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Thousands on strike for alleging unfair labour practices

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Thousands of Los Angeles (LA) city employees including sanitation workers, lifeguards and traffic officers walked off the job on Tuesday for a 24-hour strike demanding higher wages and alleging unfair labour practices.

Picket lines went up before dawn at LA International Airport (LAX) and other locations, and a large rally was held later in the morning downtown at City Hall.

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 721 said mechanics, engineers and airport custodians are among the more than 11,000 LA city workers who are striking.

The union said its members voted to authorise the one-day walkout because the city has failed to bargain in good faith and engaged in labour practices that restricted employee and union rights.

“City workers are vital to the function of services for millions of Angelenos every day and to our local economy,” LA Mayor Karen Bass said in a statement.

“They deserve fair contracts and we have been bargaining in good faith with SEIU 721 since January. The city will always be available to make progress 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Strikers said some employees earn so little they can’t afford to live near their jobs, sometimes making 160-kilometre commutes. “You can’t work for the city and live in LA,” said Marce Dethouars, 54, a sanitation worker who resides east of LA in the San Gabriel Valley.

Workers picket outside of City Hall in Los Angeles, United States. PHOTO: AP

Destiny Webb, a college student who manages a city pool, said she and her fellow marchers downtown were calling for a 40 per cent to 50 per cent raise and more resources at LA facilities that are poorly staffed.

“A lot of us are students, and what we get paid does not help us at all,” said Webb, 21. “So with inflation and everything, it’s not working.”

A pay increase would give younger, part-time employees like her an incentive to stay with the city for a career after graduating, Webb said.

It’s the latest strike to overtake the nation’s second largest city in recent months.

Hollywood writers have been striking since May, and actors joined them last month. LA hotel workers have staged staggered walkouts all summer, and earlier this year school staff walked picket lines. There was also a contract dispute at Southern California ports.

“The City of Los Angeles is not going to shut down,” Bass insisted. But her office said some services would be affected, including parking enforcement and traffic operations.

This week’s trash pickup will be staggered by one day citywide until normal service resumes on Monday, officials said.

LAX officials urged travellers to allow for extra time for travel to and from LAX during the strike. Some shuttles were operating on a reduced schedule, but no major disruptions were reported.

“LAX is working diligently with our airport partners to ensure that our operations will continue as close to normal as possible and to mitigate the impacts of the work action to our guests,” airport spokesperson Dae Levine said in an e-mail.

The union said it expects about 300 lifeguards working at dozens of city swimming pools would strike. The Department of Recreation and Parks said some pools were closed on Tuesday.

Michael Mitchell, a 33-year-old port worker, said many workers were struggling with basic living costs and are simply seeking a fair wage.

“We just want to be able to survive and feed our families out here,” he said. “Everything is high – groceries, gas. In a minute we’re going to be drowning.”

About 300 Port of LA employees are union members, but it wasn’t immediately known how many were striking. “The Port of LA respects the bargaining rights of all employees. On Tuesday, some Harbour Department employees are participating in a job action. Port terminals remain open and operational,” port spokesperson Phillip Sanfield said in an email.

The union approved a one-year deal with the city in November 2022 with the understanding that they would return to the bargaining table in January, SEIU Local 721 Chief of Staff Gilda Valdez said.

With the broader agreement in place for the next year, the city and the union would then negotiate over a number of specials, or smaller specific proposals, Valdez told The Associated Press.

“But the city reneged on the promise to negotiate on those issues and only gave us some small agreements that basically amount to peanuts,” Valdez said.

The union filed an unfair labour practice claim with the City of Los Angeles Employee Relations Board over this issue, along with previous claims filed over several other issues.

“This strike is a very strong message: ‘Come to the table,’ ” Valdez said, noting that the union’s members had worked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to keep the city running.

Eddie Flores said he and his fellow sanitation workers were up there on the front lines during COVID-19 and they were striking on Tuesday to demand a fair pension and retirement plan.

Flores, 64, said city officials didn’t fulfil their end of the bargain.

The union plans to return to negotiations with the city the week of August 14 to resume talks, Valdez said.