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Author: Heather Masterton

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Voices From the Holiday Strike Line

Leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday, academic workers and food service workers in Los Angeles went on strike for fair treatment and better wages. I visited the UCLA campus and joined the picket line to speak with UC academic worker organizers to hear their struggles. Later that week, I visited a Starbucks in the Cypress Park neighborhood of Los Angeles and spoke to Starbuck Workers United workers where they shared the conditions they are facing in their own workplace. The workers I met with talked about their fight for a living wage, and how winning a dignified wage will help them stay housed throughout the ongoing housing crisis. These workers spoke about fighting for better health benefits for themselves and for their families. They shared how their employers have encouraged them to sign up for public benefits, how their contract negotiations are being stalled, and how they are experiencing union busting tactics throughout this journey. My conversations made clear that the only way these workers will access justice is by walking the picket line and striking for what they deserve.

The following two accounts will be center the voice of the worker. The value of this approach is to allow the narrative to speak for itself – we must listen to and understand how they live, feel, and navigate their workplace. In many ways this borrows from the tradition of the testimonio (testimony) not in the legal sense, but in how it was used as an instrument of liberation and truth telling during the fight for liberation throughout the Americas. It is in these stories that you hear the protagonists at the center of the narrative: working people. When we talk about poverty and the impacts poverty has on health, housing, public benefits, and access to justice, we are talking about the struggle of workers. If we are committed to ending poverty, supporting the right to organize a union and protecting the right to strike is essential. These are the mightiest tools working people wield to fight injustice and systems that sustain poverty.

 

The Grinch that stole union contracts: Starbucks Workers United’s Red Cup Rebellion

Thursday, November 17. 2022 

“We’re here to show Starbucks that if there is no contract, there is no coffee. If we don’t get it, we shut it down,” said Cypress Park Starbucks barista Veronica Gonzalez through a megaphone as she walked the picket line with her co-workers. On the morning of November 17, baristas across Southern California successfully went on strike and closed 10 stores down. The same day, over 90 stores throughout the country closed as part of the national strike, the Red Cup Rebellion.  “Why today?” I asked the strikers. Starbucks Workers United (SWU) organizers shared that today is Starbucks Red Cup Day, when loyal customers anticipate the release of the company’s annual Holiday themed cup. “It’s like a collector craze customers look forward to,” shared a customer walking by to take a selfie and to show workers solidarity.

Veronica and her co-workers picketed along the entrance where several cars tried to enter but supportively drove away once learning of the strike. SWU strikers are asking corporate representatives to come to the negotiation table and work towards an agreement in their fight to end what they feel are union busting tactics. Veronica  shared that “we’ve already gone through the unionizing process. We have a union in our store that we won in August, and yet, we still have no contract. Starbucks refuses to bargain in good faith, so we are here to make ourselves heard.”

SWU says that the National Labor Relations Board has issued 39 official complaints and 900 alleged federal labor law violations in response to union busting violations. Veronica’s store is one of the busiest locations in Los Angeles. “They don’t care if they are overworking us, they don’t care if they are understaffing us. If the numbers look good to them [management], they’re content with that. So if that’s the case, there goes their numbers – sorry we’re closed on the busiest day.” Veronica told me that “not anyone can do what we do. People want to say this is an unskilled job, but we are skilled workers making struggle [sic] wages.” She shared that many workers have families and live locally in Cypress Park, an area that has experienced gentrification and lacks quality, affordable housing. Many workers with families are getting by only with public benefits. “They cut our labor so short, only to make their profit margin larger. They’re making us struggle, they’re scheduling people under 20 hours, gas is $7 dollars, you still have to pay for food or apply for food stamps to pay for rent, nothing is getting cheaper, it’s unlivable conditions [sic],” feels Veronica. SWU organizers shared that they are not anti-Starbucks, but they are fighting to be seen as partners not just in words, but in dignified action. “Let’s get this contract going!” shouted Veronica.

 

UC Academic Workers Strike for better pay and health benefits for their families – Tuesday, November 15, 2022

“Union busting is disgusting,” roared a crowd of over one hundred or so academic workers as they picketed the UCLA campus. It is day two of this historic strike, which began on November 15, 2022. The picketers marched with resolve and their signs read, “UAW ON STRIKE: UNFAIR LABOR PRACTICE.”

Around 48,000 academic workers across the University of California system are on strike as union leaders are asking the UC representatives to return to the negotiating table. UC officials are calling for a neutral mediator, while in several statements are claiming their offers to the union are reasonable. Workers leading negotiations shared with me that this is not enough. Their main demands are an increase in wages and expanded support to workers with families. On average, graduate students who tutor and labor as teacher assistants only earn around $24,000 annually. For academic worker organizers, this is about fighting for a living wage in the midst of unprecedented national inflation and an affordable housing crisis in California.

“All of us are student academic workers organizing. This is the time to take a stand,” said Stefany Mena who is an academic researcher in Psychology at UCLA. She argues the UC system incorrectly views them as part-time worker, while many average 60-hour work weeks. “We are severely rent burdened. Most of my salary goes back to rent for housing that the university owns.” Stefany says. Instead of being offered a raise, many academic workers are being encouraged to sign up for food stamps, she says. “During our orientation, they encourage us to sign up for public assistance… but U.C.’s shouldn’t be relying on these programs for workers to get by.” Some organizers have created mutual aid food programs to help fellow academic workers, she adds “these are amazing, but again, workers shouldn’t be struggling.” Strikers are also asking for free public transit passes. Stefany says that the rent is so high that they need transportation benefits. ” We are having to commute further and further away to find affordable rents.” Academic workers with dependents are also fighting to expand health coverage. “If you have children, it’s very difficult because it’s extremely expensive” she says.

The outcomes of this strike are still to be determined, but strikers here know that they will win what they are demanding. As they picket, they affirm, “if we don’t get it, shut it down!”

 

 

JOINT PRESS RELEASE: Statement In Response to Governor Newsom’s Rejection of Local Homeless Plans

  

    

              

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Sacramento, CA

Contact: Unai Montes, [email protected], 310.962.7369 (Bilingual)

Statement In Response to Governor Newsom’s Rejection of Local Homeless Plans

The undersigned organizations that work to end homelessness are concerned by Governor Newsom’s announcement today that he is rejecting local homeless action plans required under the Homeless, Housing, Assistance and Prevention (HHAP) program. We share the Governor’s goal of ensuring that local governments act ambitiously and decisively to solve this urgent human rights crisis. At the same time, we question the choice to withhold critical grant funds already approved and committed to local emergency systems, putting existing services in jeopardy.

Recent historic investments in homelessness, affordable housing, and tenant protections are ending homelessness for tens of thousands of Californians. In fact, local homeless response systems are housing more people than ever before. Yet, given the decades of disinvestment that preceded, these recent one-time investments are only a down payment on what must be ongoing and more significant funding for the solutions we know work to end homelessness: deeply affordable housing, supportive services, and targeted homelessness prevention to curb the tide of people entering our shelters and living on our sidewalks.

Homelessness is increasing, not because State funding isn’t working, but because it’s just not enough to meet the scale of our need, especially in the face of systemic drivers like unprecedented rent increaseshousing discrimination, and chronic workforce shortages largely driven by a long legacy of inconsistent public funding.

These facts do not excuse failures to solve homelessness at any level of government. However, we cannot expect local homeless response systems to make long-term, ambitious plans with only one-time state investments, and without addressing affordable housing, healthcare, tenants rights, re-entry from the criminal justice and other systems, and glaring gaps in existing safety net systems.

People experiencing homelessness have been failed by multiple systems and deserve thoughtful, strategic, and inclusive policy solutions. They are clear on what they need: permanent housing. To achieve significant reductions in rates of homelessness across California, our leaders must make it a priority to pass legislation that focuses on permanently housing Californians, and by making an ongoing financial commitment that spans beyond just a few years and at a level commensurate with the scale of our crisis and its solutions.

The following organizations and people with lived experience of homelessness support this statement:

  • Brilliant Corners
  • Corporation for Supportive Housing
  • Destination: Home
  • Housing California
  • Homebase
  • National Alliance to End Homelessness
  • PATH
  • The People Concern
  • Safe Place for Youth
  • Union Station Homeless Services
  • Western Center on Law & Poverty

Public Benefits Tip: How to Get Food Benefits in Three Days

HOW TO GET FOOD BENEFITS IN 3 DAYS

You may be able to get CalFresh food benefits within 3 days if:

• You have less than $150 in income and $100 in cash or in the bank ($100 in income for migrant or seasonal workers) or
• Your total income is less than your rent and utilities

The county will need proof of some information. All you need to show for 3-day benefits is proof of who you are. You can turn in other proof later if you cannot get it to the county in time to get CalFresh in 3 days.

No photo ID or applying by phone? The county can confirm your identity by calling someone who knows you. The county can also look in its recently
closed cases for a copy of your ID and other proof.

Tips:

✓ Ask to pick up the CalFresh EBT benefits card at the county office instead of by mail.
✓ If you apply in person or over the phone, ask if the county can interview you the same day.
✓ If you have an in-person interview, bring all the proof that you can (ID, income, citizenship or immigration status, housing costs). If you apply on-line,
upload all the documents you have.
✓ The county may ask you for other proof. Ask the worker for “deferred verification” if you need more time to turn in the proof. You then have 30 days
from your application to turn in the proof. Talk to a supervisor if the worker does not give you extra time.
✓ If the county decides you are not eligible to get CalFresh in 3 days, you can ask for an “agency conference” if you think you are eligible. If your situation
changes, contact the county worker.

No decision within 3 days?

• If the county does not act within 3 days, call the worker’s supervisor. You can also call (800) 743-8525 to ask for a hearing. Ask for an “expedited hearing” if you are running out of food.
• Even if the county finds you ineligible to get CalFresh in 3 days, you may still qualify for regular CalFresh. The county will decide in 30 days.

Need help? Contact your local free Legal Aid office. These offices are listed on the back of county notices.

*Materials created by Western Center on Law and Poverty

Download this information as a flyer to share with your networks: ES handout

Organizing For Vendor Justice in California

On the last Friday night of September, Mariachi Plaza was bursting with beautiful music and enticing aromas. It’s always bustling on a weekend, but this night was different.

Hundreds of cheerful street vendors, advocates, and supporters were gathered to celebrate the signing of SB 972 by Governor Gavin Newsom, which modernized the California Retail Food Code to be inclusive of street vendors.

This moment was special for street vendors in California. They made history by organizing, mobilizing, and fighting for their rights. This is a victory that will be retold alongside other stories of social justice movements, like the Justice for Janitors campaign and the United Farm Workers movement.

As I walked along all the food stands, I connected with vendors, community organizers, and other leaders who led this fight. Many of these leaders participated in the creation of the statewide coalition that won SB 972, and many were the same community members I once worked alongside.

In 2018, I had the opportunity to organize with vendors in Boyle Heights and the San Fernando Valley. For years, street vendors had been fighting criminalization and harassment. As one of two organizers on the ground, we prioritized co-organizing demonstrations with vendors when they were attacked or swept by the city. The saying I heard on the frontline was: if they mess with one of us, they mess with all of us.

Si se meten con una hormiga se meten con el hormiguero. 

The fight for street vendors was a fight for dignity. The road to SB 972 was paved by vendors’ relentless organizing, participation in forums and city council meetings, and one-on-one conversations with leaders throughout the region. These vendors stirred up “good trouble” in the form of civil disobedience, flooding council members’ offices, taking-over streets, and demonstrating at police stations. These countless years of organizing are what got SB 972 across the finish line.

Before leaving Mariachi Plaza, I stopped and spoke with Caridad Vasquez, a seasoned vendor leader who has long been involved in this fight. We made plans to speak the following week to talk about the impact of SB 972 and what this bill would mean for her.

She told me, “finally, justice was done for all street vendors, we can finally make a living legally. For so long, politicians and critics said that a food permit would not be possible, but here we are!”

Caridad has been a street vendor for over 40 years and has been part of the street vendor justice movement since the early 2000’s, when the LA Street Vendor Campaign was just taking shape. She was rejoiceful and looking forward to the work her organization Vendedores en Acción (Vendors in Action) will be involved in the following months.

She says, “many of us are recovering from the pandemic, some of us are still unemployed, others are behind on rent, and people’s recovery from the pandemic means supporting sidewalk vending.”

Caridad stresses that we should support the street vendor movement and continue to ensure a just implementation takes shape.

“Messing with the local sidewalk vendors means messing with all of us – we can all play a part by stopping injustice when we see it happen, we have a duty to contact elected officials and demand they continue to support the working people of our communities.”

Caridad is correct. Many vendor leaders like her are preparing at this moment to ensure implementation of SB 972 is a just one. Across the state, from Oakland to San Bernardino vendors and community advocates are assembling. This is just the beginning of another chapter in the story of this movement.

Until then, we should stand by and be ready to join the fight because… si se meten con una hormiga se meten con el hormiguero.

2022 Garden Party Earl Johnson Equal Justice Award Tribute

In the past fourteen years, the Equal Justice awards have been presented to a wide array of national, state, and local leaders in the legal aid world — from former U. S. Attorney General Eric Holder to California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso to local leaders like Judge Terry Hatter and USC Law Professor Claire Pastore. This year, we finally realized we had been overlooking two legal aid stars in the Center’s own backyard. Those stars are the Center’s long-time Litigation Director Dick Rothschild and it’s veteran General Counsel, Robert Newman.

After graduating Magna Cum Laude from Yale University, Dick Rothschild attended USC Law school— graduating in 1975 where he was Order of the Coif, second highest GPA in his class and the Notes and Articles Editor of the Law Review. He then clerked for California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk. With that outstanding resume, Dick was a top prospect for the largest, most prestigious law firms in town. But that was not what he wanted to do as a lawyer and in 1976, he chose instead to sign on as a staff Attorney at the Western Center. By 1984 he was elevated to be the Center’s Director of Litigation, the position he still occupies nearly four decades later. In that role, Dick not only manages the litigation staff and all the Center’s major cases, but frequently is personally involved as lead or co-counsel in those cases.

Meantime, Bob Newman earned both his undergraduate and law degrees at Yale , finishing in 1977 and moving to Los Angeles in 1979. The next few years Bob developed a successful practice representing individuals who had suffered at the hands of government. During that time he won several of multi-million dollar judgments for victims of police misconduct. In 1986, he brought that expertise in major litigation and class actions to the Western Center when he joined the staff as its General Counsel. Over the past three and a half decades, often teaming with other Western Center lawyers, he has successfully litigated scores of major class actions and test cases establishing new legal rights and improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of low income people. In addition, he shares his expertise and wisdom with other staff members when they face knotty problems in cases they are handling. While the rest of Western Center’s legal staff is unusually talented, they are even more productive and successful because the staff includes Bob and Dick with their deep reservoir of experience in complex litigation.

While this may be the first time Dick and Bob are receiving the Western Center’s Equal Justice Award, they have reputations in the legal aid and public interest community that range across the state and even nationally. This is evidenced by the many awards one or both of them have received from other organizations—among them the California Bar’s Loren Miller Award which Dick and Bob won in different years, the Lawyers’ Guild’s Robert Kenny Award which Bob received recently, and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association’s top award— the Kutak-Dodd Prize—which Dick earned a few years ago that goes to the outstanding legal aid lawyer in the country.

I am pleased, indeed honored, to add the Center’s Equal Justice Award to that list. It is especially meaningful for me because this time I have personally observed the contributions these two lawyers have made to the elusive goal of equal justice for all and to improving the lives of the poor and otherwise powerless. So I ask Dick Rothschild and Bob Newman to accept these Equal Justice Awards they have proven several times over that they have long deserved.