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Standing Up for Retail Workers: A Conversation with LAANE

Roxana Tynan and Amardeep Gill, Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy

In this post, leaders from the worker rights movement share insights from their efforts to advance rights and protections for California’s workers. Read more conversations with leaders here.

Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) has a 30-year history of advocacy and organizing focused on improving the lives of working families in Los Angeles and Long Beach. Working with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) 770, LAANE achieved a historic win for retail workers in Los Angeles in 2022, a city ordinance protecting more than 70,000 non-union workers from unpredictable scheduling changes that can upend their lives and render them unable to arrange for childcare and other needs.

The “fair work week” ordinance requires large retailers to provide work schedules to employees at least two weeks in advance, and to give workers at least 10 of hours of rest between shifts or provide extra pay for their work. The win follows other victories for LAANE, including on the minimum wage and misclassification of truckers at the Port of Los Angeles. In a recent conversation, LAANE Executive Director Roxana Tynan and Grocery and Retail Campaign Director Amardeep Gill reflected on lessons learned about aligning worker groups and labor, and their vision for economic and racial justice for the city’s retail workforce.

What does the retail workforce in Los Angeles look like? And what are the specific challenges these workers face?

Gill: We surveyed more than 800 retail workers a few years ago and confirmed these are mostly workers of color living in communities at an economic disadvantage. Almost two-thirds are low-wage workers, and more than half are working part-time for big chains and other retailers. A lot of these workers are women. And you have one-third who are single parents and the same percentage who are head of households.

Amardeep Gill, Director Retail and Grocery Campaign, LAANE

So, these are people who are really struggling to make enough to meet their basic expenses. On top of that is the constant stress of this work—there is uncertainty about scheduling and real challenges when it comes to taking time off for medical appointments or parent-teacher conferences or a child’s birthday.

Tynan: While overall wages have gone up for workers, they haven’t gone up as fast as the cost of housing and they haven’t kept pace with inflation. So these workers, like so many others across the country, are essentially worse off financially today than they were before the pandemic.

Roxana Tynan, Executive Director at LAANE

How did the partnership with UFCW 770 on these issues come about?

Tynan: We have had a partnership with UFCW 770 for 15 years or more. When our research revealed the challenges retail workers were facing on scheduling, it was a natural next step in our work together with UFCW 770 to focus on that. The union’s members have better language in their contracts around scheduling, but they saw how this work could really raise the bar for all workers.

It’s a basic issue of dignity and respect. If you don’t have more control of your schedule, you can’t plan or have a second job or take care of your family.

This is a union that understands that their members have a real interest in raising the floor for non-union workers on a whole range of issues, because it lifts standards across the board. And there is also an understanding that these kinds of campaigns support worker voice across the industry. Together with UFCW 770, we won an underdog campaign against superstores in Inglewood, and we were also involved in the effort to increase in the minimum wage in L.A.

What did the campaign look like? What were the key activities and strategies that contributed to your success?

Gill: We built a coalition of community groups working alongside LAANE and UFCW 770 to make this a broad-based campaign. It was everyone from the California Work and Family Coalition to the National Council of Jewish Women, Los Angeles, to the Los Angeles Black Worker Center.  And all of those groups were out with us in shopping malls talking to workers, and appearing at city council meetings, and meeting together to talk strategy. We had a lot of muscle on our side, and then UFCW 770 contributed its influence and muscle, too.

Another big part of it was training workers to show up and speak for their interests so they could be the face and voice of the campaign. A lot of this comes down to providing workers with information and tools and opportunities to help them exercise their leadership.

How is LAANE working with UFCW 770 to make retail jobs better right now?

Tynan: One focus right now is getting the word out broadly about the scheduling ordinance and what it means for workers and their rights on the job. We did a lot of organizing and education on this issue, but a lot of workers don’t know the policy exists—and if an employer tells them about it, then it’s presented like the employer is doing it on their own as an added benefit. So we want to get the word out and help people understand their rights on the job, and help them see what happens when we organize to expand those rights.

Gill: We also have organizers doing deep work in some of the larger chain stores to build worker committees that can exercise their rights on the job and start building muscle for workers’ collective voice. One strategy is using public health councils created during the COVID-19 crisis to organize workers around key health issues in the workplace. We see those councils as an opportunity to build relationships with workers and support them to move to leadership on a range of workplace issues.

What is your vision for the LA retail and grocery workforce in the years ahead?

Tynan: I want to see a committed, citywide coalition of workers from a diverse group of union and non-union stores articulating an agenda and mobilizing to make it happen.

Gill: I agree with that, and I also want to see what’s happening in the city start to influence what’s happening in LA County and even statewide. Our vision is for workers to be empowered and to know their basic rights so they can advocate for themselves and see what it means to have a voice.

Photo credit: Sam Comen