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Picket Fences: From Dream to Fantasy 

Hotel workers seek to beat poverty

Wednesday, Feb 22 2006
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WHEN ANA MENDEZ’S HOME was built 60 years ago, its serpentine flagstone walkway and sunken living room embodied the middle-class dream for white Los Angeles after World War II. Today, the Lennox house still represents middle-class membership for many immigrant workers — but getting there is a lot harder than it used to be, making home ownership a virtual fantasy for millions of low-income wage earners. Mendez and her family moved into their Felton Street home about a year ago, after living for 20 years in one of the hulking apartment complexes that sit across the street. Houses in Mendez’s crime-plagued neighborhood, three blocks from the San Diego Freeway and about 1,000 feet beneath planes landing at nearby LAX, sell for about $400,000 — nearly four times what they went for a decade ago.

Last week the Mendezes’ living room was crowded with employees of the big nonunionized airport hotels on Century Boulevard, and they had lots to say about obstacles to the American Dream. They had come, organized by the UNITE HERE union, to share stories of abuse and indifference with actor Danny Glover, who was in town as part of UNITE HERE’s Hotel Workers Rising campaign, a nationwide push to raise working and living standards in one of the few American industries whose work force cannot be offshored.

Glover was in the middle of a long day that wouldn’t end until that evening, when he spoke at a downtown rally in front of the Sheraton Hotel. He and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, along with UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm, had begun the morning by strolling into the LAX Hilton, where they exchanged unauthorized pleasantries with workers in the kitchen, reception desk and lobby areas — as stone-faced security staff looked on. Some workers wore union buttons and embraced Glover. Others were more guarded; one woman told Glover in a low voice that she was very afraid of management but grateful for his support.

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After leaving the Hilton, the Lethal Weapon co-star joined former Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards for a luncheon at Inglewood’s Forum Club. That event was chaired by embattled County Federation of Labor head Martin Ludlow, four days before he resigned amid an investigation into campaign violations. (City Attorney Delgadillo did not attend.) Union presidents Andy Stern, Bruce Raynor and Maria Elena Durazo were served chicken and rice, as were L.A. Councilman Herb Wesson, Los Angeles Sentinel owner Danny Bakewell and community activist Tony Muhammad.

The largely African-American audience heard from Wilhelm that, according to his union’s statistics, the hotel industry, once an employment haven for blacks, has all but stopped hiring them. They also heard that the average annual wage for a housekeeper is $17,340 when the federally computed poverty line for a family of four is $19,157, and that the medical insurance offered workers by hotel chains is an empty gesture because few can afford it.

But the food servers, room attendants and bartenders sitting in Ana Mendez’s living room didn’t need the stats — they knew all about it first hand. Two of the women, through interpreters, spoke of having lost children while working on the job; one said she was sent home bleeding and warned not to take too much time off. Others said they were forced to work two jobs. Mendez, a second-generation hotel employee, works as an LAX Hilton banquet server and told the Weekly that a majority of her co-workers, who are paid $6.75 per hour plus tips, had signed a petition requesting union representation, but that the Hilton has not yet responded.

There’s no place in the Constitution guaranteeing every American a job, let alone one putting every worker into the middle class. The fact remains, however, that the road to the middle-class life is increasingly becoming a treadmill. Americans have to work harder and longer to afford that picket fence and flagstone path; many often need to hold two jobs just to be able to rent an apartment. Hotel Workers Rising is clearly a union-organizing tool being used by UNITE HERE before its contracts with more than 400 hotels in the U.S. and Canada expire later this year. Nevertheless, with both business and the White House displaying Dickensian disinterest in the welfare of American workers, the union’s campaign remains the only one addressing “working poverty” in a hospitality industry that is becoming increasingly hostile to its employees.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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