In the endit became a matter of saving face. For 14 bitter months, Local 11 of UNITE HERE, the union representing 2,500 Los Angeles hotel workers, had fought with seven upscale hotels over a contract that, besides raising wages and maintaining free health care for its members, would expire in 2006 — the same magic year that UNITE HERE agreements end in other major U.S. and Canadian cities. After so many months of turning down economic concessions from the hotels, the union had to bring home a contract that ended in 2006. And the Employer’s Council, representing the hotels that had been battered by a union-backed boycott that cost them an estimated $12 million, could not walk away without having something to show for all the red ink.
Although few in town were even aware of the hotel negotiating war and boycott, it had been bleeding Los Angeles of an undetermined amount of occupancy-tax revenue, to say nothing of the ripple effect on industries dependent on hotels. Then, last Thursday, Local 11 called a strike against the West HollywoodHyatt. A few drinkers on the House of Blues patio, Cosmos in hand, stared at the dozens of red-shirted union members, led by Local 11 president Maria Elena Durazo, picketing the Hyatt across the street, as a sound truck blared music for the strikers. The walkout, in turn, triggered a management decision to lock out union employees at all seven hotels at 5 a.m. Saturday. It was only through the last-minute intervention of mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa, who brought the sides together at City Hall for hours of executive-level talks in the dead of night, that the lockout was barely averted and a new contract approved.
This agreement, which awaits rank-and-file ratification (as well as the resolution of some unfair-labor-practice charges filed by both sides), gives UNITE HERE a contract that expires in 2006 — strengthening the national union’s hand during next year’s various contract talks — and ensures its members continued free health care, along with higher-paid vacations for tipped employees. But the L.A. contract ends on November 30, 2006, sparing local hotels much of the hurly-burly that will precede the L.A. talks in other cities. Also, as the price of agreeing to the 2006 expiration date, the hotels have withdrawn the signing bonuses they had previously offered the union, and the 65-cent wage increase is lower than earlier offers the owners had put on the table.
“It’s a compromise,” Fred Muir, the Employer’s Council spokesman, dryly told the Weekly.“Life is full of them. They [the owners] would have preferred to have a longer contract.”
Meanwhile, Justice for Janitors of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) voted Friday to authorize strike actions against two custodial companies that service South Bay aerospace giants Boeing, Raytheon and Northrop-Grumman. Local 1877’s members represent roughly half of the region’s 700 aerospace-industry janitors and rank among the lowest-valued union workers in L.A., with members taking home Poverty Row wages of about $1,000 per month with no health-care coverage or paid leave. The union is throwing down a gauntlet not only at the janitorial companies with which it holds contracts (Culver City’s Servicon and the Sacramento-based Somers Building Maintenance) but also at the Aramark Corp. and the aerospace companies themselves.
Aramark, headquartered in Philadelphia, is the nonunion, Wal-Mart-like giant of the custodial industry that the other companies point to as the reason they cannot provide health benefits and higher wages to their union employees. Besides negotiating for new contracts with Servicon and Somers, SEIU is also waging an organizing campaign among Aramark’s Boeing workers in Long Beach and at Northrop-Grumman in El Segundo.
A week before the strike vote, Boeing janitor and union activist Adilia Martinez told an SEIU news conference how she was fired for refusing to remove a button that read, “Respect Our Rights.”
“They took away my security badge and carried me out to the company’s parking lot,” she said.
Erica Romero, who works nights at Northrop-Grumman in Redondo Beach, told the Weeklyshe has never been on strike before and worries about a long walkout, but that her colleagues are ready.
“It’s difficult working there,” she said. “The company sent letters trying to break us up — they said that when we come back from a strike, we’ll have to go on a waiting list to get our jobs back.”
Beyond the attitude of the janitorial firms looms the question of why three multibillion-dollar defense contractors, who have fattened off the Pentagon’s post-9/11 spending spree, refuse to apply the same kind of humanitarian pressure that Staples Center and USC did upon Aramark to encourage the company to raise wages and grant health-care benefits.
David Huerta, SEIU’s director of building services, announced at the union’s Pico-Union headquarters that 97 percent of Local 1877 voted to authorize a strike.
“This is a crisis,” he addressed an impassioned group of about 50 union members. “Every day that janitors live in poverty will be a day we fight in the streets.”