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55,000 SEIU Members May Strike in Los Angeles. This Is Why I Am Voting Yes.

SEIU Local 721 represents 95,000 members, roughly 55,000 of which — including social service workers, nurses, mental health care workers, clerks, librarians, custodians and more — work for the LA County. After a protest of thousands — the largest in the local’s history — the members are voting through May 5. Left Voice reporter Julia Wallace shares why it is so important for her SEIU union siblings to vote yes on this strike.

Julia Wallace

April 28, 2022
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I am a worker at the Department of Mental Health in Los Angeles County, and I’m a member of SEIU Local 721. The Los Angeles Department of Mental Health is the largest mental health service in the U.S. Its annual budget is $3 billion. As one of the workers deployed by the county during the pandemic to work with people with severe disabilities at pop-up shelters in recreation centers, I am voting to strike, and it’s important for all other members of my union local to do the same.

Click here to vote YES on the strike.

A majority vote of yes for the strike would mean that our union’s bargaining committee can call a strike if the LA County Board of Supervisors refuses to meet union demands in the continuing negotiations. The strike is our most powerful weapon. It’s a refusal to work until our demands are met, insisting that we have the right to protect ourselves, feed our families, be respected, and improve our working conditions to provide a better service to the community. It’s absurd that many of us are working for low-income homeless folks, and we qualify for those same services because our pay is so low.

During the surge in Covid cases, our working conditions worsened extremely. During homeless outreach meetings, my coworkers weekly described finding dead bodies in tents during their visits to homeless encampments. Because of stress, burnout, and other issues, including intimidation by managers, my coworkers have joined the Great Resignation, leaving in droves. For example, I had 11 other coworkers, and now I am the only person in Service Area 4, which includes Hollywood, Mid City, Koreatown, and Skid Row, an area that has some of the most pervasive poverty in all of Los Angeles. Skid Row alone has one of the largest communities of unhoused people in the country. And I am currently the only one serving this area.

So many workers have been pushed to our limits. Many of my fellow workers erected a billboard of photos, obituaries, and mementos of those who passed away at LA County USC Hospital. There were at least 40 people on the wall, most of them Black and Brown. Outside our union hall itself is a “Forever Essential Wall of Remembrance.” But the mayor’s idea of honoring our work consists of clapping, lighting candles, and waving our phones and flashlights. But if Black lives “matter” to them, why are they undermining our ability to survive? They are offering a 3.5 percent wage increase while inflation is 8.5 percent! It’s a pay cut. If they respect us as they claim, then why are we workers expected to do the same work with fewer workers? If they respect our union, then why are they trying to hire subcontracted nonunion workers? It’s disrespect! As we workers call for every workplace to be unionized, SEIU should play a leading role in unionizing the unorganized. We will fight this attempt to privatize union jobs.

Los Angeles is known for its extreme inequality. Luxury buildings and wealthy neighborhoods stand next to massive unhoused encampments. Meanwhile, California as a whole has more billionaires than any other state in the U.S. Politicians from both parties have claimed to support the workers during the pandemic. But their actions show otherwise.

We, the 55,000 LA County employees, are preparing to strike because our bills are rising astronomically but our wages are stagnant. SEIU 721 members, vote yes!

We are preparing to strike to fight for union jobs and against the attempts to subcontract public sector jobs with nonunion companies.

We are preparing to strike to protect our lives in a pandemic that is not over and to protect our own mental health. Skyrocketing workloads put stress on our jobs and lives.

We are the workers who support folks who are homeless, people with severe mental illness, and those who struggle with substance misuse. We are nurses and social workers. We are on the Frontline. We will continue to work for the folks we assist. We care about our work and clients. But we won’t be martyrs running ourselves into the ground from exhaustion. We won’t allow more people to die because of the exhausting and unsafe working conditions. We won’t allow the LA County Board of Supervisors to use the loss of county workers as a way to undermine our union. Workers and communities need to take charge

We are voting YES to Strike to stop the intimidation tactics used by management to intimidate workers from exercising their rights. In the first week of the strike vote workers with union shirts were told they could not enter the building they work in. Union representatives, also workers checked them and they went to work. With a YES vote we are building a stronger union to take on any harassment on the job. 

Voting YES will be the first step. With that powerful weapon on our backs we also will discuss as an entire membership the possible tentative agreement. With enough time to ensure freely open debate. When we negotiate and win it will be on the terms of the rank and file. All of us together.

We are not alone. Workers around the country are stepping up for their rights, striking for the contracts heroically fighting to get unionized, as we have seen with the historic examples of Amazon in Staten Island and Starbucks across the country.

My fellow SEIU 721 members, it’s time for us to defend ourselves and our communities by voting yes to a strike! This is our moment.

Reasons to Vote Yes for a Strike

1. Meager pay raises in the face of inflation.

The union slogan is “Protect Us, Respect Us, Pay Us,” and the main demand is a pay increase. For all the city’s description of us as “heroes” and talk about the city’s “appreciation” of our work, what is happening at the bargaining table is the complete opposite. The LA County Board of Supervisors initially suggested a 2 percent pay increase, but after our protest, they raised the offer to 3 percent. Meanwhile, national inflation has gone up 8.5 percent, so these offers amount to a pay decrease. The county’s proposal amounts to a heavy pay decrease and is a slap in the face to those who risk our lives every day. We need to fight for raises that not only keep pace with inflation, but raise our salaries beyond that.

Many of us are frontline workers. We are nurses, social workers, counselors, and homeless-outreach workers. We walk into dangerous and unpredictable situations every day, unarmed and posing no threat to those we serve, unlike the violent and higher-paid LA County sheriffs, who are under federal investigation for their homicidal behavior and “deputy gangs” that kill with impunity, The sheriffs terrorize the very people we try to protect, making our work that much harder. These are the people who murdered Andres Guardardo, but despite the fact that the LA County Sheriff’s Department closed 2021 with a $22.2 million surplus, their budget remains the same. The typical Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Sheriff yearly salary is $92,624, far higher than those of unionized healthcare workers, and salaries for nonunionized workers in our field are even lower.

We have served the most impoverished communities during the worst pandemic in U.S. history. The bosses are full of thank-yous, but not much else. Our coworkers have died, our clients have died, and we continued to work. Yet they refuse to pay us a living wage.

2. Dramatic understaffing and continual burnout.

Many of the people who died during the pandemic were nurses and social workers facing a disaster that disproportionately hurt people of color. Because of that and the overwork, we are understaffed. That means we are doing the work of our coworkers for less money. They need to hire more people, train them, and bring those workers under union contract so all workers can organize for better living conditions and better serve our clients.

In the 2022–23 budget proposal, LA County is restoring only 500 of the positions that it eliminated in 2020–21. The Los Angeles Times reported that “the plan for 2022–23 … calls for 500 new positions. The county, with a total proposed workforce of 111,551, has 1,500 fewer jobs than in the 2019–20 fiscal year, the last budget adopted before the pandemic. The 2020–21 budget eliminated more than 2,580 positions.”

3. An end to attempts to privatize.

Local 721 organized the LA LGBT Center, which became one of the only nonprofits organized in a union. I was active in that strike vote back in the day.

We must continue in this spirit by organizing the workers in these “independent agencies” and bring them into our own union by bringing these jobs under public oversight, which will also facilitate the unionization of the workers. Our own union knows how important this is. Our union website explains that “on top of sky-high prices for everyday necessities, we’re also facing serious threats from LA County management to privatize our good union jobs.”

4. Solidarity with the wave of unionization sweeping the U.S.

When we go on strike, it will be part of a larger struggle being waged by Generation U, which includes the inspiring young people who are fighting for better wages and the right to organize across the country. These workplace struggles are heating up as workers at Amazon, Starbucks, and so many other companies realize that unionizing leads to worker protection and higher wages.

Those of us in existing unions need to contribute to this struggle by echoing it in our own, and we need to expand our membership to reach the nonunionized. At the same time, we must march with these workers and grow solidarity.

Now is the time for union workers to take the lead and fight for our rights. When we win our demands it will be a win for all workers. The first step is VOTING YES! https://www.seiu721.org/strike.php  

We Ready! Ready to Fight! Ready to Strike! Ready to Win! See you on the picket line!

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Julia Wallace

Julia is a contributor for Left Voice and has been a revolutionary socialist for over ten years. She served on the South Central Neighborhood Council in Los Angeles and is a member of SEIU Local 721. Julia organizes against police brutality and in defense of LGBTQ, women, and immigrants' rights. When she's not actively fighting the patriarchy, white supremacy and/or capitalism, she enjoys many things: she loves Thundercat, plays ultimate frisbee and is a founder of the team, "Black Lives Hammer."

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