Long before the layoffs, the business, and venue closures and other economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 health crisis, members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) faced chronic housing insecurity and homelessness.
“So long as we continue to treat housing as a luxury, a commodity and not as a human right, we will continue to have this crisis that has just devastated the working class in California,” says SEIU USWW Policy Director Christian Ramirez.
It explains why SEIU California has given an important endorsement of Proposition 21.
Proposition 21 is the November ballot measure that puts limits on unfair, sky-high rent increases. It protects people against corporate landlord greed and keeps them in their homes. It’s supported by trusted civil leaders and organizations, such as U.S. Bernie Sanders, labor and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, Congressmembers Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee and Karen Bass, the California Democratic Party, and the Los Angeles Times, among numerous others.
“We are part of the SEIU family and our local is United Service Workers West. We represent primarily janitors, airport workers, security officers, and workers who are employed at arenas, concert venues, theaters, and stadiums,” says Ramirez. “The vast majority of our members are people of color, immigrants, and low wage workers. Even before the pandemic, our members were already struggling with housing insecurity in a very severe way.”
SEIU USWW is a union with members in every major urban area in California. “One of the realities that our members have faced is that the reality of the economic crisis has not stopped since 2006,” with the bursting of the housing bubble that led to the Great Recession. “Our communities have not been able to recover.”
The recent legislation signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to provide some renters relief is “still not enough. The homelessness crisis, the lack of affordable housing has created this crisis for many of our friends and loved ones — including unionized workers who were employed full time who have housing insecurity and are unsheltered. This is the reality that creates even more devastation for our communities and that’s represented by mental health crises and all these other things.”
Some SEIU USWW members are homeless. Because of gentrification and the rising cost of housing, many members, such as those employed at Disneyland in Orange County, were displaced from their communities and had to move hundreds of miles away and commute to work. To avoid that commute, many members, including security officers, will sleep in their cars and find other measures to try to make ends meet.
“In San Diego, where the housing contrast is very sharp, many of our members were not just displaced to a neighboring county — they were displaced to a neighboring country,” says Ramirez. “They had to go across the border and live there because it’s more affordable to live on the Tijuana side of the border and commute across international borders. So, this was already a mounting crisis before the pandemic.”
Additionally, COVID-19 is impacting communities of color with high rates of infection, compounding the profound economic and housing instability. Prop 21 “will, without any doubt, alleviate that pressure,” says Ramirez.
Gov. Newsom recently opposed Prop. 21, however, disappointing many housing justice activists, union members, and many others.
“We respectfully disagree with the Governor’s take on California’s affordable housing emergency,” says a spokesperson for SEIU California. “SEIU members are on the front lines of the housing crisis and need immediate and stronger relief from out-of-control rent increases than current law provides. Prop. 21 gives back an important tool to our communities to blunt the price gouging.”
Endorsing Prop 21 was an obvious “natural fit” for SEIU USWW, says Ramirez. The union’s primary mission is obviously fighting for a good contract, “ensuring that we have benefits for our members. But at the end of the day, even the best contract in the world — without policies that allow folks to have a roof over their heads and live with dignity and respect — the best contract in the world is not going to provide that.”
There has to be a policymaking approach that “puts working class people first and not cater to the developers and the landlords who for far too long have always benefited from our policies. Banks were always rescued during the crisis; mortgage companies were rescued during the crisis — but many working class folks who lost their homes in 2006 have not been able to recover. Now we’re in the midst of a crisis and there’s still this attitude that we have to somehow compromise to provide relief to landlords and developers – when we know that the situation that we face it has to do with speculation over housing,” Ramirez says. “It’s been nearly 15 years. We’ve been in this perennial state of economic crisis and housing insecurity.”
But Ramirez sees the possibility for a brighter future.
“This is an opportunity for California to continue in the right path that we’ve been on. We’ve taken concrete steps to turn the page on anti-immigrant sentiment in our state. And although there’s a long road ahead of us…we are acknowledging the rights of immigrants. We are taking steps to ensure that we are a much more pluralistic state that promotes the importance of living in a multiracial democracy,” says Ramirez.
“And here’s our opportunity as Californians to ensure that we began to pick steps –treating housing, not as a commodity, but as a human right. We certainly hope that when we go to the polls in November, that Californians across this state will do the right thing and we will finally begin a rode of economic recovery that puts the rights of people first, above the wealth of the 1%. That’s my hope.”
Photo: Christian Ramirez rallying his SEIU members (photo courtesy Ramirez)