LA County workers march for higher wages with strike looming

Thousands of Los Angeles County workers, including nurses, social workers and custodians, marched in downtown LA Thursday, demanding higher wages and less outsourcing as their union contract was set to expire at midnight.

Nurse practitioners Cindy Sarami and Angeli Bautista took time off from their jobs to send a “personal message” to management.

“We worked long hours throughout the pandemic in crowded settings and were told we were ‘healthcare heroes,’” said Sarami, 60, who works at El Monte Comprehensive Health Center with Bautista. “Now the county feels it’s OK to treat us like zeroes.”

The contract covers about 55,000 county workers who are members of Service Employees International Union Local 721.

One sticking point in the negotiations, which have gone on for the last four months after both sides agreed to a temporary six-month contract, is the size of an annual raise.

According to SEIU officials, the county has offered a 2% raise each year for the next three years.

SEIU 721 President David Green said inflation this year alone is higher than the 6% proposed by the county over three years.

The rate of inflation for the 12-month period ending in February was 7.9% before seasonal adjustment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Union members also want the county to hire more staff and stop outsourcing jobs to private contractors, Green said.

According to Green, the county has been bringing in outside travel nurses and translators, who earn significant more than regular employees.

“These are our front-line workers and first responders who led us through and are still leading us through this pandemic,” Green said. “[Today] is really about a show of force and also putting pressure on LA County and the CEO.”

A representative for LA County Chief Executive Fesia Davenport, who is overseeing the negotiations, released a statement:

“LA County and Service Employees International Union Local 721 are currently engaged in good-faith negotiations and both sides are exchanging proposals. We are hopeful that we will reach agreement soon on a fair contract that is fiscally responsible and also recognize the important contributions of our valued employees.”

About 3,000 workers from SEIU Local 721 rally in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

After a rally at City Hall, the workers marched around downtown, dressed in the union’s colors of purple and gold. They hold signs reading “Respect us, pay us, protect us,” “2% for milk only” and “Fair wage increase for all.”

A strike, which would require a vote of the membership, was possible if the two sides could not come to an agreement, Green said.

Green, a children’s social worker, participated in the last strike by SEIU-represented county workers, which lasted six days in December 2013.

County eligible worker Junue Millan, 40, took a breather as James Brown’s “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” blasted from a truck.

He said he wasn’t surprised by the “county’s low offer,” adding that a strike was the next logical step.

“I’m not sure what else is left,” Millan said. “They know they need to pay more and respect us and what we do. If we have to strike, we will.”

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