By Sasha Abramsky / The Nation
Incoming Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass has racked up a formidable progressive voting record in Congress over the past decade. Having withstood a $100 million spending barrage from her opponent, Rick Caruso, in the mayor’s race, she will have an opportunity as head of the country’s second-largest city to realize her political vision on the ground in Southern California.
Unions and community organizations that have launched campaigns in recent years for higher wages and better working conditions, for more affordable housing, and for stronger protections for service sector employees believe there is a real chance for big changes in LA.
UNITE:HERE Local 11, the SEIU, AFSCME, and other unions at the forefront of labor organizing in the city backed Bass’s candidacy early on. The unions are particularly focused on a series of global sports events to be held in the city over the coming years, which will result in huge investments in infrastructure, in transport, in hotels—and, they hope, in affordable housing.
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There are the 2026 World Cup soccer games; LA is one of 11 US host cities, with other cities in Canada and Mexico also involved in the billion-dollar spectacle. And there are the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. There are also college football championship games next month and the US Open golf championships this coming June.
As we’ve seen with the 2022 Qatar world cup—where hundreds, if not thousands, of migrant laborers have died on construction projects over the past few years—vulnerable workers often end up being considered disposable as cities and countries seek to erect sparkling new infrastructure.
Qatar represents an extreme example of inequality: An astounding 90 percent of the population is made up of migrant workers, many of whom suffer routine wage theft, confiscation of their identity documents, and other violations of basic rights. But the country isn’t alone in sacrificing the well-being of those who build and staff global sporting events in order to present a shiny spectacle to the world’s sporting fans. Hundreds of migrants workers are also thought to have died building the facilities for the Sochi Winter Olympics that were held in Russia in 2014.
So, too, vulnerable residents often get swept aside by big development projects. Some reports suggest that more than 1 million Beijing residents were forcibly relocated to make way for the 2008 OIympics infrastructure. Eight years later, tens of thousands were displaced in low-income Rio de Janeiro neighborhoods as Brazil readied itself to host the Games. The London Olympics, in 2012, were widely praised for redeveloping large parts of the East End. But the effect of that redevelopment was skyrocketing real estate prices that ended up excluding many locals from the housing market.
Last year, LA’s big unions pushed the city to adopt a series of labor and housing goals that would guide preparations for these tourist-heavy sporting events. Among the demands were limits on the numbers of housing units that could be converted to Airbnb usage, in order to protect residents in low-income communities from displacement; long-term employment commitments for service workers; and guarantees of diversity in employment, so that the economic benefits of hosting these games would be widely spread. The city largely stonewalled these requests, denying a series of Public Records Act requests filed by the unions.
Bass’s election offers a chance for a reset. Earlier this week, the new mayor hired Chris Thompson as her chief of staff. Thompson was, until Bass brought him onto her team, senior vice president of government relations for the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Los Angeles. He knows the issues surrounding the Olympics inside out. Now, with input from the service sector unions and from housing advocates who went to bat for Bass during the election, preparations for the Olympics ought to be able to proceed with workers’ rights and housing rights (in a county with roughly 70,000 homeless residents) at center stage.
On the subject of workers’ rights, graduate student workers, postdocs, research assistants, and TAs at the University of California system are now in the third week of what has become the largest university strike in American history. Organized into three different union groups by the United Auto Workers, the strikers are demanding higher pay, longer appointments, better benefits, paid parental leave, and a monthly child benefit allowance for those workers who are parents.
As of this writing, one of the three groups of strikers, postdoctoral researchers, has reached a tentative agreement with the university system, which translates to a 20–23 percent salary increase between now and October 2023, increasing baseline wages by roughly $12,000 per year. Those at the bottom of the income ladder will see wage increases of more than 50 percent over the next four years. But the other two groups are still in negotiations with the University of California, and a settlement still seems far off.
Next week, final exams get underway on the UC campuses. Tens of thousands of students will be taking those exams in classes for which the TAs, who normally do the vast bulk of the grading, are out on strike. It’s entirely possible that many of those exams simply won’t be graded promptly; it’s hard to see how professors teaching classes with hundreds of students will be able to make up the grunt work normally done by clusters of low-paid graduate students. As a result, undergraduates across the system could end up waiting on final grades. With both sides still far apart, it’s also entirely possible that the strike will continue beyond the winter break.
With inflation high and the labor market still tight, these are interesting times for labor activists. A poll from earlier this year found that 71 percent of Americans had a favorable view of trade unions—the highest approval rating since 1965. Yet the overwhelming majority of workers remain non-unionized. In California, only 15.9 percent of workers belong to unions, despite the state’s having some of the most union-friendly legislation in the country.
The strikes in the UC system and the increased visibility that labor issues are likely to have in Los Angeles heading into the next Olympics and World Cup cycles offer opportunities to highlight inequities in the labor market and to push for broader unionization efforts across the state. From Karen Bass in LA to Gavin Newsom in the governor’s office, California’s political leaders are avowedly pro-labor. Now comes the hard part: converting their progressive words into meaningful deeds and ensuring that economic development and infrastructure spending benefit all sectors of the community, rather than just those who already enjoy a perch high up on the state’s steep economic ladder.