Thousands of Service Employees International Union members rally during… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
Hours after their labor contract expired, thousands of Los Angeles County workers took to the streets of downtown Tuesday morning, rallying for higher wages and accusing county leaders of failing to recognize the sacrifices they made during the recession.
Linda Dent, vice president of a union that represents 55,000 county employees, said the workers did without raises during the recession to help the county stay afloat.
"We sacrificed for the last four years for L.A. County," Dent told the crowd of SEIU Local 721 members gathered in front of the Hall of Administration and spilling into Grand Park. "We did everything we could and they turn around and do this to us? …. We have been neglected, rejected and disrespected by L.A. County."
SEIU officials say the last offer the county has made for a new contract would provide 4% in raises over two years, but increased medical costs means that low-wage workers' pay will effectively be cut. County officials say they have offered a 6% raise, similar to that signed onto by several other labor unions that represent county employees. Both sides will return to the negotiating table Thursday.
The protesting workers were joined by a handful of elected officials, including Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) and City Councilmen Curren Price and Paul Koretz. They began their march with a rally at California Plaza, where a loudspeaker blasted Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" and Aretha Franklin's "Respect."
"We're getting ready to march down to the Board of Supervisors, where we're going to raise some hell!" regional SEIU director Michael Green told the crowd from the flatbed of a pickup truck. "Are you scared?"
"Hell no!" replied the crowd, which waved signs reading "Fair Pay for Los Angeles" and "Fair Share from Corporations." The group included a variety of county workers, including a large contingent of social workers who called for lowering their caseloads, nurses in blue scrubs and public works employees in neon orange work shirts.
After weaving around Walt Disney Concert Hall, the crowd marched to the Hall of Administration, with some walking through the building, banging drums and chanting. The Board of Supervisors would typically be holding its weekly meeting at the time of the protest but had canceled this week's session because several members could not attend.
During the rally, union leaders met with county Chief Executive William T Fujioka, who agreed to personally attend a bargaining session "with the intention of trying to find a way to close negotiations," he said.
"What I impressed upon them was that the county has just exited one of the most severe recessions that have hit not only the nation but particularly our county, and we were able to manage the recession and successfully deal with it because of our fiscal discipline," Fujioka said. "What we have at the table now is a responsible, very reasonable salary increase [of 6%] that's been approved by over half of the county unions, including firefighters and deputy sheriffs."
Labor leaders said more than 5,000 people participated in the march. County officials said there were 3,400 unexcused absences Tuesday. Workers also took time off to participate in the event, which snarled downtown traffic Tuesday morning, closing streets around the Music Center and the county hall. There was no "significant impact" to county services, Fujioka said.
The county has not seen this large of a public protest by workers nor this level of tension with its biggest union in years. Next week, labor leaders will meet at the downtown convention center to decide whether to accept the county's most recent offer or move toward declaring an impasse or a strike vote.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has received deep levels of SEIU support in his campaigns, said he hoped the relationship would not become contentious.
"It is clear that the working men and women of the county have been both cooperative and long suffering over the course of the economic downturn. I certainly hope that the good fortune of labor peace we've enjoyed will continue," he said.
The event, however, ended in some chaos. Two women, not county workers, who were protesting social workers potentially getting raises in light of abuse and deaths of children under county supervision held large signs in front of the podium. SEIU members tried to take their signs, while other members tried to stop them. A tussle ensued, and an SEIU supporter was either pushed or fell to the ground. Paramedics were called, placed a brace around her neck and took her by ambulance to a hospital. Sheriff's deputies questioned at least one of the protesters.