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No Room for Cheap 

Loews’ hotel workers want a union in Santa Monica

Wednesday, May 31 2000
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

Loews’ luxury Santa Monica Beach Hotel is undergoing a facelift. Guests who can afford the $365-a-night tariff enter the four-story atrium lobby through a scruffy tunnel lined with green plastic sheeting and lighted by bare bulbs hanging from yellow cords. This renovation is due to be completed soon. But workers at Loews — where the hourly wage for most employees is less than the average glass of wine at the hotel’s posh Lavande restaurant — are looking to make more fundamental changes.

With 30 of the hotel’s 300 workers ready to go public as backers of the union, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 814 kicked off an organizing drive Thursday with a spirited beachside rally of more than 400, backed by several local religious leaders and Santa Monica City Council members. The Loews campaign is merely step one in a drive to organize the upscale hotels in Santa Monica, where only one — Fairmont’s Miramar — is unionized.

A leaflet passed out Thursday highlighted some of the contrasting working conditions at the two hotels, citing such benefits as a pension plan and free family health insurance at the Miramar, as well as job security, grievance arbitration, guaranteed hours and a stable work schedule. Loews’ staffers cited several of these points in explaining their need for representation: Jose Colato, a 10-year employee in the restaurant, says he is often sent home before the end of a shift if things are slow, and he can’t count on earning 40 hours’ wages; room attendant Alicia Castrejon complains that “After seven years on my job, I can’t even plan for what days off I’ll have.”

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On the wage front, mere murmurs of union sentiment were enough to spur a sudden management re-evaluation of workers’ worth. After several years of hourly raises in the 15- or 20-cent range (and two years of frozen rates), raises of between $1 and $3 were given this spring. In April management also rescinded a recent $40 a month increase in employees’ health insurance costs. While happy to have the extra money, says housekeeper Vera Miranda, most workers understand that it came only because of the union drive, and expect that more substantial gains will come with recognition. Despite free massages and gift certificates to the restaurant that also were suddenly given out recently, waiter Favian Gonzalez says, “I want to be respected, not bought off.” The recent victories in the janitors’ strike, he added, were a “positive example of what unions can do” to improve workplace conditions.

“They are handing out money like we’ve never seen before, but it’s too little, too late,” said union organizer Kurt Petersen. “It’s an insult to the workers. Everyone’s asking, ‘Where was the money before? Why now?’ And the answer is the union.

“It’s a great victory,” Petersen said. “We haven’t even stepped inside and we have our first victory. It’s not about wages. They underestimate people’s intelligence. What they give away today, they can take away tomorrow. Workers want to be treated fairly and with respect.”

Mayra Rodas, a housekeeper, said the hotel hiked her salary from $7.75 to $9.50 an hour in the past two months. Rodas said she cleans 15 rooms a day — changing the linen, scrubbing the bathroom, vacuuming the floor and dusting the furniture in rooms that sometimes go for more a night than her $510-a-month apartment.

But Rodas says the struggle is not about money.

“They don’t respect us,” Rodas said. “The supervisors scream at us . . . I was afraid. They follow us to the bathroom, check how long we’re on break. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m already tired of so much abuse.”

 

Management would not engage in any discussion with Mayor Ken Genser or others in the delegation from Thursday’s rally, reading instead a statement from its New York City public-relations department. In the brief response, Loews struck a posture of neutrality vis-à-vis unionization, maintaining that under its “longstanding policy, the decision to organize a union is made by the employees at each individual property” and promising to “fully support whatever decision the employees themselves make.” But on Saturday, two days after the demonstration, management had tossed neutrality aside and was gearing up its anti-union drive in earnest. Mandatory meetings were launched, in which workers were shown videos “exposing” the perils of labor representation. “The message they were pushing was, ‘You don’t need a union, you can talk for yourselves,’” said Miranda.

The campaign is likely to spill over this summer into downtown Los Angeles, where HERE Local 11 represents workers at the four largest hotels, but several others, including the Marriott, Omni Intercontinental and New Otani, remain unorganized. Locals 814 and 11 will be supporting one another as the campaign evolves. Some of the hotels may be the scene of labor action during August’s Democratic convention, said one union staffer, posing awkward choices for party officials and pro-labor delegates staying there.

The campaign — which coincides with a hotly contested battle over a pioneering living-wage proposal for Santa Monica’s hotel and restaurant employees — comes one month after the local Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union signed a contract with the new owners of the Miramar Fairmont Hotel. But unlike the Miramar vote to retain the union, a union election at the Loews would not be conducted under the auspices of the National Labor Relations Board, Petersen said.

“It’s not a fair process,” he said. “Workers get fired and nothing is done. The NLRB gives some protections, but not enough.” Instead, union leaders hope management agrees to hold a tally supervised by “a priest or a judge.” Similar elections have been held at duty-free shops at LAX and at the new Staples Center downtown, as well as at some Las Vegas casinos, Petersen said.

He said the workers will get the union to agree to similar elections “through marching, through organizing. Let’s hope they get their senses soon. We don’t want another Miramar,” Petersen said, referring to the nasty four-year battle with the previous owners of the city’s only unionized hotel. “But we’re ready to go as long as it takes. We’ll be back.”

 

Jorge Casuso contributed to this story.

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