The Los Angeles labor movement is front and center in national news, as over 100,000 union members are currently out on strike fighting for livable wages, housing, and battling the ills of unfettered corporate greed.
Right in the thick of it is Yvonne Wheeler, the newly appointed president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. In this capacity, Wheeler serves as chief advocate for unity and community among thousands of members.
With writers, actors, and hospitality workers all on the picket line, Wheeler’s job is daunting, yet she remains determined and focused on her mission to rebuild, unify, and strengthen all facets of L.A.’s workforce.
A veteran labor, civil rights and community activist, Wheeler is the first African American woman to hold the office in the L.A. County Fed’s 100-year history. She was elected to the position last November following the abrupt resignation of Ron Herrera.
Herrera was secretly recorded, along with other Latino leaders, plotting to influence the L.A. City Council redistricting process to ensure a Latino majority at the expense of African American districts. The resulting fallout increased tensions and mistrust between the two groups.
“Because I came into this office on the heels of a crisis, my number one priority was to heal our relationships with our community partners and I believe that we’ve made some significant progress on that front, but we know that our job is not yet done. We must continue to be intentional in our efforts to build with our community allies, as it’s a never-ending process,” said Wheeler, who previously served as a L.A. County Fed vice president and as national representative for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).
“From that unity of the labor movement, we were instrumental in electing two mayors – Karen Bass in Los Angeles and Rex Richardson in Long Beach – and we helped pass Proposition ULA, which will aid homelessness prevention,” she added.
Now, with Labor Day drawing near, L.A. has three unions striking and Kaiser Permanente staff threatening to stop work. The situation appears dire, but Wheeler approaches it with her typical optimism and resolve.
“Yes, we have about 100,000 union members on strike, but the movement is strong, and we are united and rallying around each other’s strikes,” insisted Wheeler.
“We want every worker to have a roof over their heads and food on their tables. We also want workers to have the ability to earn dignified wages and benefits so they can afford to live where they work.
“For example, we are asking to increase the pay of hospitality workers to $25 an hour, which is still pretty low for Los Angeles where it takes about $42 an hour for a single parent in a two-bedroom apartment to live,” she explained.
“Currently, it’s just not affordable to live in Los Angeles, so whether you’re striking in Hollywood or at a hotel, the issues are the same. It’s corporate greed. CEOs are making millions of dollars in profits. But they’re not sharing those profits with the workers,” Wheeler noted.
In an effort to address housing affordability, Wheeler said that LA County Fed will partner with local cities and agencies to host a poverty and homelessness summit. The summit will focus on creating pathways from local communities, where good jobs are typically scarce, into good union jobs that provide people with good pay, benefits, and a pathway out of working poverty.
As L.A. County Fed president sees it, “We should refocus on the dignity of the work, and no one should be one paycheck away from becoming homeless. For example, if we want to focus on building more affordable housing, which is a dire community need, we should do so with union labor that hires local residents. That solves real time issues facing our community, creates good union jobs, and helps to break generational cycles of poverty that have traditionally plagued our communities.”
According to Wheeler, the upcoming Labor Day observance is a good prelude to the summit because citizens can reflect on the movement’s decades-long call for an equitable and acceptable quality of life for every worker.
“I hope the public will remember that union members are part of the community. We live in the community, and when union workers are uplifted, we uplift the entire community as well,” Wheeler said.
“The country just celebrated the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, which was about jobs and freedom. A. Phillip Randolph, one of the march’s organizers cited a list of demands that they would deliver to President Kennedy,” she recalled.
“They demanded equal access to jobs, public accommodations, and voting rights. They called for full employment and a raise in the minimum wage. Randolph pledged to persist until every demand had been fulfilled,” said Wheeler.
“I try to live my life based on the principles and teachings of A. Phillip Randolph.”