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How I Went from A Street Vendor to Organizing Street Vendors: A Conversation with Ana Cruz Juarez and Miguel Lucas Tax

For decades, street vendors provided food for their communities and law enforcement and health departments across the city of Los Angeles criminalized them for doing so. These vendors were disproportionately Black and Brown, often immigrants who provided food in low-income communities of color disproportionately harmed by food insecurity and food deserts. All of them operated in the informal economy, in a segregated system – upheld by outdated municipal codes and state retail food laws – that favored enforcement against and criminalization of street vendors. 

With SB 946, the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, and SB 972, the California Retail Food Code Act, street vending has been decriminalized, and food codes have been modernized to include and welcome sidewalk food vendors into our economy. This complete one-eighty occurred because of community organizing done well. And yet, enforcement of these wins has been a challenge. Western Center recently joined as counsel in a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles, challenging their unlawful and discriminatory “no vending zones.”  

A successful organizer not only engages one person and mobilizes them to take action. They also create such investment in the work that they develop new leaders who become organizers themselves and grow and lead the movement. In short, a great organizer doesn’t just bring people in at critical moments of mobilization. They facilitate those individuals’ growth as leaders in the movement and support developing their existing strengths. 

Ana Cruz Juarez and Miguel Lucas Tax are two such organizers. They actively work across Southern California, organizing street vendors from a non-profit organizing hub called the Community Power Collective (CPC). 

CPC has organized one of the most exciting policy campaigns in recent years. The LA Street Vendor Campaign began decades ago and has expanded into a massive statewide network, known as the California Street Vendor Campaign, which has numerous partners up and down the state. This growth stems from CPC’s vision to have the most impacted lead their own battles. And their hiring of Ana and Migueltwo influential leaders in the street vending community did just that. 

Ana Cruz Juarez 

When Ana Cruz Juarez began vending in Hollywood, other vendors shared their yearslong experience of harassment and inhumane treatment while working in the area. 

“If you think about it, street vendors who were selling before SB 946 lived a completely different experience from those selling after,” Ana shared.  

She was told that before vendors organized with the LA Street Vendor Campaign, many faced obstacles and feared harm from law enforcement. And with every story of harm, Ana began to visualize something bigger – an organizing program that not only spanned the city but was powerful enough to grow beyond the city’s boundaries. 

“I started to align my emotions to the emotions of others; the obstacles of others were my obstacles. What is happening to me locally as a street vendor is happening citywide, statewide, and in other states like New York. Our struggle is not just here but everywhere,” Ana said. 

Ana credits her successful organizing to understanding that movement leadership will continue to develop out of the meetings she is helping sidewalk vendors organize. She constantly uplifts other street vendors organizing and sees herself as a convener or facilitator of these spaces.  

She shares that vendors who are learning to organize themselves go from being one-time activists who attend council meetings to organizers themselves “who are building power by recruiting and educating other vendors.”  

Miguel Lucas Tax 

Like Ana, Miguel Lucas Tax went from vending to organizing other vendors. He would set up in Exposition Park, where street vendors like him were often targeted for selling hot dogs to sports fans and museum goers. “Vendors were intimidated. They felt voiceless, and they felt unheard,” he shares. 

Miguel was inspired by other street vendors he saw on YouTube defending themselves in street vending food hubs. Together with others, Miguel supported the early training of street vendors to use this tactic to stand their ground against harassment, intimidation, and unjust enforcement.  

“We learned to stand together with each of us providing security from the police. We’d say, ‘Don’t run. Stand next to your comrade; defend each other.” 

Local legal allies documented attacks on street vendors by the LAPD. This documentation would later form the basis for a lawsuit, leading to officer resignations.  

“I learned that when we organize ourselves and unite, we can win,” Miguel said. 

Organizing disrupts the power of the elite that sustains poverty and injustice. It seeks to live beyond a moment, a social media post or a spontaneous protest, and instead, aims to harnass that momentary energy to wage a planned and strategic campaign led by a collective or cadre who know the community. There is no “I” in organizing. Organizing calls on the “We” to lead. And at the heart of organizing is ordinary people. People directly impacted by the issue know they have power and can lead, if only they are given the space and time to grow as leaders of their community. They are the pulsing heart that drives movements. Without them, there is no hunger for change.  

That is who Ana and Miguel are. They collectively analyze and decipher the hidden social, political, and economic power that impacts vendors locally and across the state. They plan direct actions and recruit new street vendors daily who have never been involved in the movement. For them, the only way forward is to organize, struggle and win.  

 

We Can End Food Insecurity: CalFresh Awareness Month

Over 3 million Californians use CalFresh, California’s version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). CalFresh offers individuals and families a food and nutrition safety net. Californians saw a boost in their allotments during the COVID-19 pandemic: however, those are coming to an end.   

Across L.A County community-based organizations are actively doing outreach to enroll community members in CalFresh. Community-based organizations meet people where they are, often have lived experience, and share the cultural and linguistic needs of community members.  

A community kick off event and resource fair was held Thursday, May 4th at Amelia Mayberry Park in Whittier, CA to highlight CalFresh Awareness Month and connect families with this vital program.  

Other community events will be held throughout the month of May in partnership with 88 cities in the county, university and community college campuses, school districts, farmers markets, churches and others.  

This model of building on community networks has served as a “best practice” outreach strategy that has been implemented by other counties across California. 

Partnerships like these are possible thanks to funding from the Federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The Los Angeles Department of Public Social Services and Department of Public Health administer grants to community-based organizations who can raise awareness around food access and assist community members in registering for CalFresh.  

A recent study by the Public Exchange at the USC Dornsife College found that over 800,000 households in LA county experienced food insecurity between July 2021 to July 2022, an increase of 24% from the previous year. The impact on Black and Latino residents was three times higher than white residents.  

The hunger cliff continues to loom over many Californians. Without Congressional and State action, many Californians will see a steep decrease in their allotments, leading to preventable hunger.  

While politics are at play in the national scene, in our state there are important legislative efforts to increase CalFresh benefits, which have not kept pace with inflation. SB 600 by Senator Caroline Menjivar, co-sponsored by advocates like GRACE/End Child Poverty CA and Nourish CA, would raise the CalFresh minimum benefit to $50 a month.  

Food insecurity will be felt by communities that already face unjust economic and health disparities. Seniors are one of the many groups affected and in March we covered the story of two seniors struggling with food insecurity during their retirement. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. California, as the 4th largest economy in the nation, has the means and resources to ensure no one goes hungry. Food insecurity, like many other disparities, is entirely preventable. The pandemic showed how resources that are justly allocated can save lives and end poverty; will our lawmakers step up to prevent our State’s growing food insecurity?  

CalKids College Savings Account: a first step in building generational wealth

We are in a student debt crisis. Our national student debt stands at around 1.75 trillion dollars. President Biden proposed a policy last year in the fall that would cancel $10,000 for non-Pell grant recipients and $20,000 for Pell grant recipients that are low income. It has been met with legal challenge after legal challenge since it was proposed and has been paused and unpaused more times than my non-lawyer brain can process. While this plays out the racial wealth gap that many low-income Californians experience grows wider.  

Student debt and financial access to education are some of the many obstacles that communities of color face in our state. Student debt is a lifelong burden that impacts generational wealth. One study shows that after 20 years, Black borrowers still owe 95% of their original loans.  

Last Fall, California launched a program called the California Kids Investment and Development Savings program (CalKids) that will invest in low-income students by providing an initial seed deposit for them to save for college. 

All children born on or after July 1, 2022, can receive up to $100 in a college savings account. Additionally, eligible low-income public school students can receive up to $1,500 in a college savings account.  

With so many other trends happening with higher education this is positive news for low-income communities and communities of color.  

Many students rely heavily on loans to finance higher education due to sharp increases in costs for state and private universities. Whether it’s the culture of granting Wall Street size compensation to administrative positions like university presidents or the growing financial dependency of state universities on private donors rather than public funds, all these factors contribute to the priorities of higher education institutions.  

It’s long past time we focused on making higher education affordable and accessible to all. CalKids is a strong first step in addressing the financial barriers many low-income Californians face when deciding to pursue higher education and all its costs beyond tuition, like housing, food, textbooks, and more. No one should go into debt to get a degree.  

The CalFresh Hunger Games: Free falling into food insecurity with no rescue in sight.

“For politicians our hunger is a game, they want to see you starve to death before they help and say, ‘I saved these people’s lives and I took action to stop hunger in our community,’” Jesus Zavala reflects. Jesus Zavala and Alicia Zavala are both retired seniors living in East Los Angeles. They are also my parents. And after working in difficult environments their entire lives, I had hoped they could settle into an easy retirement. Instead, they have faced hardship, including constant food instability in recent years, an uneasy retirement.

 

Before coming to the United States, my father and mother worked the fields of Alta and Baja California. When they moved here with my grandfather, who came to the U.S through the Bracero Program after World War II ended, my parents naturally found work throughout the Imperial Valley right over the border from Mexico. Eventually they migrated north to the neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles where they have lived ever since.

 

Like many retirees, my parents were hit hard during the COVID-19 pandemic which exacerbated existing economic inequity. During the pandemic, they rushed to sign up for SNAP/CalFresh. Thanks to this cushion of federally funded emergency allotments, they have managed to get by.

 

According to the U.S Department of Agriculture over 80% of SNAP beneficiaries across the country are working class families, people with disabilities, or seniors. Individual SNAP recipients on average received around $100 dollars while families received benefits based on their household size during the pandemic.

 

Although the federal government has extended the public health emergency until early May, it has stopped all funding for food stamps that began during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

As of March 2023, food benefit amounts are now based on household income rather than the size of a household. This means that right now these federal funding cuts to CalFresh are tearing through the food security of nearly 3 million households in our state. 

 

“We lost $160 in food benefits, which leaves us with $250 to eat for the rest of March,” shares Alicia. She is a retired Teamster School Bus Driver. She smiles as she greets the adversity she is sharing with the hope and grit you find in strong union mujeres.

 

Jesus adds, “Picture this… we get around $1,900 collectively from Social Security, our mortgage is around $1,700 that leaves us with $200 cash to survive with, plus car payments, car insurance, gas, and other expenses that we all know too well.” He has worked on classic cars since he arrived in Los Angeles. He learned the trade of building muscle car engines under direction of famed hot-rodder John Geraghty.

 

He continues “At this point I have knee issues, it’s difficult to work the same way I did 30 years ago and even if I could work on classic cars on the side, the government would automatically take any current food benefits I have. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

 

More changes to SNAP programs are sure to come when the federal public health emergency ends on May 11, 2023, especially with SNAP benefits being eyed for potential federal cuts in the ongoing debt limit debate in Congress.

 

While politics are at play on the national scene, in our state there are some legislative efforts forming to respond. A bill was introduced in the California legislature on February 15 that would establish a minimum benefit in the CalFresh program by January 2025.

 

Jesus and Alicia are getting by with a tight budget. They budget in the face of rising inflation where prices on milk, eggs, and bread are skyrocketing. For them community driven food banks have been a blessing. “This is the reality for many Californians, we are doing our best to get by, our neighbors who are also retired are in a similar situation, others we know live in a house or apartment where multiple families are living in under one roof, it is the only way to survive, but we are running out of time,” says Jesus. 

 

For many time has run out, these are difficult times for far too many people in California whether we are talking about the unhoused, low-income, people of color  or working-class communities. Californians are falling off a hunger cliff at this very moment and there are no permanent policy solutions to address the food insecurity many in our state are facing.  

 

As the contradictions of today’s financialized capitalist system unravel, we must imagine new ways to address this persistent economic bifurcation of a state of prosperity and a state of precariousness.We must address the growing gap between rich and poor that continues to spread under the contagion of monopoly-finance capital. 

 

Make no mistake the gilded facade of California is peeling, and we can not sweep the flakes under the rug. Californians in poverty need a New Deal, and they need it now. 

Why We Sued to End CARE Court

An unprecedented number of Californians live on the streets and face severe mental illness. It is gut wrenching to see. The CARE Act accurately describes this humanitarian crisis but prescribes a wrong, inhumane solution. Not only is creating this new court system to round up individuals unconstitutional, it is bad policy subject to pervasive societal biases and disproven methods of treating mental illness. That is why on January 26, Disability Rights California, Western Center on Law & Poverty, and the Public Interest Law Project sued Governor Newsom to put an end to CARE Court.

Contrary to some strong opinions that CARE Court is “California’s only real plan for helping our most vulnerable and seriously mentally ill,” Governor Newsom never planned to truly provide behavioral health treatment and housing through this bill. The CARE Act does not mandate counties to provide behavioral health treatment or housing; it creates no new rights or benefits for people with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders who are summoned to court to join the CARE process. Rather, all CARE Court-ordered services are “subject to available funding and all applicable federal and state statute and regulations, contractual provisions, and policy guidance governing initial and ongoing program eligibility” (Welf. & Inst. Code § 5982(d)). In other words, services will only be provided as they are available.

Here’s a reality check for Sacramento: behavioral health and housing services are not available to all Californians. A person who needs treatment and housing usually cannot receive either in a timely manner because there are not enough mental health providers, facilities, and affordable housing units to access.

A UCSF study projected that if nothing significant changes by 2028, California will have 50% fewer psychiatrists to meet demand for behavioral health services, and 28% fewer psychologists, therapists, and social workers combined to meet the demand. We see this play out daily with stark disparities based on income and race. For example, in Compton, there are only five licensed psychologists compared to Santa Monica, which has 361.

Compounding CARE Court’s false promises is the affordable housing shortage. There is a shortage of 1 million affordable rental homes for extremely low income renters. And the CARE Act does not appropriate one single penny for housing.

The CARE Act pretends this backlog of services and housing does not exist, despite advocates’ cries to increase funding for our behavioral health systems and affordable housing instead of funding new courts. If we invested in behavioral health and housing to their full level of need, and give some time for the workforce to catch up, we would already have a better plan than CARE Court.

So, if not guaranteeing behavioral health or housing services, what does the CARE Act provide? The law paves the way to eventually institutionalize people who are unhoused and have schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, out of sight from the very people who support CARE Court.

The biggest lie about CARE Court is that it is not involuntary treatment. CARE Court is an involuntary, coercive system. There are consequences for not following through with a CARE plan. When a person does not comply with the exact terms of a CARE plan, the court must refer the person for conservatorship with “a presumption . . . the [person] needs additional intervention beyond the supports and services provided by the CARE plan” (Welf. & Inst. Code § 5979(a)(3)). A person who, for any reason, does not follow through their court order, would more easily be conserved and lose their rights to control their own medical care, finances, and housing preferences. No matter how Governor Newsom and his proponents want to spin CARE Court, the law speaks for itself.

Existing laws already provide for involuntary treatment of persons found dangerous to themselves or others. But the CARE Act takes this a giant step further by permitting a judge to impose restrictions on persons deemed “likely” to become dangerous. Little guidance is offered for judges to make that speculative determination.

The CARE Act was enacted despite any evidence that it would be effective. As Disability Rights California wrote in May 2022 on behalf of our coalition opposing the CARE Act, voluntary treatment works and involuntary treatment does not:

[N]o studies exist to prove that a court order for outpatient treatment in and of itself has any independent effect on client outcomes. Studies show that any positive effects that result from outpatient commitment are due to the provision of intensive services, and whether court orders have any effect at all in the absence of intensive treatment is an unanswered question.

In determining how we provide medical care and housing for Californians, our civil rights and social policies can co-exist. The state should house people first, then let people decide their course of treatment. The Legislature has not explained why it cannot appropriate resources to fund all medically necessary care and permanent affordable housing for individuals and also protect their dignity and privacy interests at the same time. What is clear is that faced at a moral crossroads, Governor Newsom and the Legislature chose a more politically expedient route instead of a benevolent and effective one.

The Fight to KEEP LA HOUSED over the Holidays: ‘Twas the season to extend emergency protections for tenants past December 31st in LA County

On the morning of December 16, leaders from Eastside Leads, ACCE, SAJE, and KEEP L.A Housed gathered at the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors meeting. They mobilized to call on elected officials to extend emergency protections for tenants. Many in attendance rescheduled shifts (which is not easy) with their employers to show up in person. Many struggled to secure childcare and be present at the meeting to give their testimonials as constituents.

During COVID, general public comment was itemized at the beginning of the agenda for all meetings. To the community’s surprise, general public comment was suddenly moved to the end of the agenda. The local media covering the story of tenant protections was stunned as well.

What started as a group of 100 or so community members and advocates, dwindled to 30 members by noon. Many had to go to work or leave to pick up kids from school. Organizers ordered food for those who stayed and were hungry.

Tenant leaders were already restless because certain supervisors refused for weeks to meet with them personally. One leader stood up and said, “We cannot wait! We don’t want residents to go homeless; if you don’t extend tenant protections, a lot of tenants will go homeless. We are your constituents, meet with us.”

“What do we want!” shouted another tenant community leader. A crowd made up of tenants shouted in response, “Extend emergency protections for tenants!”

“You are disrupting the meeting, please leave” said LA County Sheriffs at the meeting. Slowly folks were encircled by law enforcement and moved out of the room.

Outside, organizers wrapped up the day with members who were frustrated, waiting there since 7:00 in the morning.

Another tenant shared, “I know they say that they are tired of hearing that we need to extend tenant protections, but it’s the truth! This is the reality we live in! We need elected officials to support tenants! Locally and at the state level! People are losing a place to stay!”

For the rest of December, tenants called on all Los Angeles Board of Supervisors to support extending the emergency tenant protections. Their long-term goal is to organize for permanent protections that will prevent the increasing number of tenants losing housing.

After a round of meetings with elected officials, community groups returned to the LA Board of Supervisors meeting on December 20 to make public comment. A motion was made by Supervisor Holly Mitchell to extend the emergency tenant protections until January 31st, 2023.

Supervisor Hilda Solis added an amendment for a report back on January 31st for a possible extension until June 31st, 2023. The motion also included the creation of a $5 million relief program for “mom and pop” landlords who were, according to Solis, unable to collect rent when emergency tenant protections have been in place.

During public comment, tenants and organizers spoke at length. The community called on county supervisors to pass this motion.

Pamela Agustin from Eastside Leads and a tenant in County District 5 stressed the problems of the ERAP program that has left many tenants in limbo.

“I support the motion to extend for a 30-day report back to extend the extension for 6 more months. I have seen how these tenant protections that you have passed have been a lifeline for families — it’s given the ability for families to stay whole and avoid a family member from becoming houseless.”

Pamela Augustin adds, “We are also waiting on ERAP; over 179 tenants were helped by my organization, and they have not heard from the state.”

A tenant leader with Eastside Leads called on the board to champion more permanent protections. “We ask that tenant protections that end this December 31st be extended for 6 more months. It’s important we come up with permanent protections for tenants. There are thousands of families ending up in the street.”

Carla de Paz organizer with Community Power Collective said, “we are working in Lynwood to figure out how to implement more permanent protections, but a 1-month extension is not going to be enough time. Small cities like Lynwood are waiting to work with the board to get the tools they need to implement permanent protections.”

The LA County Board of Supervisors was moved by the power of these tenants and organizers. The motion passed!

For many this is an important win but it was made resoundingly clear that being okay with tenants losing housing cannot be normalized. Whether Sacramento or local governments across California want to hear it or not, people are suffering. We need action in 2023!

As Carla de Paz said in her public comment to the LA County Board of Supervisors, “the best way to fight homelessness is to keep people housed.”

Community members impacted directly by the ongoing housing crisis and the Keep LA Housed coalition will continue their advocacy this month and beyond.

They will continue to mobilize to ensure that the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors acts to protect tenants. Constituents are being evicted everyday in Los Angeles. Tenants will continue to struggle until we reimagine housing as universal human right.

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!”

 

 

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.

CA lawmakers consider ending disaster price-gouging protections as high prices squeeze Californians

In the last several years, California has experienced devastating wildfires, extreme drought, a deadly pandemic, and the worst methane leak in U.S. history, among other emergencies. Unfortunately, some California landlords see opportunity in disaster. For example, after the 2015 methane leak in Aliso Canyon, landlords charged victims up to $9000 for temporary shelter. After the 2017 North Bay fires, landlords increased rents for victims by up to 36%.

Disasters aren’t new for California, but against the state’s worsening housing crisis, the importance of accessible, stable housing after disaster is clear.

The passage of AB 2820 and AB 1919 in California was meant to stop blatantly predatory conduct after disaster and strengthen protections for victims of price gouging in emergencies. Now, a few years and natural disasters later, those protections are under attack via a bill currently moving through the state legislature, SB 1133 (Archuleta). SB 1133 will undo decades of price gouging protections for Californians at a time when the state is reeling from both natural and man-made disasters and gives a green light to unscrupulous landlords to prey upon victims of emergencies by increasing rents above the allowable 10% during declarations of emergency. California can’t afford for SB 1133 to become law.

SB 1133 seeks to eliminate housing from the anti-price gouging protections in Penal Code Section 396, which is a provision of law used by advocates across the state to prevent excessive rent increases for disaster victims. When I was a tenant attorney in Los Angeles, I once relied on those anti-price gouging protections for housing to prevent unjustified and excessive rent increases for a building full of elders after a corporate landlord purchased their building. When the building sold, the new owner quickly increased rents by over 60% for everyone there, many of whom were disabled elders and all of whom already spent between 30%-40% of their limited fixed incomes on rent. The rent increases would have forced them out of their homes — the only law that kept them housed was the anti-price gouging protections for housing in PC Section 396.

Proponents of SB 1133 claim that businesses are unfairly subject to unjust punishment because of PC Section 396. However, landlords who price gouge are hardly prosecuted under this section. For example, landlords increased rent by up to 36% after the 2017 North Bay fires, which scorched more than 200,000 acres of land and forced 90,000 people to evacuate their homes. Even though the Sonoma County District attorney’s office investigated over 220 complaints of price gouging, they only filed four criminal cases against the most egregious actors, and the Attorney General only filed one criminal case. Meanwhile, people were forced to live among the toxic smoke of their burnt homes because they couldn’t afford a home to rent. SB 1133 isn’t about addressing unjust prosecution; it’s about money and creating opportunity for profit, even when the opportunity is people in need of housing after they’ve lost theirs.

Additionally, the bill’s sponsor (the California Apartment Association, a landlord lobbying group) and author say SB 1133 is necessary to increase transparency for businesses that get confused about compliance during a declaration of emergency, even though businesses have resources available at the local and state levels to determine if a proclamation of emergency is in effect. SB 1133 is not about ensuring businesses are less “confused” about emergency proclamations – that’s already in the law.

We know surviving a disaster adversely impacts individuals and communities. Studies show that long after disaster, individuals experience post-traumatic stress due to housing loss, increased health conditions like stroke, heart disease, and lifelong chronic illnesses, and increased homelessness – all of which disproportionately impact people of color.  These individual impacts coalesce to impact whole communities.

The devastating community impact after the 2018 Camp Fire — the most destructive in California history — is still felt today. The Camp Fire displaced over 80% of Paradise’s population and destroyed 90% of housing. Consequently, people were forced into neighboring communities like Chico that didn’t have the capacity to house them. At that moment, some Chico landlords increased rents by 15%, creating an immoral bidding war among survivors who were sleeping in garages, tents, and shelters. Years after the Camp Fire, communities in Paradise and the surrounding areas have seen increased housing instability and homelessness. If passed, SB1133 would allow corporations and unscrupulous landlords to capitalize on the needs of people like those who survived the Camp Fire when they are trying to survive.

You might think a bill with this much impact would receive special consideration by legislators – particularly those representing districts with victims of past and future disaster. Not only was there very little discussion about the devastating yet highly predictable potential impacts of SB 1133, the bill also passed out of its legislative policy committee with a majority vote.

But the legislature is still in session, and there is time to stop the bill. SB 1133 is currently in the California Assembly’s Appropriations Committee awaiting an August hearing date, where we will demand elected representatives vote against greed and protect displaced Californians.

Help stop price gouging after disaster. Call your state legislator and demand a NO vote on SB 1133.