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Tense Times at the Inn 

L.A. hotel workers get no vacation from labor strife

Thursday, Jul 8 2004
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Guests walking out the doors of the Century Plaza Hotel Tuesday were immediately faced down by a line of silent, stoic and unyielding piggy banks.

Placed there by the children of hotel workers to dramatize the $10 a week that their parents began paying this month, for the first time, under protest, to keep their health benefits, the pigs brought smiles to the faces of passersby and stern no-comments from hotel management. The same was generally true of the jars and sacks of 1,000 pennies each that some hotel employees around Los Angeles brought in to pay — and protest — their new required co-payments.

The dispute between nine of the city’s best-known hotels and Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) reached a crisis point last week when union members voted overwhelmingly to reject the hotels’ contract offer. The L.A. Hotel Council, which forms the management negotiation team, originally proposed a five-year contract with no employee health contribution but declared an impasse and unilaterally imposed the co-pay mandate after talks broke down in June. Mayor Jim Hahn urged the parties to return to the table for the good of a Los Angeles tourism economy only now recovering from the disaster that followed 9/11. But the sides were still not speaking after the Fourth of July holiday.

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The union is not yet talking strike. All nine hotels have agreed to lock out employees in the event of a walkout at any one hotel.

The lockout pact and the co-pay requirement bring to mind the recent Southern California grocery strike, in which supermarket workers fought to retain their full employer-paid health benefits as part of a broader fight to hold fast to a middle-class income and lifestyle in an era of spiraling health costs and unprecedented corporate consolidation and cost-cutting.

The hotel workers, too, are dealing with employers that once were regional but have consolidated into global chains that compete for investor dollars by cutting costs wherever possible, including on the payroll.

But there are differences. Union leaders agree that a primary reason for the failure of the grocery strike to win a better deal for supermarket workers was the separate approaches taken by grocery unions around the country. Workers in several major cities had contracts lapse, fought for better terms and agreed to concessions separately, within months of one another, without joining forces to form a united front. Critics within the labor movement charged that poorly coordinated networks of locals, fighting separately, defeated the very philosophical underpinning of labor unions.

Keeping in mind the virtual defeat of the grocery workers, HERE leaders have made nationwide solidarity, rather than health benefits, their key issue in the current battle for a new contract. Rather than seeking to lock in wage and benefit terms for the longest possible period, Local 11 is demanding a brief two-year contract that would expire in 2006. That’s the year hotel contracts are set to expire in Boston, Chicago, and New York. HERE locals are in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are trying to get the same expiration date.

The idea is to have all major contracts across the country come due at once to force nationwide chains to deal with a nationwide labor front for the next battle.

Local 11 president Maria Elena Durazo said her members simply want to unite with hotel workers in other major cities.

“When Starwood decided that they wanted to grow and be stronger,” Durazo said, referring to the umbrella group that includes all Westin, W, Sheraton and St. Regis hotels, “we did not get in their way. We believe that we have the same right.”

The Hotel Council’s nine hotels include the Westin Bonaventure, Wilshire Grand and Millennium Biltmore in downtown Los Angeles, and the Regent Beverly Wilshire, Park Hyatt Los Angeles at Century City, Sheraton Universal, St. Regis and Century Plaza hotels in Century City, Beverly Hills and the Westside. Seven other hotels, including several near the airport, employ members of Local 11 but are not taking part in negotiations. They have agreed to abide by whatever terms the Hotel Council reaches with the union.

Those hotels account for about 4,000 workers in the accommodations and hospitality industry, according to Local 11’s David Koff. About 85 percent of Los Angeles workers in the industry, at major hotels down to small motor inns, are not represented by a union.

Local 11’s last contract, signed in 1998, expired on April 15. It provides for an hourly wage of $11.02 for most housekeepers. Tipped employees, including bellhops and waiters, generally earn the $6.75 minimum wage.

By mutual agreement the contract was extended through May while both sides bargained. But the hotels terminated the agreement in June, stopped collecting union dues payments and launched a campaign last month to try to encourage employees to resign from the union, Local 11 spokesman David Koff said. Fewer than 2 percent of members resigned, Koff said, and a quarter of those rescinded their resignations.

Calls to members of the Hotel Council were not returned.

 

At the same time Local 11 was planning actions at Los Angeles area hotels, a merger between HERE and UNITE — the needle trades and garment workers union — was being formalized at the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago. That consolidation, first announced in February as the grocery strike was coming to an end, is one plank in a more aggressive strategy being adopted by leaders of several unions who have grown impatient with continuing shrinkage of union membership despite the new activism injected into organized labor by AFL-CIO leader John Sweeney.

Leaders of UNITE-HERE — the name of the new union — have argued that the labor movement must follow its example and strengthen itself by consolidating and organizing, or else face extinction. As part of an entity called the New Unity Partnership, UNITE-HERE has formed a challenge to Sweeney and has threatened to abandon the AFL-CIO absent sweeping reforms. Under the leadership of Doug McCarron, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners already left the AFL-CIO three years ago.

The new militant approach to reform and organizing comes in large part on behalf of low wage, unskilled and semi-skilled immigrant workers. There are critics, some of whom argue that UNITE-HERE and the Service Employees International Union are attempting to impose an undemocratic, top-down system that diminishes the role of local labor councils, the cornerstone of the United Food and Commercial Workers and other more traditional organizations. Some critics have argued that cultural differences separate the new, more militant immigrant-based labor force from trade unions, which are fighting (like UFCW) to protect a middle-class lifestyle.

But Durazo, of HERE Local 11, said her members also aspire to middle-class status. As other jobs are outsourced, she said, hotels are among the few places that can’t be sent overseas. A visitor to Los Angeles will have to have his or her bed made, room cleaned and linens washed by a person living and working in Los Angeles.

“Factory jobs are sent overseas,” Durazo said. “What other jobs are there that can’t be sent away? We have to join together, the same way the hotels have joined together, to negotiate with these nationwide chains. Otherwise we don’t have a chance to make these jobs middle-class jobs.”

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