Unions Are Stepping Up to Find a Solution to California’s Housing Crisis

Unions Are Stepping Up to Find a Solution to California’s Housing Crisis

Unions Are Stepping Up to Find a Solution to California’s Housing Crisis

State government has floundered in addressing homelessness. But the service workers’ union Unite Here is filling the gap.

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Today, Friday, May 26, unions in Los Angeles are pushing some big new ideas into the public sphere. Negotiators with UNITE HERE Local 11, the radical trade union that represents thousands of hospitality workers in restaurants, hotels, sports arenas, and airports around the region, are advancing a set of proposals for an updated contract with 100 employers, replacing those contracts that are expiring at the end of June.

Unlike in previous bargaining sessions, this time around they are demanding a single, industry-wide agreement, one that would include pay and benefits increases, as well as improvements in working conditions. The hospitality industry laid off vast numbers of workers during the pandemic, and now, even though business has returned, is making do with fewer workers, meaning that those who still have jobs end up with far heavier workloads. UNITE HERE estimates that local hotels and airports received $15 billion in federal pandemic bailout money, but that only about $3 million of that was passed on to the workers themselves.

Such industry-wide agreements, while common in countries such as Germany, are vanishingly rare in the United States. If negotiators for the employers show up to negotiate as a group, it would mark a significant labor victory and set the stage for similar industry-wide contracts in other parts of the economy.

But what makes this of more than niche interest are some of the other specific proposals: The union wants workers to be provided two hours of paid time off to vote on Election Day, is asking for protections for immigrants workers, and is seeking a ban-the-box measure that would prevent discrimination against workers with criminal convictions. Most ambitiously, it has requested the creation of a dedicated fund—the money generated by a 7 percent surcharge on restaurant meals and hotel stays—to provide affordable Los Angeles housing to industry workers. This is an issue of overriding importance to workers at the moment; when Local 11 polled its members recently, 53 percent said they have had to move in the recent past, or anticipate that they soon will be forced to move by soaring housing costs.

I work as a uniform attendant at the JW Marriott, in Downtown LA,” union member Brenda Mendoza told me. “I’ve done it 13 years; I’m 42 years old. I get paid about $24.50 an hour. But it’s not really enough to live on. The cost of living has been rising year after year.”

Priced out of her home in Koreatown, not far from her place of work, Brenda and her family moved out to the suburb of Downey, 15 miles south of central LA. Then, looking to buy property but unable to afford it even in Downey, they moved further afield, to a house in Appleton Valley, heading out toward the desert town of Barstow. Each morning, after about three hours of sleep, she gets up at 2.30 am and prepares to drive her son to his construction job south of LA in Manhattan Beach; his shift begins at 5.30. Then she drops off two other family members at their places of work. And then she heads north again to the Downtown hotel. On a good day, that predawn commute takes 90 minutes. When she leaves work at the end of the day, she can expect to spend two and a half hours driving home. Each day, she estimates, the family spends $80 on gas. Many of her coworkers, she has found in conversation with them, are in a similar situation. Priced out of the LA housing market, they are scattered around the towns north and east of LA, many of them also driving hours to work and back. “If I were able to move back near where I work, that would be fabulous,” she says.

The housing fund, which union copresident Kurt Petersen told me could total $150 million, would be used both as seed money to subsidize the construction of new homes that would then be sold or rented to hospitality industry workers, and also to provide cash grants and emergency housing loans to workers in the industry who are unable to afford housing in the vicinity of their employment or are at immediate risk of homelessness. It would, says Petersen, be the first time in modern US history that workers have gotten affordable-housing guarantees, and a specific mechanism to achieve them, built into their contracts.

Petersen points out that, over the next five years, Los Angeles will be staging both the Olympics and the World Cup—and he says that workers expect the city to have their backs while hosting these events, rather than to simply watch as housing prices skyrocket and more working-class residents are displaced. “This is about laying out to the city and to industry that we want a new deal for these showcasing events, one that protects jobs and housing,” the union copresident said. “Our proposals are well beyond bread-and-butter issues. We believe [the housing fund] could fund 3,000 units of new construction—partially subsidized units. The Olympics presents an opportunity, and we cannot have them come and go and leave behind the wreckage that other Olympics have left. The Olympics needs to be a transformative event.”

On Friday evening, after the negotiations wrap up, UNITE HERE Local 11 will join many other unions, including the Teamsters, AFSCME, the Writers Guild of America (whose members are currently on strike), and SAG-AFTRA, in a march and street party along Figueroa and 12th streets in Downtown LA. All of them will be demanding pay agreements that reflect California’s extremely high housing costs, as well as improvements in health benefits, pensions, and workloads. They argue that even with recent pay increases—the average hourly wage for a hotel housekeeper in LA is $18.86 per hour—an entry-level worker in hospitality would need to work 17-hour days to be able to afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment in the city. In a nod to the cost of housing, UNITE HERE Local 11 has also been working with city councilor Curren Price to increase the wages for tourism workers to a minimum of $30 per hour by the time of the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028.

Meanwhile, at the state level, in the face of California’s accelerating housing crisis, politicians are finally getting serious about reforming the absurdly misused California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Yet, bizarrely, their initial emphasis in tackling CEQA seems to be on infrastructure and environmental projects rather than housing.

This past week, the advocacy group California Forward and ex-LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa—now serving as infrastructure adviser to the state—published a report calling for accelerating the permitting of $180 billion-worth of infrastructure projects, many of them with a green tint. A day later, Governor Gavin Newsom unveiled a slew of proposals that if implemented would slash development projects’ timelines by three years and expedite court hearings if those projects are challenged after they have passed environmental review. No development project should, Newsom argued, be held up for more than 270 days. The governor said he would present the legislature with 11 draft bills to reform CEQA, with the expectation that they would be acted on as a part of the state budget, which has to be approved by mid-June.

That’s a long-overdue acknowledgement of just how skewed CEQA has become, changed from a beacon of 1960s-era progressivism to the most reactionary arrow in NIMBYists’ quiver. Yet housing activists were dismayed that Newsom sidestepped the issue of fast-tracking housing development approvals as well. The proposal was, they said, a “nothingburger.”

Unfortunately, too often Newsom has talked big on CEQA reform and on finding ways to expedite the building of high-density affordable housing only to backpedal in the face of resistance from entrenched landowners’ interests.

Meanwhile, cities such as Sacramento, where I live, continue to play whack-a-mole, shutting down encampments on one street—even putting huge boulders on some sidewalks to prevent tents from being resurrected there—only to see the homeless denizens simply pick up stakes and move their tents to the next street, or the next overgrown lot, or the next abandoned factory or warehouse. It’s beyond demoralizing.

If the governor, despite his big talk and his willingness to throw billions of dollars into the fight, can’t even begin to get a handle on California’s housing crisis, perhaps trade unions such as UNITE HERE Local 11 will have better luck. Here’s hoping they succeed in getting their housing proposals accepted during their contract negotiations. After all, given the ineptitude of the state, and of county and city officials, in solving this cascading crisis, the ability of thousands of workers to secure affordable housing might well rest on the outcome of these talks.

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