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Why thousands of LA service workers are on strike

Airport employees, sanitation workers, and more have authorized their first strike in 40 years.

A protester at the front of a group holds a sign that reads, “Striking for respect.”
Los Angeles city workers walk off the job for a 24-hour strike in Los Angeles, California, on August 8, 2023. The walkout is the first major city worker strike in at least 15 years, and it means residents will face an array of service disruptions, from trash-pickup delays to swimming-pool closures.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

More than 11,000 service workers in Los Angeles are among the latest employees to go on strike this summer as people across industries as diverse as acting and nursing have demanded fair pay, better staffing, and more comprehensive benefits.

In the Los Angeles service worker strike — which includes sanitation workers, airport employees, traffic officers, and engineers — a core issue centers on hundreds of vacancies that have long gone unfilled. Union workers say they’ve had to shoulder added tasks due to those staffing shortages, and that has left people extremely overworked and forced to take on recurring overtime. These stressors have led Los Angeles city workers in the union to authorize the first strike they’ve staged in over 40 years.

The plan, according to the leadership of the SEIU Local 721 union, to which the city’s service workers belong, is to picket and rally in front of City Hall and at the Los Angeles International Airport for one day in a bid to “shut down” Los Angeles and compel the city to address their concerns. Service workers are integral to the city’s daily functions including everything from shuttle buses to trash pickup to airport operations, and disruptions are expected in all of these areas.

“The message we’re sending is that our workers are just fed up. They’ve reached a breaking point. And we need these folks in the city to come back to the table for the good of the city,” David Green, SEIU Local 721 executive director and president, told the Washington Post.

The union is calling the city out specifically for unfair labor practices and is accusing LA leaders of failing to bargain in good faith. The union says the city hasn’t properly negotiated on a number of issues after saying it would do so following a one-year agreement that was made between the two parties in 2022.

The city, meanwhile, claimed in a statement to the New York Times that it has been engaged in bargaining since January. “The city will always be available to make progress 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass told the Times.

The union and the city are poised to sit down again for talks next week.

The Los Angeles service workers’ strike adds to a wave of strikes that have taken place this summer amid a labor movement resurgence fueled by higher living costs, a tighter labor market, and inequities made clearer by the pandemic. In LA alone, there is an ongoing strike of both the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America as their members push for better compensation and fairer residual payments. Additionally, hotel union members of Unite Here Local 11 have been striking in Los Angeles intermittently throughout the summer to call for higher wages and improved benefits.

Why this has been a summer of strikes

The Los Angeles service workers’ strike is part of an uptick in such actions in the last two years. As Vox’s Rani Molla reported, 2022 and 2023 have seen an especially high number of work stoppages compared to prior years, and they’ve seen both strikes and increased organizing taking place across a broad spectrum of industries.

“All these different struggles, all happening at the same time, in all these different industries, involving all these different groups of workers, all making these connections between their struggles,” Barry Eidlin, an associate professor of sociology at McGill University, told Molla. “You’re seeing that in a way that I have not seen in my lifetime.”

There are multiple reasons we’re witnessing this surge in strikes and a bolstering of the labor movement, Molla explains. For one, inflation has led to increases in living costs that have not been met with commensurate increases in wages. And even as corporations have seen strong profits during the pandemic, much of that hasn’t been shared with workers on the front lines who are doing the bulk of the labor. The inequities of this dynamic have been further exacerbated by the fact that many front-line workers were publicly praised and hailed for the personal risks they took during the pandemic, but then not properly compensated for it.

Additionally, workers have been empowered by a relatively strong labor market and low unemployment rate, which has meant that they have more leverage in certain industries to push forward such demands. Coincidentally, several major unions have contracts that are up for negotiation or poised to expire this year, leading to more collective actions happening at this time.

Experts also say there has been a major increase in what’s known as “horizontal solidarity,” or workers in different industries supporting one another’s strikes or inspiring them. Such backing stems from shared frustrations and threats that people in different industries have faced, including the rise of artificial intelligence, climate change, and stagnant wages.

“The unions themselves have increasingly understood, ‘Hey, next time it could be us,’” Susan Schurman, a professor at Rutgers University’s labor and management school, told Molla. “Part of it is just understanding that the economy is now much more interconnected.”

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