A Labor-Neighbor Alliance to Fix L.A.

by Tom Hayden on August 1, 2014

Los Angeles City unions today will assert a dramatic new approach to collective bargaining that goes beyond labor contracts to include collaborating with community organizations in a drive to “Fix LA.” In addition to bargaining for their members on wages, hours, and working conditions, the new alliance will seek to bargain over the root causes of inequality and lack of a serious community voice in meeting neighborhood needs.

Call it a Labor-Neighbor alliance.

When a group of unions representing about 20,000 City employees (AFSCME District Council 36, LA/OC Building and Construction Trades Council, LIUNA Local 777, Operating Engineers Local 501, SEIU 721 and Teamsters Local 911) enter collective bargaining today they will be joined in a coordinated approach with a network of community organizations including the local branches of  Southern Christian Leadership Council, Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, and organizing networks with names like SCOPE [Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education] and ACCE [Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment]. The organizers representing more than one dozen local groups have been holding house meetings and rallies for weeks to prepare for a coalition bargaining process with the city that begins today.

In the traditional model, public sector unions are confined to protect and bargain for their members, not for the needs of the city as a whole, while community-based organizations are left to lobby for what remains of the shrinking city budget. A downward spiral has led to thousands of job losses and wage freezes for the workers and massive cuts in services for neighborhoods.

Symbolic of the new approach is the unprecedented scrutiny of $300 million, which the City paid in administrative fees to Wall Street firms in 2013. On August 6, the City Council is expected to vote on Council member Paul Koretz’s motion to either terminate or re-negotiate two Wall Street deals with the City that went sour in the 2008 recession. Koretz argues that the city lost $65 million on those transactions alone. A report by the Fix LA coalition claims that at least $106 billion in public money overall – from airports, seaports, utilities and pension funds – goes to private financial institutions that profit from fees, lending and leveraging those funds.

Under the concept of coordinated bargaining, those Wall Street fees would be openly disclosed and subjected to public discussion – in other words, put “on the table” alongside wages, working conditions and other spending priorities. Currently the Wall Street fees are considered “fair” by in-house comparisons with similar fees in other cities, not in comparison with expenditures on vital city services. A statement being released later today by the Coalition asserts that “We have all suffered the effects of unregulated Wall Street greed – and are demanding that the City take a stand against paying banks tens of millions in fees each year. We all care about restoring city services to pre-recession levels and expanding good civilian job opportunities.”

LA taxpayers have faced sixty percent cuts in services like libraries, tree trimming and street cleaning while banks are subsidized with $7.9 million for managing the city’s cash. The City spent $165 million on street repair last year, millions less than it spent on Wall Street fees, which didn’t even appear in the City’s budget ledgers. Overall, the City’s budget has been cut 19 percent per capita since the 2008 financial crash; 5,000 city jobs were lost.

The Labor-Neighbor approach offers a possible way to avoid the divide-and-conquer budget model, which ends up pitting public employees against local residents, and open a new path to local democratic collaboration.

This piece first appeared in TomHayden.com

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