workers at manufacturing companies such as John Deere and Kellogg went on strike in late 2021.

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

    “It’s remarkable the extent to which they get 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 store clerk who’s told to come in from 3 to 7 p.m. the other day and the screenwriter who’s suddenly offered seven episodes to write and then goodbye.”