Will new LA Mayor Karen Bass reset the city’s job and housing markets?
New Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass has amassed a formidable progressive voting record in Congress over the past decade. After withstanding a $100 million spending barrage from her opponent, Rick Caruso, in the mayoral race, she will have the opportunity as the helm of the nation’s second-largest city to make a reality. his political vision on the ground in Southern California.
Unions and community organizations that have campaigned in recent years for higher wages and better working conditions, more affordable housing and stronger protections for service sector employees believe there is a real chance big changes in Los Angeles.
UNIT: HERE Local 11, the SEIU, AFSCME, and other unions at the forefront of organizing in the city supported Bass’ candidacy from the start. Trade unions focus particularly on a series of global sporting events to be held in the city over the next few years, resulting in huge investments in infrastructure, transportation, hotels and, they hope, affordable housing.
There are the 2026 World Cup football matches; LA is one of 11 U.S. host cities, with other cities in Canada and Mexico also involved in the billion-dollar spectacle. And there’s the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028. There’s also college football championship games next month and the US Open golf championships next June.
As we saw with the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where hundredsotherwise thousandsmigrant workers have died on construction projects in recent years – vulnerable workers often end up being considered disposable as cities and countries seek to erect gleaming new infrastructure.
Qatar represents an extreme example of inequality: an astonishing 90 percent of the population is made up of migrant workers, many of whom are regularly victims of wage theft, confiscation of their identity documents and other violations of fundamental rights. But the country is not alone in sacrificing the welfare of those who organize and stage global sporting events in order to put on a brilliant show for sports fans around the world. Hundreds of migrant workers are also believed to have died constructing the facilities of the Sochi Winter Olympics which took place in Russia in 2014.
Similarly, vulnerable residents are often swept away by major development projects. Some reports suggest that over a million Beijing residents were forcibly moved to make way for the infrastructure of the 2008 Olympics. Eight years later, tens of thousands of people were displaced from the poor neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro as Brazil prepared to host the Games. the London Olympics, 2012, have been widely praised for the redevelopment of large parts of the East End. But the effect of this redevelopment caused real estate prices to skyrocket, eventually excluding many residents from the housing market.
Last year, LA’s big unions pushed the city to adopt a set of workforce and accommodation targets that would guide preparations for these highly touristic sporting events. Among the demands were limits on the number of housing units that can be converted to Airbnb use, to protect residents of low-income communities from displacement; long-term employment commitments for service workers; and guarantees of diversity in employment, so that the economic benefits of hosting these games are widely disseminated. The city has largely ignored those requests, denying a series of Public Records Act requests filed by unions.
Bass’ election offers a chance for a reset. Earlier this week, the new mayor hired Chris Thompson as his chief of staff. Until Bass made him part of his team, Thompson was senior vice president of government relations for the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Los Angeles. He is fully aware of the issues surrounding the Olympic Games. Now, with input from the service sector unions and housing advocates who fought for Bass during the election, preparations for the Olympics should be able to continue with workers’ rights and housing rights (in a county with approximately 70,000 homeless residents) center stage.
When it comes to workers’ rights, graduate students, post-docs, research assistants and teaching assistants in the University of California system are now in the third week of what has become the the largest college strike in American history. Organized into three different labor groups by United Auto Workers, the strikers are demanding higher wages, longer appointments, better benefits, paid parental leave and a monthly child allowance for workers who are parents.
At the time of this writing, one of three groups of strikers, postdoctoral researchers, has reached an agreement in principle with the university system, which translates to a 20-23% salary increase by October 2023, increasing the base salary by approximately $12,000 per year. Those at the bottom of the income scale will see their salaries increase by more than 50% over the next four years. But the other two groups are still in negotiations with the University of California, and a settlement still seems a long way off.
Next week, final exams begin on UC campuses. Tens of thousands of students will take these exams in classes for which teaching assistants, who normally do most of the grading, are on strike. It’s entirely possible that many of these exams just aren’t being scored quickly. it is difficult to see how professors who teach hundreds of students will be able to compensate for the tedious work normally done by groups of poorly paid graduate students. As a result, undergraduates across the system could end up waiting for final grades. As the two camps are still far apart, it is also quite possible that the strike will continue beyond the winter break.
With high inflation and a still tight labor market, these are interesting times for union activists. A survey earlier this year found that 71% of Americans had a favorable view of unions – the highest approval rating since 1965. Yet the overwhelming majority of workers remain unorganized. In California, only 15.9% of workers are unionized, despite the state having one of the most union-friendly laws in the country.
Strikes in the UC system and the heightened visibility that labor issues are likely to have in Los Angeles as the upcoming Olympics and World Cup cycles approach provide opportunities to highlight inequalities in the labor market and to push for broader organizing efforts across the state. From Karen Bass in Los Angeles to Gavin Newsom in the governor’s office, California’s political leaders are openly pro-Labour. Now comes the hard part: converting their progressive words into meaningful deeds and ensuring that economic development and infrastructure spending benefits all sectors of the community, rather than those who already enjoy a roost. at the top of the steep economic ladder of the state.