In the late 1990s, I was running the Ocean Park Community Center, a network of shelters and services for homeless women and men, runaway youth, and battered women in Santa Monica. Besides providing housing, food, and counseling, we worked hard to prepare people for employment and independent living. However, the jobs available to people trying to restart their lives paid minimum wage ($4.75 an hour), with no health insurance or sick leave. Our clients couldn’t accumulate the security deposit, let alone first and last month’s rent, to get into stable housing. And if they got sick, they often lost their jobs and cycled back into homelessness.
One day, LAANE organizer Stephanie Monroe gave me a call. Stephanie was heading up a campaign to raise wages in Santa Monica’s growing hotel industry and wanted me to get involved. I learned that the local hotels were among the most profitable in L.A. County, yet they were then paying among the lowest wages in the region. It seemed like raising industry wages was something we could realistically do, especially since LAANE had recently passed a new Living Wage in Los Angeles that included health benefits, plus sick days, for employees of city contractors.
Was I interested? You bet I was! While I loved my work with the Community Center, my goal was to do the most good for the most people. The federal government was expecting small community-based nonprofits like OPCC to solve the problem of homelessness on their own. And I knew that was NOT possible. As it had become dramatically clear from my work in helping people rebuild their lives, “it was the economy, stupid.”
By 1997, I had left the Community Center and was working with LAANE on systemic economic change at the local level. Using my community organizing and civil rights backgrounds, we focused on involving community and faith leaders in strategic campaigns to raise standards for the lowest wage workers in the region.
LAANE’s work was ambitious, audacious and visionary. It helped put the “movement” back into the labor movement by partnering with faith leaders, grassroots community activists, and local elected officials and connecting them to workers organizing for living wages and respect on the job. There were lots of hard campaigns, but many we won, thereby transforming the lives of thousands of working people in Los Angeles.
This work couldn’t be more important than it is right now, with unknown numbers of displaced workers, key industries gutted, and others crying for skilled employees. Once called “the capital of working poverty,” Los Angeles is now poised to be a model for the nation in offering family-supporting employment for all. But it won’t happen without the smart organizing, research, coalition building and vision that LAANE has always brought to the table.