ACCORDING TO LIZ - It was on the news. People saw protesters if they had business at City Hall or experienced delays at the airport or noticed their garbage wasn’t picked up on Tuesday.
It was the first major walkout by City employees since 1980. You may say that these are non-essential positions but anyone who has lived through a garbage strike – in Paris or New York or Memphis – would beg to differ.
Thousands of city workers across Los Angeles – sanitation workers, traffic control officers, airport custodians, lifeguards, staff at animal shelters, port workers and more – took part in a 24-hour strike. A warning before a bargaining session scheduled for Monday to put the City on notice that its current indifference to what many of its employees are calling exploitation is not acceptable.
This is not only about wages – although that is a major factor in a city plagued by spiraling costs of living and escalating inflation. It’s about quality of life, mandatory overtime, physically-demanding jobs outside in the summer heat, and increasingly lengthy commutes due to forced relocation away from their jobs due ever-rising rents. It’s about respect.
Savage and uneven cuts taken to address pandemic income losses to Los Angeles continue to reverberate today.
Early retirement was incentivized, encouraging departures of more experienced managers, making recovery more difficult. Loss of staff and, more importantly, the choice by the City not to replace pivotal positions – in Personnel, IT, City Clerk – that allow for the smooth running of the City and expeditious hiring of employees when people retire, move away, are offered a better job or just quit in frustration.
And Los Angeles has continued to balance its budget by not filling these jobs.
The Bureau of Sanitation has been short-staffed for years even before the advent of Covid when the perennially strapped-for-cash City saw this as an opportunity to save a few shekels by not proactively filling open positions.
Of course, what the City sees as a piggy bank its residents see as essential services. Angelenos view of LA San is that their people are there to pick up garbage, a task they can’t adequately fulfill if they are short-staffed. So the City demands more and more of those who remain, setting up this quality of life confrontation.
And departments in Los Angeles have a history of budgeting for positions that are not filled so that the City can scoop the savings to cover unbudgeted items like the explosion of homelessness costs and raises to employees.
That’s right. At a time when salary increases are running five or six percent and more, the City did not bother to include even the traditional three percent in its fiscal year 2023-24 budget for the Service Employees International Union Local 721 members whose contract expires at the end of this year.
LA San has close to a thousand vacancies. Unfilled positions hobble many other City sectors, including the one processing job applications. It’s a sclerotic Civil Service system.
For years, Budget Advocates have heard General Managers from multiple departments complain that by the time the Personnel Department had processed took six months or more to respond to applicants, they had taken other jobs.
Who can live for six months waiting to hear about whether they qualify for one job among many? And this does a disservice to all those who have to pick up the slack.
Adequate staffing improves safety and morale, and benefits customers. Furthermore, proper staffing can reduce sick days and liability pay-outs – short-staffing can lead to exhaustion, burn-out and accidents.
The Mayor states that the City had been bargaining in good faith since January but the union sees the process as lackadaisical, out of touch and absent sufficient urgency.
“There’s no immediacy,” said David Green, Local 721’s president. “But if you’re our members, there’s immediacy — if you’re working mandatory overtime every weekend, if you haven’t seen your family.”
And it’s not only City employees marching in its streets this summer. Hotel workers have been picketing for better benefits and a living wage. The Writers Guild has been on strike since May; the Screen Actors Guild joined them last month.
Los Angeles is dependent on tourism and the entertainment industry for income. And knows it. The loss of visitors during the pandemic and the shutdown of TV production were used as primary justifications to slash City staffing.
On June 30, the City Council approved a resolution supporting the Writers Guild’s strike and urging the AMPTP “to come to the bargaining table and reach a fair deal with the workers.” Now that City Council is back in session, Fran Drescher will probably successfully demand similar support on behalf of the actors.
The view from the C-Suite – whether at City Hall or the corporate offices for hotels or the financial parents of television studios – can’t see through the clouds below to the day-to-day issues of the people living at street level, overworked and expected to take on more and more duties with less and less support.
Local 721 leaders called the strike on behalf of their workers to “let the city know ... they need to respect what we do as city employees.”
Respect for the men and women who direct our traffic, who clean our parks and pick up our garbage.
As well as respect for the hard work of the hotel staff that ensure visitors have clean room and linens for their stay.
And respect for the craft of the actors and writers who generate the entertainment we watch on TV and in theaters and streaming on our iPhones.
(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)