The Los Angeles Labor Notes Troublemakers School and the 2023 Strike Wave

By Daniel Lichtenstein-Boris

The auditorium was packed at LA Trade Tech College. There were almost no seats left as 400 union stewards and worksite leaders participated in an all-day Labor Notes ‘Troublemakers School on March 11. A diverse, multiracial crowd of grizzled labor union veterans and rank-n-file stalwarts, the vast majority were union stewards, worksite leaders, and active members of a wide swath of labor unions from throughout southern California. Women and men, they showed up on time after paying a $40 dollar registration fee to volunteer their Saturday to learn how to make trouble at work. Registration had closed early. The venue could not accommodate all who wanted to participate, and the organization had to turn people registering at the last minute away.

Panelists included representatives of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), Amazon Workers United, Starbucks Workers United, the United Electrical Workers (UE), and the United Auto, Aerospace, Agricultural implement Workers (UAW), who had recently led a major six-week strike of academic graduate student workers at University of California campuses.  Other unions presenting included the Communications Workers of America (CWA), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (UNITE HERE), and IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

I sat down next to Kristen Luevanos, president of the Compton Education Association as a Los Angeles teacher dropped off fliers for a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99 and UTLA rally on March 15th. Los Angeles Unified School District employees, both lower paid support staff, SEIU members, and members of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, would rally outside of city hall in support of a 30% raise for the lowest paid education workers and to protest harassment and intimidation of union supporters.

This multi-union educational conference to launch the spring and summer strike wave took preparation and planning. The Los Angeles organizing committee met every Wednesday for months leading up to the event. Labor notes staff thanked those who made this even possible including sponsors like the Labor Center at LA Trade Tech, the Dolores Huerta Organizing Institute, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), UTLA, ILWU, and the Claremont College Student Worker Alliance, as well as Rafael Salazar, the event and venue coordinator at LA Trade Tech College.

Labor Notes hosts workshops, trainings, and troublemaker schools around the country, along with its monthly newspaper and books. Founded in the 1970’s its purpose is to put the movement back in the labor movement. “This conference is about workshops, education, and networking. Workers are fit to run their own affairs. Workers understand their conditions, when we use our collective power, we will win a change in conditions. We are about transparency and deep democracy with rank-n-file leadership and militancy. The boss is not with us.”

The speaker asked for a show of hands. For more than half this was their first labor notes event.

The first speaker introduced Ana Ortega from the Inland Empire Amazon Workers United. There have been two organizations organizing Amazon in southern California. One, the Amazon Labor Union, tries to get workers to sign membership cards to petition the federal government for union elections. They held a successful election at a Staten Island warehouse but have lost others since or had to withdraw their election petitions. The other group is Amazon Workers United. They have been building an organization and winning gains despite the law.

Ana is a Latina in her 30’s or 40’s. She spoke calmly and plainly, describing without oratory or emphasis, how Amazon warehouse workers organized to build their union. First, 200 workers signed a petition and presented it to their management. Amazon made some empty promises. Then 800 signed a petition. They won a 90 cent pay increase. Groups of workers would confront the site manager. Then 150 walked out in August 2022. After the walkout, workers walked into their next shift together. They won accessible water stations, cooling misters, and permanent fans. “They insulted us. They said we could save money by carpooling.” Ana paused. “Then we won a base pay raise of $1 an hour. We had a ULP, or unfair labor practices strike on October 14th against retaliatory behavior. They brought in expensive labor consultants. We planned to picket and strike. Management gave people voluntary overtime. More than 100 of us went on strike. Community supporters picketed the trailer yard. We shut things down. They could only do a safety meeting. No work happened.”

The next speaker, Cesar Bowley-Castillo is a graduate student worker and a member of the UAW. For six weeks, 48,000 graduate student workers across the University of California system went on strike for higher pay. They stood together, united. Even when post-doctoral scholars and graduate student researchers secured wage gains, all workers stayed on strike until the lower paid teaching assistants won too, winning an almost fifty percent pay raise.

Cesar introduced Marian Solis, a stripper and worker militant locked out of her worksite for protesting unsafe conditions. A man inside the strip club was filming her. Another made her feel unsafe. When she approached her boss, he laughed it off. She and her colleagues organized to form a union to deal with safety issues in their North Hollywood workplace. They started picketing and were locked out; the boss wouldn’t let them come back to work. Strippers have been protesting outside the establishment for a year. It closed. They are thinking of buying the location and forming a cooperative. They all sat together, in jeans, hoodies, sneakers, and sweaters, all at the same table, listening to other workers speak.

I attended two workshops. One was for Teamster members gearing up for a new union contract to win a raise and workplace improvements for 350,000 UPS workers this summer. The other was called What to Do if Your Union Breaks Your Heart.

What to Do if Your Union Breaks Your Heart

The morning workshop, What to Do if Your Union Breaks Your Heart, included two groups of presenters. There were members of IATSE, a Hollywood union with 168,000 members, and the Teamsters, a 1.2-million-member union. Both groups negotiate principally with private sector employers.

The first speaker, Aaron Hall, a white male in his early or mid-30’s, was a member of IATSE Local 107. He was a stagehand and audiovisual technician and had been a member of IATSE for 5 ½ years and worked non-union for 2 years before that. His fellow presenters included members of IATSE 44 and 871, including Ellen Nielson, a set dresser and Nora Meeks, a storyboard artist with the IATES animation guild, and Crystal Hopkins, also an IATSE member. All appeared to be white women in their 30’s.

An older, heavy set Chicano Teamster, Frank Halstead from Local 572 who had worked in grocery delivery for 35 years, centered the discussion. He had been around the block, organizing with Teamsters for a Democratic Union to help a slate called Teamsters United defeat a union leadership characterized as corrupt, incompetent, and that negotiated concessions in backroom deals.

The topic of discussion was internal organizing, and how to form union caucuses. The Teamster began. “How does Teamster for a Democratic Union organize? How do you keep reform movements going? How to fight without seeming like fringe radicals? How to organize without being perceived as a faction? There are two types of unionism. Business unionism vs. rank-n-file unionism.”

“The Teamsters for a Democratic Union builds its membership within the union and engages in education. In many places it’s a shadow business agent, taking on the boss at work. TDU organizes around national contracts. The first national Teamsters strike in the 1970’s was organized by TDU. Freight has declined. Now it’s UPS. We create unity and have a national network. We also advocate for national level reforms in the union and have won the right to vote for top officers, delegates, and majority rule vote of contracts, as well as elected union stewards. We teach people their rights on the job, including how to organize around grievances.”

“What are the most important issues? You can’t be more outraged than your audience. You can’t go from A to Z overnight. You have to find out where people are at, engage them in one-on-one conversations, and get people more and more active. It’s important to keep it issue based, and not let your organization get hit by charges of separatism or red baiting. You have to get a copy of your union bylaws. One person went up and asked for it and the union officials made all sorts of excuses. But when 50 people asked for copies of the union bylaws and constitution, all of a sudden it was made readily available.”

Aaron, the stagehand and audio-visual technician, began speaking. “We want the door opened to member activists who are upset, to make the union more effective. About 2/3 of IATSE members work in motion pictures. The rest are in the theatre or concerts, on stage.”

“The pandemic was a turning point. There were furloughs and layoffs. People saw that they had time for their families and community. We had 10-hour days. That’s a short day. When we returned to work at first there wasn’t crazy long hours. There was tons of money for COVID response. We started talking. Where’s the money for us?”

“There has not been much history of rank-n-file activities in our union.” In the 1940’s, the Conference of Studio Unions held a number of militant strikes for higher pay and control of their workplace creativity, including the Battle of Warner Brothers on October 5, 1945. IATSE crushed this tinsel town upsurge. With the power of the studios, the local police and the mob behind them, they worked with the House Unamerican Activities Committee to identify and fire suspected Hollywood communists and militant trade unionists. “IATSE was the tip of the spear in the Hollywood blacklist. The Sanders campaign, in 2016, was the rebirth of the left. 2021 was the rebirth of a strong aggressive worker led unionism. People were motivated to change the union. They were sick and tired of working conditions.”

Aaron discussed how he joined IATSE. He started off working non-union. The existing union leadership didn’t want to organize new workers as members. It would hurt their existing relationship with the employers and hotels. “We had an event. On the union’s flier they didn’t have the location or time or what the event was about. There was no communication. We made a poster DIY. Tons of people showed up. People want change. They’ll do what they can to get it. I got angry. 871? This sucks. We got to make more money. My local was inhibiting that.” He continued.

“I need to get in leadership. I don’t like what they are telling me. IU works for the organization not for the members. We used formal channels or informal channels to make organizational change. Their number one rule is self-preservation. We have to build enough pressure to force them to do what members want them to do.”

A key demand in the 2021 IATSE negotiations was reasonable rest, to change the standard industry practice of working 12-to-18-hour days. One of the young women continued where Aaron had left off, “We shouldn’t live to work. It’s funny, in Hollywood people are fans of the employer. On Marvel movie sets for example, people are like, I love this production. People like working on what they care about, but it obfuscates the exploitation. We need to reconnect with the labor consciousness of the past. People say it’s such a sacrifice to go to a union meeting. People died for this shit.”

Another cut in. “IATSE we’re in position we – unions started as worker power. Now it’s the power of the union. Workers are lost in that space.”

Another Los Angeles IATSE member continued, “With the pandemic there are resources for COVID. People only work 10–12-hour days. It was eye popping for people in the industry. This is where the change comes from. Our international union was not ready for that. But we spurned them on for us to take a strike authorization vote. The membership, we got peeled at work. Leading up to it, I was on a Warner Brothers lot. Grown men, always super macho – coming up to me laying their head on my shoulder and crying they were working so much. They didn’t know what to do. Everyone voted to strike”.

In the lead-up to the strike vote, IATSE members vented by sharing over 1,000 stories of working conditions to over 150,000 colleagues through the Instagram page @ia_stories. “The union had closed negotiations. We wanted reasonable rest. Sustainable benefits. There was a lack of transparency in negotiations. There was disappointment and desperation. Now groups want to come together, others to do separate things. We talked about it, formally and informally. How do we make this all work? Ninety eight percent voted in favor of a strike. It was called off. They reached a deal right before. The Hollywood contract was rejected [by the membership]. But using the electoral college voting system it passed.”

Halstead, the Teamster veteran explained how they took power in their union. “Out of a vote no movement in a concessionary contract, a slate for IU leadership in the Teamsters developed. There’s the power of social media and email. I can contact 1200 drivers in two hours. I had an answering machine in 1987. We have the power to connect with people. We use social media. You can connect with people without personal contact.”

Another Hollywood worker, I didn’t catch her name, jumped in. “The international union attacked IATSE leaders in negotiations with veiled threats. We’re not dependent on people with titles.”

The Teamster kept explaining. “If you fight the boss, you’ll be a leader and you’ll have more people involved. 8 out of 10 calls to TDU are, ‘It’s wrong, It’s bad. I hate it.’ We can’t be in all locals. We can only build when there is someone there who wants to build. If everyone’s terrified, nothing happens. But if everyone gets together and fights together, things change.”

One of the young motion picture workers continued, “How do we make the union stronger? How do we win things at work? Elected shop stewards. Rank-n-file on the negotiating committee.”

“In the Teamsters there is Sisco – food service. All the companies have independent contracts. We do contract comparisons, helping people get ideas on what they can win. Grocery teamsters in different states are in touch. We look at NYC vs. SoCal production standards. You’re always going to have leverage. Be optimistic. The key is how much your coworkers get involved, that’s the key. To get power at the bargaining table.”

“You need good staff to do work to build the union and get things for members. But it is the workers themselves coming together and taking initiative that makes change happen. If we see unions fighting the boss, people are going to want to join that fight. People want to get involved.”

Hollywood labor unions are organizing and working together, pushed on by the power of rank-n-file workers. The Writers Guild’s contract expires on May 1st, 2023, international workers The Directors Guild and SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, have contracts that expire on June 30th.

Strike Ready: Building the UPS Contract Campaign Where You Work

The spirited workshop about Teamsters organizing for a strong union contract at UPS was held in a small classroom full of United Parcel Service workers, full timers, and part timers-, some five-, ten-, and twenty-year veterans. The room was mostly Hispanic men in their 20’s and 30’s guys with flannel shirts baseball hats, beards and clean shaven. People worked part time for five to ten years before getting a full-time position.

More than what was said, I could tell how these Teamsters organized the way the meeting was structured to both maximize member participation but also keep focused. good

Heading into the room, everyone was asked to put a sticker under the issue that was a top concern for them. About nine or ten common issues were listed. Dave Valencia, a shop steward in Teamsters Local 572 chaired the meeting. “This is about winning a strong contract and building the UPS contract. What are your top concerns. Part time wages? – 17 said part time wages. Next is more full-time jobs. Why did you vote for that issue?”

Someone in the third row responded.

Derek Correia, from UPS Teamsters Local 542 out of San Marcos, had been working there since 2015. “I’m the co-chair of the union in my area,” Part timers come and go. A lot of them leave because they can’t afford to work there. There is a good pension and benefits, but they need money now. The simple thing is to pay them more. People will stick around, then we’ll build that bond. Higher wages mean less people would come in and out. Make it work staying at UPS, have a sense of pride rather than kill yourself. It’s not a livable wage, with the cost of inflation and living.”

“Preloaders handle 800 to 1200 packages in four hours. Robert said, sitting towards the back. “I watched two guys quit. They handle 1400 pieces in 4 or five hours of work. They’re killing us.”

“Let’s talk about part time wages.” One of the men standing upfront declared.  “What do you want to see?”

A man responded. “They’re not paying enough. New hires barely get two hours a day. At $16 an hour, it’s not enough to take an uber to work.”

Felix butted in, saying, With more pay you “take more pride to do the job correctly.”

Danny works at the Main Street UPS site. “Part time wages? Back in 1990, in the early 90’s, the minimum wage was five dollars. UPS paid 9 to 10 dollars. Now you’re getting minimum wage. Salaries used to be double the minimum wage.”

Hugo worked at the Olympic hub and is in Teamsters Local 396. “What can we all do to be effective when we go back to our hubs?” He asked the group, challenging them.

Omar Moreno is a 27 year UPS Teamster from Local 572 working Gardena, CA. He is a member of the TDU steering committee and in UPS Teamsters United. “TDU is a grassroots organization of Teamsters members. We help get you the tools to get involved in the workplace and in the union and how to build a UPS contract campaign at your building. We’re going to arm you with the tools you need to be successful at your building.”

The presenters began to quickly review a PowerPoint presentation about UPS from a projector in the room, and the package delivery industry, with charts and statistics. It was simple, multi-colored but fact heavy. The presentation presented a clear message. UPS has the money. They are a major market player. They will lose money if Teamsters strike. When members fight, they win.

“UPS has earned record profits. $13.1 billion in 2021, over $13 billion in 2022, and projected to earn $13.5 billion in 2023. Our national bargaining begins in April.”

“We have a new international union leadership. We are going on the offensive; not bargaining with concessions. We will win on the issues. Management is going to see if members are backing them or if it’s all just talk. Informed and united, the more the better.”

We have to “answer questions and fears. To counter us, management will engage in fearmongering.”

“First, UPS and competition. Here’s UPS financials from 2012 to 2022. Revenue is up by 85%.”

“Their share of the pie, their profits, are up by 96% in ten years.”

“From 2012 to 2022, compensation for workers rose by 28%. Executive compensation rose by 161%. UPS stock returns rose by 136%. Teamsters’ full timer top rate rose by 13.7% while inflation has risen by 21%.”

Omar used the slide show to review what management has been saying to dissuade workers from organizing. “They say competition is growing. Be careful about what you demand.” He then reviewed Amazon, FedEx, and the Post Office’s market share. “UPS is the dominant player in the industry. In US package delivery, 37% of the market is UPS, 12% is Amazon, 33% is FedEx, and 17% USPS. UPS is the biggest, with a 13% profit margin. Next is DHL with 9.3% profit margin, then FedEx with 6%.”

Someone up front asked for a show of hands. Only 4 of the roughly 35 UPS workers in attendance were involved in the 1997 strike.

“Teamsters United projects that a 16-day strike would cost 3.2 billion for the company. A 31-day strike would cost 6.2 billion.”

Next was a video of the 1997 UPS strike. The energy, determination, and organization came across this 25-year-old video. In 1997, 185,000 people went on strike. Their slogan was “Part-time America won’t work.”

Dean Doss stood up. He is a Teamster Local 63 feeder driver. People clapped. He was well known. “There is a lot of revisionist history taught by the company. You didn’t win big concessions. Funny how all your presidents have been indicted or gone to prison, things like that.”

“We had major success in the 1997 strike, 26 years ago. But decades of concessionary bargaining has erased those gains. It was a 15-day strike. What happens if we strike?”

“There are strike benefits from the union. It’s 500 a week for package and feeder drivers, and 250 a week for part timers. UPS can’t operate without us. It will cost them a billion dollars a week. They’d need 250,000 personal vehicle delivery cars to make up for UPS drivers on strike.”

Jared from Teamsters 396 circulated a simple one-page survey, with a number of questions to rate yourself on a 1-5 point scale. It was titled, “Are You Contract Campaign Ready?”

“How ready are you? How many of you scored 35 and above?” An overwhelming majority raised their hands. I didn’t see the presenters collect the survey afterwards. It was for the union stewards and leaders in the room to think about what they needed to do to be in a position to fight to win a raise and full-time work.

“A unifying issue is boss harassment. We will have escalating actions. We have text groups. We talk to people.”

Omar Moreno from Gardena spoke about escalating actions. “The IU had us all participating in a contract kickoff. On August 22nd union officials organized theirs on a Monday. They had it in the parking lot and passed out t-shirts. But we did our own on a Tuesday, inside during lunch. People showed up 15 minutes early. Drivers came early. We did it near the motorcycle and bike racks where management could see us because the part-timers and everyone would be there. We did it face to face, and had people download the Teamster app. We had a unity pledge on February 17th. We had people sign pledge cards. We went to preload and twilight. There was a good turnout. On MLK day we did leafleting. The goal is to get 100,000 signatures.”

“So, what is the contract action team? Think of your organization like a bullseye. In the middle are the union stewards and contract action team members. Then are the volunteers. Beyond that are supporters, then those less engaged and informed members. Finally, outside the circle, are the hostile members or workers who are anti-union.”

Another man came up from to speak, Derek Correia from San Diego, a 25-year vet of UPS. They had a group there called Members for Members. At the gates they would get participation. “Be quick, confident, and direct.” Derek pretended like he was at the building entrance getting UPS workers involved. “My name is Derek, sign this unity pledge card.” He pretended to pass a pen and card to a part timer rushing in to clock in. “If there is a Spanish language barrier, we get folks who know all languages.  Speak fast, walk with them. Get their contact info. Have an active conversation. Don’t BS someone. Just say, ‘I don’t know.’ Get their phone number. We have Instagram, Facebook, a web page, videos, etc. In 2018, we had a vote no campaign. Both management and the business agent said vote yes. A scab, an anti-union guy was the shop steward. We’ve engaged 1000’s over the past four years. They say, TDU they’re the devil, don’t talk to them. Plan a successful pledge drive at your building. Plan your launch. Have member to member follow up. Track your progress.”

In the beginning the Teamster meeting facilitators, all rank-n-file members, identified workplace issues. Then they got participants talking about their issues and discussed how the union contract campaign would address them. The presentation they gave rebutted management’s arguments to dissuade people with facts on UPS’s financials, market share, and how a strike would hurt the company. They watched a short video to show the energy and hope from the strike a generation ago and then passed out a survey for workers to gauge how ready their workplace was to fight. Finally, an experienced leader gave tips and role played how to get people involved quickly at shift change.

Next, they would break out in groups for five minutes, then report back. Everyone was to come up with a plan. This is how experienced workers are supposed to run a good union meeting.

I poked my head into another workshop and heard a presenter speak about campaign planning, as an SEIU Local 721 regional council elected officer and an LA County social services union steward challenged him, asking pointed questions.

“A campaign plan needs a target, a timeline, and a series of escalating actions. Organize around issues that are deeply and widely felt and winnable. Think it through. Don’t tell people what to do. The campaign goal in to win and move more people into the bullseye – to be leaders.”

The conference ended early. There was a short closing panel.

Riley from Hoover St. LA UPS and Carlos Silva, a 25-year Teamsters 517 leader with 600 fellow members in Gardena spoke. “We are united for a strong contract at UPS. There are 350,000 UPS Teamsters. It is a choice for the labor movement and America.”

“Winning a strong contract will inspire non-union workers to join our movement. We are going to inspire workers at Amazon and in other industries. These issues impact millions. The contract expires July 31st. We will be taking our fight to the public. UPS Teamsters do not cross picket lines. Wil you honor our picket line if we strike in August? Will you canvass with UPS workers in your neighborhood?”

Finally, Arlene Inouye of United Teachers Los Angeles rose to the podium. “Teachers face fear, uncertainty, and doubt. In 2019 we won lower class sizes by 2 students per grade. 66% can’t afford to live in the city where they work in. 24% of SEIU members don’t have enough to eat. 1/3 are at risk of homelessness. UTLA will not cross the SEIU picket line. This Wednesday. March 15th there is a rally at 4:30 pm.”

To close the day’s troublemaker’s school, a labor notes staffer recited a spoken word poem. In a call and response, the group of mostly veteran unionists chanted “Comrade” and “Black Lives Matter.”

Fifty thousand school employees and community supporters rallied at City Hall after class ended four days after the Los Angeles Labor Notes Troublemakers School. Along with classroom teachers in UTLA, the teaching assistants, cafeteria workers, custodians, maintenance staff, and security officers of SEIU Local 99 announced a three-day strike, after a strike vote and impasse in bargaining with the school district.

In pouring rain, the two unions of over 65,000 members walked picket lines on March 21st, 2023, the first day of spring.

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