DPSS Spring Summit 2024 brings together DPSS warriors for upcoming contract fight

Spirits were high this past Saturday as our union held the much anticipated DPSS Spring Summit 2024. In attendance were SEIU 721 leaders along with scores of DPSS workers from across LA County – with some coming as far away as Lancaster, Palmdale and San Jacinto to attend this special event at our union’s headquarters near downtown LA.

The morning began with guests enjoying a continental breakfast while listening to upbeat music – and the program officially kicked off with the viewing of a video chronicling our union’s DPSS workforce action at the Crossroads headquarters last year, a lively event that got everyone in attendance fired up.

“LA County DPSS is in the house today!” said Valerie McCan-Murrell, head of our union’s LA County Social Services Division, as attendees responded with cheers. “It’s not just going to be what the department says. It’s going to be what we say. Am I right?”

Attendees responded just as enthusiastically as our union’s President and Executive Director David Green addressed them.

“Why do we do what we do?” David Green said. “What gives us the power? I kept coming back to these two pieces: Knowledge & education and solidarity. That’s why we’re here today. Education and knowledge are the most powerful tools in our arsenal. That’s why we’re doing this summit.”

“A few years ago, we had Antonia Jimenez ‘the Menace,’” David Green continued. “And this lady said, “I don’t respect your contract. I don’t care about your contract.’  That was a turning point for us in our Local. Your anger is a gift. Let’s take that anger and do something with it and be in solidarity. If we stand together, there is nothing that can stop us.”

Attendees then broke into groups for team building exercises which focused on the importance of knowing our union rights – a portion of the session led by Oly Moreno, an Eligibility Supervisor at the San Gabriel Valley Family Service Center in El Monte, and Earl Thompson of SEIU 721.

Participants openly shared stories with one another – and then with the summit as a whole – on how their earlier experiences in the DPSS workforce would have been considerably different if they had a better understanding of their union contract and their rights as workers to stand up to managers’ mistreatment.

Afterward, attendees were addressed by none other than Yvonne Wheeler, the Executive Director of the LA County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. She began by describing her upbringing in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Racism was still a dominant force there, compelling her to seek a new life in Los Angeles – where she still encountered racism but found empowerment through union activism.

“Racism and gender equity weren’t confined to the South,” Yvonne Wheeler explained. “I quickly learned how Black women like me were discriminated for the pettiest things in the workplace. Our union contract allowed us to call out racism without fear of being fired. It allowed us to look the boss in the eye and speak truth to power. It’s important to know what is in your collective bargaining agreement. If you don’t know, they will use you and abuse you.”

“Everywhere I look is a reminder of how far we have to go,” Yvonne Wheeler continued. “Many of us are the breadwinners in our family. We’re bringing home the bacon and frying it up in the pan. We know that the men here – you do it with such honor and you do it every day. Now that women are finding our voices – when women lead, we get it done! When women lead, April Verrett is elected the first black president of SEIU International. When women win seats of power, people’s lives change for the better. We pass sick leave – family medical leave – fight racism and misogyny. The best way for a woman to find her voice is through her union and her collective bargaining agreement.”

Guests then heard from Pamela Agustin-Anguiano of the Eastside LEADS Coalition, which works closely with SEIU 721 focusing on housing justice campaigns.

“I believe power is the ability to find consensus, to collaborate, because everybody has something to bring to the movement,” Pamela Agustin-Anguiano said. “That is the blessing of working alongside labor because, in labor, it’s not just the service workers. All of you bring a unique touch to the community and I want to uplift that. Whenever we’re in spaces that might feel new to us – we might feel a little nervous, that we might not connect to the fight. But no – you are SEIU 721. When you speak to powerful leaders, you know that you’re speaking on behalf of your collective. Every head is a world: ‘Cada cabeza es un mundo.’”

Participants also heard from Pastor Thembekila Smart of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—Los Angeles.

“As we approach Juneteenth, we find ourselves thinking about freedoms – social freedoms, spiritual freedoms, economic freedoms,” said Pastor Thembekila Smart. “We remember what it was like to not be free. So, we’re working for freedom. We’re not just fighting – we’re working for freedom and respect not just as workers but as human beings. We must ask ourselves, ‘What is freedom?’ We must remind ourselves, ‘What is freedom all about?’ Are we really free when we work for lower wages and wait and wait and wait and fight and fight and fight? We are constantly struggling for freedom. But it is time to say, ‘Enough!’”

In this spirit, participants then got a crash course on the bargaining process from Steve Koffroth, Director of Collective Bargaining and Research at SEIU Local 721. He initially focused on bargaining from the field perspective – at worksites and in the community, where garnering support is key to a successful contract fight.

“We’re talking about where you work – in your communities – your neighbors – your church,” Steve Koffroth said.

During this portion of the summit, SEIU 721 Chief of Staff Gilda Valdez reminded participants of the role of Contract Action Teams and explained why the CATs are vital.

“The bloodline of the whole bargaining campaign boils down to the CAT members,” said Gilda Valdez, who emphasized the importance of communicating with rank & file union members via CATs. “It’s about springing into your power to make this happen. The county isn’t going to give us anything that we aren’t ready to fight for.”

Steve Koffroth then encouraged the group to share their experiences with summit attendees on what conditions and factors increased the chances of a successful contract fight in their prior experience.

Answers were varied and fascinating – ranging from the importance of open communication and building credibility to the importance of focusing on the contract and leading with strong charisma.

Summit participants then took a quick break for a tasty lunch and returned for a focus on the Committee On Political Education – commonly known as “COPE” – by Ruby Dye and Yolanda Floyd.

“Your bosses are not the people at work,” explained Ruby Dye, an Eligibility Supervisor at the Compton District Office and a member of SEIU 721’s Executive Board. “Your bosses are the Board of Supervisors. You may say, ‘I’m not political.’ Yes, you are political. You’re in a political job!”

Ruby Dye and Yolanda Floyd encouraged attendees to fill out COPE cards and contribute to COPE.

“Those five queens at the Board of Supervisors – we elect them,” said Yolanda Floyd, an Eligibility Worker II at the South Central District Office. “How many people get to pick their own bosses? COPE gives you that power on who sits on that Board. We get to pick who we put forward. Money is always important – work conditions are important – health & safety are important. We have a lot of people lobbying against us that want to take our health care, that want to take all the benefits we hold dear. They want to contract us out. And we’ve got to have the power to go to Sacramento to shake that out. I can’t do it all by myself. But I can do it with all of you because, stronger together, gets it done.”

The summit ended with a lively Unity Clap, a group photo, and closing remarks by Gilda Valdez focusing on the importance of the upcoming contract fight in 2025.

“We serve the community,” Gilda Valdez said. “The first line of defense is our public workers – it’s all of you. We need to connect it with our community because this is who we serve. This campaign will determine the next three years and our future as we move forward. It is important that we go back to our workplace and understand and get people involved in this campaign. It’s going to take every single one of us in this fight to get this done.”

More images from the DPSS Spring Summit 2024 are available here and on the SEIU 721 Facebook, Instagram, Twitter/X and TikTok feeds. If you’re interested in joining our Bargaining Team for the upcoming contract 2025 fight, you can access a Bargaining Team Nomination Form here.

Together, we win!

Categories: Los Angeles County