Thousands of L.A. city workers walk off job for 24 hours alleging unfair practices

Thousands of Los Angeles city employees, including sanitation workers, engineers and traffic officers, walked off the job for a 24-hour strike alleging unfair labor practices

ByAMANCAI BIRABEN Associated Press and CHRISTOPHER WEBER Associated Press
August 8, 2023, 4:03 AM
Workers picket outside of City Hall, Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, in Los Angeles. Thousands of Los Angeles city employees, including sanitation workers, lifeguards and traffic officers, walked off the job Tuesday for a 24-hour strike alleging unfair labor practices. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)
Workers picket outside of City Hall, Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, in Los Angeles. Thousands of Los Angeles city employees, including sanitation workers, lifeguards and traffic officers, walked off the job Tuesday for a 24-hour strike alleging unfair labor practices. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)
The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- Thousands of Los Angeles city employees including sanitation workers, lifeguards and traffic officers walked off the job Tuesday for a 24-hour strike demanding higher wages and alleging unfair labor practices.

Picket lines went up before dawn at Los Angeles International Airport and other locations, and a large rally was held later in the morning downtown at City Hall. SEIU Local 721 said mechanics, engineers and airport custodians are among the more than 11,000 LA city workers who are striking.

The union said its members voted to authorize the one-day walkout because the city has failed to bargain in good faith and engaged in labor practices that restricted employee and union rights.

“City workers are vital to the function of services for millions of Angelenos every day and to our local economy," Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass said in a statement. "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.”

Strikers said some employees earn so little they can't afford to live near their jobs, sometimes making 100-mile (160-kilometer) commutes.

“You can’t work for the city and live in LA,” said Marce Dethouars, 54, a sanitation worker who resides east of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley.

Destiny Webb, a college student who manages a city pool, said she and her fellow marchers downtown were calling for a 40% to 50% raise and more resources at LA facilities that are poorly staffed.

“A lot of us are students, and what we get paid does not help us at all,” said Webb, 21. “So with inflation and everything, it’s not working.”

A pay increase would give younger, part-time employees like her an incentive to stay with the city for a career after graduating, Webb said.

It’s the latest strike to overtake the nation’s second largest city in recent months. Hollywood writers have been striking since May, and actors joined them last month. Los Angeles hotel workers have staged staggered walkouts all summer, and earlier this year school staff walked picket lines. There was also a contract dispute at Southern California ports.

“The City of Los Angeles is not going to shut down,” Bass insisted. But her office said some services would be affected, including parking enforcement and traffic operations. This week’s trash pickup will be staggered by one day citywide until normal service resumes Monday, officials said.

Los Angeles International Airport officials urged travelers to allow for extra time for travel to and from LAX during the strike. Some shuttles were operating on a reduced schedule, but no major disruptions were reported.

“LAX is working diligently with our airport partners to ensure that our operations will continue as close to normal as possible and to mitigate the impacts of the work action to our guests,” airport spokesperson Dae Levine said in an email.

The union said it expects about 300 lifeguards working at dozens of city swimming pools would strike. The Department of Recreation and Parks said some pools were closed Tuesday.

Michael Mitchell, a 33-year-old port worker, said many workers were struggling with basic living costs and are simply seeking a fair wage.

“We just want to be able to survive and feed our families out here,” he said. “Everything is high — groceries, gas. In a minute we’re going to be drowning.”

About 300 Port of Los Angeles employees are union members, but it wasn't immediately known how many were striking. "The Port of Los Angeles respects the bargaining rights of all employees. On Tuesday, some Harbor Department employees are participating in a job action. Port terminals remain open and operational," port spokesperson Phillip Sanfield said in an email.

The union approved a one-year deal with the city in November 2022 with the understanding that they would return to the bargaining table in January, SEIU Local 721 Chief of Staff Gilda Valdez said. With the broader agreement in place for the next year, the city and the union would then negotiate over a number of “specials,” or smaller specific proposals, Valdez told The Associated Press.

But the city reneged on the promise to negotiate on those issues and “only gave us some small agreements that basically amount to peanuts,” Valdez said. The union filed an unfair labor practice claim with the City of Los Angeles Employee Relations Board over this issue, along with previous claims filed over several other issues.

“This strike is a very strong message: ‘Come to the table,' " Valdez said, noting that the union’s members had worked throughout the coronavirus pandemic to keep the city running.

Eddie Flores said he and his fellow sanitation workers “were up there on the front lines during Covid” and they were striking Tuesday to demand a fair pension and retirement plan.

Flores, 64, said city officials “didn't fulfill their end of the bargain.”

The union plans to return to negotiations with the city the week of Aug. 14 to resume talks, Valdez said.

Television writer Mike Royce walked the picket lines Tuesday, returning the favor for SEIU members who have supported striking members of the Writers Guild of America West.

“Maybe in the past, the idea of a Hollywood writer and a city employee wouldn’t seem to have much in common," said Royce, 59. “Right now we’re in a place where we’re not getting paid enough to make a living at the thing we do.”

In Northern California, two unions that represent nearly 4,500 San Jose city employees voted Monday to authorize a three-day strike for next week.