The Olympic wage

“We’re demanding a new deal for the Olympics that includes family-sustaining jobs and affordable housing for workers"

Six workers holding up their fists wearing shirts that identify them as airport workers in the chambers of LA's City Hall
SEIU-USWW member Jovan Houston, in green, and her fellow airport workers at City Hall on May Day

When millions of visitors arrive in LA for one of the region's megaevents, the very first person they encounter will be someone like Jovan Houston. Most mornings, Houston wakes up at 3:30 a.m. to be on time for her customer service job, greeting and directing passengers traveling through LAX. Some of her coworkers have two- and three-hour commutes, but she considers herself lucky; Houston lives close to the airport, on the Inglewood border — near where the opening ceremonies will kick off the "seven Super Bowls a day" of the Olympics in 2028. And the World Cup in 2026. As well as the actual Super Bowl in 2027.

Houston has been thinking about how living at the ground zero for games will change her life over the next four years. "I'm going to be impacted a lot," she told me. Houston is worried about traffic and getting home in time to be with her teenage son. "It's already hell getting down Century Boulevard." At the same time, rent increases around the Inglewood sports megaplex have been well-documented, and Houston is wondering how much longer she can afford to stay there. As one of LA's tourism workers, the city's $34.5 billion tourism industry would not survive without her. Yet Houston currently makes $19/hour, which is not enough for her to survive in LA. "My city is changing. A lot of people are moving out," she says. "But I'm a fighter. And I fight for the people that I work with." For the past year, Houston, who is a member of SEIU-United Service Workers, has been organizing with unions and advocates in a regional campaign to raise the minimum wage for tourism workers to $25/hour immediately, with an escalator to $30/hour by 2028. They're calling it an Olympic wage.

"Olympic Host City Raises Tourism Industry Wages" seems like a headline that supposedly labor-friendly politicians would want thrust into the international spotlight. It would also be very much in line with other LA efforts to boost pay for city workers who have been deemed crucial to megaevent success. Earlier this month, DASH bus operators got a minimum wage increase which will grow to $25.36/hour in the next fiscal year. But LA's Olympic wage motion, which was introduced about a year ago, is stuck in limbo, currently awaiting the completion of an economic impact report. In the meantime, hotels and airlines have come out swinging, arguing that a wage increase for 36,000 eligible workers would financially ruin industries still recovering from the pandemic. (Industries that, it should be noted, also received billions of federal dollars in bailouts.)

Standing before the council with Houston this morning as part of a May Day proclamation, SEIU-USWW secretary-treasurer Alejandra Valles was blunt. "No more recognition," she said. "You have the power to sign on to raise the living wage. And you don't need a study." Valles reached over and placed her hand on Houston. "This is your study."

The last time LA boosted the minimum wage for hotel workers was in 2014, and hotel owners raised similar alarms about the imminent demise of LA tourism. But 10-year analysis by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy shows that never happened. "Our research found that not only did the industry's dire predictions of economic decline fail to materialize, but the opposite came true," says Jessica Durrum, LAANE's deputy director, who is also directing the Olympic wage campaign. "The last time Los Angeles enacted a major wage increase in the tourism industry, we saw even more economic prosperity, with growth by every measure: more jobs, higher profits, new construction, and increased tax revenue into the city's coffers."

While the city of LA lags, one big win for the Olympic wage has been scored. In March, Long Beach passed Measure RW, which will raise tourism worker wages to $23/hour by July — the highest minimum wage in the entire country — and $29.50/hour by 2028. (Long Beach has to vote to raise their minimum wage, LA does not.) At a ULI Los Angeles event last week, Long Beach deputy mayor Lucius Martin praised the passage of Measure RW, equating its civic importance to the $758 million allocated to Elevate '28, a citywide plan to upgrade streets, parks, and other public spaces ahead of the Olympics. Investing in infrastructure and the workers who can stick around to use that new sidewalk? Now that's how you do a legacy improvement.

The Olympic wage is only one part of what tourism workers need; they also need better contracts. If you remember back to the unprecedented solidarity of Hot Labor Summer — is every summer a Hot Labor Summer now? — while the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes were shutting down Hollywood, workers from Unite Here Local 11 were staging their own walkouts targeting out-of-contract hotels. Over 10,000 workers took part in short-term work stoppages at 52 hotels, the largest strike in hotel worker history. It's working: as of this week, 46 contracts with hotels have been ratified. And all those contracts expire January 15, 2028 — a date that was very carefully chosen to coincide with what will be happening in LA exactly six months later.

"We’re demanding a new deal for the Olympics that includes family-sustaining jobs and affordable housing for workers," Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11, said at a March rally. "And let me say, if they do not give us that new deal, are we ready to do what it takes?”

While the Olympics gives LA workers immense leverage to renegotiate on a global stage, 2028 is set to be a watershed year for labor nationwide. Coming off the longest autoworker strike in 25 years, the UAW — which has recently been organizing automakers throughout the South, but also represents non-auto industries like the University of California's academic workers — has been encouraging other unions to sync up with their contract expiration dates. And for anyone wondering if the UAW's intent is to set the stage for a general strike, UAW president Shawn Fain has confirmed this is, indeed, the plan. "We want a general strike," said Fain. "We want everybody walking out, just like they do in other countries." UAW's contracts expire on May 1, 2028 — exactly four years from today. 🔥

🪧 May Day marches have historically been among the largest gatherings in LA history. On May 1, 2006, known as the "Day Without an Immigrant," at least one million people, and potentially as many as two million people, marched down Wilshire. (How many Super Bowls is that again?) Rallies are happening today in Boyle Heights, MacArthur Park, and Hollywood

✊🏽 In 2021, Unite Here's "Fair Games" report spelled out an extremely on-point list of demands from workers leading up to the Olympics, with many issues that have still not been addressed by local leaders

🚫 Unite Here also maintains a list of Southern California hotels where visitors can educate themselves about where not to spend their money if they care to avoid labor disputes

🚏 Since we're talking about LAX workers, I received some smart feedback on last week's newsletter about the FlyAway's place in the airport's post-people mover transportation hierarchy. I'd be willing to hear a good argument for allowing the FlyAway to pick up passengers at the offsite lot (for example, it would give people from Terminals 7 and 8 who sometimes get skipped by too-full buses a fair shake at getting a seat). But I still think that getting a one-seat ride to the airport with curbside dropoff should not be a luxury reserved for private cars! Jovan told me that she hasn't seen any information yet about how the new configuration will be better for employees. Also, a good reminder from Grace Peng that both passengers and employees who live near the airport can ride a wide variety of transit buses to LAX, which will (hopefully) be an improved experience thanks to a redesigned city bus lot

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