Labor Renaissance in L.A.
LOS ANGELES -- This city, often derided as fragmented and isolated, is suddenly a bastion of union solidarity.
First sign of a labor renaissance was the massive janitors' strike -- some 3,000 members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877 carrying mops and brooms across the city's skyscraper-lined canyons.
What was surprising was the pin-striped executives raising their pale fists in brotherly salute on their way to Dilbert-like jobs.
Indeed, it was hard not to cheer on the janitors, who only wanted a $1 an hour more to lift their $7-an-hour wages above subsistence level -- especially since they scrub floors for some of the country's biggest property owners.
In the end, janitors got 70 cents an hour downtown (30 cents for those in less unionized spots), plus 60 cents each year for two years, and a $500 bonus. Top base wage will be $9.30 an hour -- the biggest gain in 20 years. The janitors' success inspired sister unions in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Cleveland and Chicago and other cities.
Three days later, although it was hardly noted, another group of low-wage workers scored a victory -- Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 11 struck a deal with a large concessionaire at the spanking new Staples Center downtown.
This involved some 450 food-stand attendants -- paid $8.57 an hour for a four-hour shift, less than $35 a day, with no health insurance, paid vacation, or pensions.
After barring 20 union activists from work for two weeks, Ogden Entertainment agreed to raise pay to $10.50 and by increments to $12.50 over the next four years as well as health insurance, paid vacations, and pension contributions.
Ogden had been dragging its feet for weeks -- until Democrat Party leaders, thinking ahead to this summer's Democratic National Convention at the Staples Center, pressured the company to settle.
Clearly, money and institutional heft no longer guarantee an automatic victory. These two unions scored because of a blossoming self-awareness of their raw muscle and enormous mass.
Immigrant labor has always been the target of exploitation. In Los Angeles, however, it may be that the perennial sunshine casts a particularly harsh light on the growing economic imbalance -- it's hard not to notice the mansions in the hills have grown larger while the working poor work longer.
Yet this sea change extends beyond color or race. The strikers on the west side of town -- about 1,500 members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) -- are mostly white. On May 1, they flooded Wilshire Boulevard with demands for better pay.
SAG wants a share of the money now flowing from foreign TV and cable TV commercials. In the early 1980s, SAG agreed to accept a flat rate, roughly $1,000, for a cable commercial that played often over the course of 13 weeks. With network TV commercials, actors earned on a pay-per-use formula -- an ad airing a few times a day on network TV can net an actor $40,000 over 13 weeks.
When SAG negotiated these terms, 90 percent of US TV viewers watched network TV, but cable now accounts for nearly half the viewing audience. It's also awash in advertising dollars --$2.3 billion in the first three months of this year, nearly double the 1997 level, and projected to reach an astounding $9.7 billion this year.
Actors want a percentage but advertisers have not budged. They've offered a 60-percent raise -- and want to use a flat rate on network TV as well. In addition, there are the woolly questions raised by the Internet. Negotiations between the actors and admen have stalled since late April and federal mediators can't seem to bring the two sides together.
Clearly, it's going to be a long, hot summer in this city. Other Hollywood union contracts expire over the next 12 months, and issues of pay equity are at the top of every union's list. Rank-and-file workers are growing angry over the disparity between stars -- some now routinely getting $20 million per picture -- and behind-the-camera talent.
Meanwhile, worker bees find fewer jobs as studios and producers shoot in Canada, Australia and Europe, which offer tax incentives and lower labor costs. In 1998, producers took $10 billion from the U.S., according to a study sponsored by SAG and the well-heeled Directors Guild of America -- and most of that came out of the pockets of make-up artists, set-builders, lighting technicians.
As one propmaker said, "The producers are making more and more money every year and they're cutting out the small guy."
And that may be the story behind L.A.'s unrest. In an era of unprecedented national wealth, when the list of millionaires would burst out of a broom closet, when stock indexes climb higher than stadium stairs, people in one of the world's richest regions are paid stagnant, if not shrinking, dollars.
It's gotten so that the burly Teamsters refuse to cross SAG picket lines, school teachers are rising up for better wages as are metro bus drivers, hotel maids, and bellmen. No matter their ethnicity or industry sector, the message is steady and clear -- those that have must begin to share.