Labor in Los Angeles: A Survey of Contemporary Issues and Historical Roots of the Garment Industry, Public Education, App-Based Gig Economy, and Public Sector Employment

by Ashley Michel Flores

To encourage labor education outside of the classroom, communications team member and labor studies student Ashley Michel created a weekly social media graphic series that shares informative, yet easily-digestible, content about labor history and current workplace issues. Recognizing that social media merely serves as a starting point for individuals to learn about issues, Michel takes a deeper dive into the topics highlighted in the series in the blog post below. 

As part of the Labor Studies weekly social media series, we explored Los Angeles’ rich labor organizing history. While at first glance, LA may not be a labor historian’s first guess as the epicenter for labor mobilizing, this series proved differently.

Through our exploration of the garment industry, the public school system, the app-based gig economy, and the public sector, we learned that each provided instances of everyday workers rising up and organizing for equity for immigrants rights, Black workers’ rights, working-class BIPOC youth and misclassified, precarious workers. With our recently-launched course, Labor Studies M115: We Gone Be Alright: Developing the Next Generation of Black Organizers, in partnership with Center for the Advancement of Racial Equity (CARE) at Work initiative, we also explored a relationship between the university and the community that intends to further a research justice and grassroots organizing approach to addressing underemployment and racial equity in Los Angeles. 

Garment Industry 

The series kicked off with a survey of labor and social movements and the current conditions of some of our most vulnerable sectors in our local economy. We took a look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the disparities between rank-and-file garment workers and their profit-producing employers. 

Meager piece rate wages amount to subminimum wages in many cases, barely allowing workers to scrape by even in non-pandemic circumstances. During COVID-19, thousands of garment workers in Los Angeles were laid off due to the pandemic, leaving workers vulnerable to severe economic hardship with little to no safety net. For those that have been unable to access federal programs like unemployment insurance or federal stimulus checks due to under-the-table employment or undocumented immigration status, the pandemic has been even more challenging. 

Globally, the consequences are equally staggering. According to Labour Behind the Label, a U.K.-based nonprofit focused on workers’ rights in the global garment industry, garment workers worldwide lost more than $5 billion in wages due to decreased demand of textile goods, which led corporations to cancel orders that were already completed in advance. 

Today, United Students Against Sweatshops and the Garment Worker Center are two organizations that have taken action against wage theft and workplace issues at garment factories. The Garment Worker Center and local elected officials, Senator Maria Elena Durazo (SD-24) and Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (AD-80), are currently advancing legislation that aims to hold garment companies accountable. The bill, SB62, expands liability to retailers, eliminates the piece-rate system, and enables the Labor Commissioner’s Bureau of Field Enforcement to investigate claims of wage theft. 

Recent garment organizing is an extension of a longstanding tradition of organizing in Los Angeles, dating back to the 1930s when Mexican and Chicana seamstresses and ILGWU organizers formed an intercultural coalition to improve their working conditions. Their efforts culminated in a three-week long general strike in 1933 that concluded after the federal government demanded that garment retailers meet strikers at the bargaining table. As a result, wages were raised, but long-term policy changes were not achieved.

The Public School System

Next, we explored how teachers unions are leading an organizing agenda called “bargaining for the public good,” that also includes social equity issues. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the local teachers union that represents employees of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), works toward racial justice and social justice through a concerted effort between education justice organizations and school-aged youth.

On the ground, youth, teachers, and community members carry demands to the local school board for investment in Black and Brown LAUSD students including funding for arts and extracurricular programs, fully staffed public schools, and greater pathways for career and college readiness.

Students Deserve is a grassroots, Black youth-led organization at the forefront of the movement to make Black Lives Matter in schools. In mid-February 2021, the group secured a historic, three-pronged victory: removal of sworn police officers from school campuses, $36 million in funding for school investment instead of policing, and the conversion of 10 traditional public schools with high populations of Black students to the public community school model.

This victory was secured after years of students organizing around ending arbitrary searches and growing police presence in schools. In the past two decades, researchers from UTLA and partner organizations found that school policing in Los Angeles had expanded dramatically, growing 50% between 2005-2019. Additionally, universities, unions, research centers, and grassroots organizations found that school police disproportionately target and criminalize students of color, specifically Black students.

Meanwhile, majority Black and Brown schools in working class neighborhoods were underfunded. Many schools had outdated, dilapidated classrooms and supplies, did not have nurses on-site or adequately resourced counseling units. These inequities amounted to opportunity gaps in college readiness and graduation rates between predominantly white schools and schools composed of a majority of Black and Brown students. 

In recent years addressing the opportunity gap (commonly misidentified as an “achievement gap”) was an object of importance for service-worker trade unions and local grassroots organizations, namely SEIU, UNITE HERE Local 11, and InnerCity Struggle. In the early 2000s, researchers identified a pattern: children of service sector union members had significantly lower graduation rates than their affluent counterparts. Education policy researchers believe that lack of access to quality public education is a legacy of housing segregation, which has roots in redlining practices of the 1930s, and inequitable funding formulas. 

In 2010, a coalition of union and community advocates launched a campaign aimed at ensuring that every LAUSD high school had access to A-G Course Requirements. After years of organizing, a policy known as Equity in A-G passed, which invested $31 million in academic support for college preparation courses over two years. By 2016, a historic 80% of Eastside high school students graduated with A-G courses fulfilled, speaking to a significant correlation between investment and student achievement.

Gig Economy

Our third theme focused on app-based ride sharing and delivery gig work. In 2019, California legislators passed Assembly Bill 5, a measure that reclassified gig workers from independent contractors to employees. Immediately after its passage, the law received hefty backlash from app companies who refused to classify their employees correctly. To challenge AB5, Uber and Lyft decided on taking a different strategy: launching a ballot campaign. 

Gig giants poured $200 million in media advertising for the 2020 Election cycle, and in November of last year, the proposition passed by majority approval. Labor activists warn that Proposition 22’s success could signal to other companies that policy can be bought if they are packaged with compelling messaging that emphasizes flexibility, accessibility, and loosely-defined benefits.

A few months after Proposition 22 passed, app-based drivers and delivery workers found that these benefits are not as great as promised. For example, the health coverage offered by companies only amounts to $400 of health coverage a month. In order to qualify, users must hit “maximum” hours status or 25 “engaged” hours a week, though workers could be actually behind the wheel for a total of 40 hours or more without reaching the 25 “engaged” hours mark. Moreover, according to UC Berkeley Labor Center, independent studies consistently find that a majority of Lyft and Uber drivers earn less than the California minimum wage. 

Gig worker organizations, like Gig Workers Rising and Rideshare Drivers United, are still advocating for labor justice in the aftermath of Prop 22 through lobbying, taking direct action for COVID-19 safety, and developing their own app that shares legal resources for app-based drivers.

Protecting Public Sector Employment

Last but not least, we took a look at one of UCLA Labor Center’s first reports informed by COVID-19 impacts, which highlighted the public sector as a key sector of the economy for fair employment among Black workers. The report, titled “Reimagined Recovery: Black Workers, the Public Sector, and COVID-19, found that Black workers in the public sector in Los Angeles County earn 46% more than private sector workers. Additionally, rates of homeownership and union representation are significantly higher among public sector workers.

For these reasons, lead researchers from the new UCLA Center for Advancing Racial Equity at Work (CARE at Work) initiative recommend that public sector employment be included in the local and state COVID-19 recovery plan. In the report, researchers also found that during economic and humanitarian crises, the public sector is typically the first to be cut; therefore, the report urges a halt to this pattern of austerity.

Looking forward, CARE at Work is continuing to promote a community-driven approach to exacting social change and racial justice in Los Angeles and throughout the country, and one way they are doing so is by creating a pathway for future generations of Black organizers. This spring, UCLA Labor Center Project Director Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, and Transformative Justice leader and artist Cecelia Jordan, are leading “We Gone Be Alright: Developing the Next Generation of Black Organizers,” a class that embraces the duality of the historical legacy of black community organizing as well as the modern tools and strategies for systems-change.

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, workers are standing up for workplace justice in ways never seen before. Undoubtedly, we are standing at a pivotal moment in labor history as our social, economic, and political conditions now face a landscape that is changing by the day. History provides an insightful look into how workers have fought back and won, even when the odds seemed insurmountable. At this point in history, workers are encountering some of the most dire material conditions ever seen before. 

As students in Labor Studies, we are tasked with knowing these trends and leading a movement for economic justice. It is humbling to know that as our network of student organizers continues to grow, more and more people will look to us. By studying our city and the story of our workers, I am confident that we will create a bright future.