Nickel and Damned
Photo by Ted Soqui
PENNY MOORE CAME to California 15 years ago because she was, as she puts it, born in the wrong place, a self-professed liberal living in a red state. But Moore had another reason to flee Bowling Green, Kentucky. As a waitress making $2.01 an hour, she never drew a paycheck during 10 years of work because taxes ate up every dime of her wages, forcing her to live off her tips.
You worked other jobs, you worked double shifts, seven days a week, she says in a slight Southern twang, explaining the rules of economic survival in a system that might be called compassionate slavery. She found Californias minimum-wage law an unbelievable godsend; before long she got a job as a drink server at Telly Savalas sports bar at the Sheraton Universal Hotel and, through her unions credit union, was soon able to open a savings account and buy a car. Fifteen years later Moore is a bartender at the Sheraton and rents a place just up the road from work.
When Raul Ripoll came to L.A. in 1972, he got a bartending job on Eighth Street near Normandie.
We used to live in that area when Eighth Street was Eighth Street, he says with nostalgic pride. Between Vermont and Western it was the strip nice and clean, with a lot of clubs and nightlife Nat King Cole had [one time] played that area.
For four years Ripoll, a native of Mexicos Yucatán Peninsula, was happy working for minimum wage and no benefits.
Some of my customers were from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel whod say, Why dont you work with us? I said, No, I like it here, the tips are good I live two blocks from here, I walk to work!
But when Ripolls first son was born prematurely, the father found himself on the wrong end of a hospital bill for nearly $30,000. In 1984, when his second son was also delivered early, he got a back of the house job as a union banquet worker at the Beverly Wilshire. It was a lucky move, for his younger son, Richard, was found to have been born with cerebral palsy within six months of starting his new job, Ripoll and his family were covered by the unions Kaiser health plan.
Today Moore is still at the Sheraton, bartending with benefits and protected by years of seniority. Yet she is still being offered nickels and dimes in the form of a wage-and-benefit package proposed by the Hotel Employers Council, with which its union, HERE (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees), has been negotiating since March. (The Weekly has been told by sources close to the negotiations that a strike is imminent and could come as early as Friday.)
Ripoll explains that his industrys workers are grouped under tipped or non-tipped categories.
We asked that housekeepers and other non-tipped employees, who are the majority, get an increase of $2.75 per hour over two years. The companies are offering $2.15 in five years. For workers like waiters, who make most of their money in tips, we asked for a $1.50 per hour in two years; theyre offering 40 cents in five years and no increases for banquet employees like me. We also wanted a 30-cent-an-hour increase in two years for our pension theyre offering 10 cents an hour in five years.
TODAY PENNY MOORE is sitting in the lobby of her own piece of the American Dream, a tiny theater she runs on Lankershim Boulevard, but she is talking about the contract negotiations.
They proposed a $10 a week medical co-pay, she says. Forty dollars a month may be cheap for some people, but its a lot for someone riding the bus making 9, 10 or even 11 dollars an hour with a family of four. We have a banquet server in his 70s who walks with a cane. He still works even though hes getting a partial pension because he cant live on it. He has to carry a tray with a minimum of 12 plates on it over his head, not because he wants to but because he doesnt have a choice.
As with most union contracts, wages lie at the heart of the negotiations between HERE and the nine hotels represented by the employers council (Regent Beverly Wilshire, Sheraton Universal, Millennium Biltmore, Hyatt West Hollywood, Westin Bonaventure, Wilshire Grand, Hyatt Regency Los Angeles, St. Regis and Westin Century Plaza). Still, HERE is also proposing a guarantee that immigrant workers not be fired but merely laid off (with seniority rights) if their work permits expire, and that employers set up programs to hire more African-Americans.
Steve Whitlock is one of relatively few blacks working in Californias hotel industry today.
There was a time, he says, when the first person you saw at the door of a luxury hotel was an African-American. Today only 6.4 percent of hotel employees in L.A. are black.
Whitlock, like Moore, is a native of Bowling Green, and has worked nearly six years as a houseman at the downtown Hyatt, a broadly defined job that involves supporting the housekeeping staff by bringing it supplies, shining shoes, sorting dirty linen and stripping the hotels floors. He moved to Los Angeles in 1980 with a gospel singing group. Whitlocks fondest memory of that time was when the singers appeared at Las Vegas Flamingo Hotel.
There was a big glass wall between us and the casino. When we sang America, everyone on the other side of that glass stopped playing craps and stood listening to us.
The group eventually returned to Kentucky, but Whitlock remained in L.A., where he found it was not the walls but ceilings that are made of glass. Today he is a HERE shop steward and lives by Manchester Boulevard near Vermont Avenue with his wife and four foster children, and takes a couple of buses and the Blue Line subway to work.
Speaking to me on the steps of City Hall, Whitlock comes across as an earnest man equally at ease discussing the contract, the Lakers or motorcycles.
The medical benefits are what a lot of us are most concerned about, says Whitlock, who also takes care of a disabled aunt who lives nearby him. Im not personally ready to go on strike. I have my fears every day, but I conquer them by talking to my fellow workers.
Whitlock is not alone in his unease about the future. Anna Ledesma, a housekeeper who has worked seven years on the 22nd Floor of the Westin Bonaventures Tower Two, feels that in the event of a strike perhaps half of the membership, particularly the older workers, wont honor picket lines.
They say, I have car payments or I have house payments, Ledesma says just before attending a round of meetings at HEREs Local 11 headquarters across from MacArthur Park. I tell them, You have the right to fight you tell me why you dont want to fight! Im ready to fight, but you can see some peoples expressions they dont want to.
Ledesma, a single mother and native of San Antonio, Texas, takes two buses to reach work from her Highland Park apartment, which she shares with her teenage daughter and two adult sons. Shes been around, having previously worked in Atlanta and San Diego, where she particularly remembers beach sand as the bane of hotel housekeepers.
For Ledesma, like many others, this contract is all about health insurance. A while ago she wrenched her shoulder and was put on light duty for six months. Even today, though, her shoulder hurts when she pulls off sheets or reaches for towels, making it difficult for her to make up the 15 rooms assigned to her in the approximately 20 minutes allotted to each. Ledesma notes that many of her co-workers forget about the hotels temporarily imposed $10 medical co-pay and at the end of the month often find themselves financially in the hole or without coverage.
Another negotiating sticking point is the unions demand to align the contract-expiration dates of its Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., locals with the 2006 date now held by its other locals in the U.S. and Canada. Such an alignment would clearly give the union more negotiating clout in the future; the hotels are countering with a five-year agreement, which would not only affect the bargaining nine, but also the eight other L.A. hotels and film-studio commissaries that have me-too clauses in their contracts with the union.
We need to show them we have the power like they have, Ledesma says of HEREs alignment proposal.
Ledesmas fellow Bonaventure housekeeper Aida Marmol recently participated in a HERE-related Hungry for Justice press conference in City Hall. Later, she spoke to me in Spanish through an interpreter.
After we took the strike vote, Marmol says, a lot of security people appeared in the hotel. We felt humiliated, as though we were being treated as terrorists.
Marmol, a Honduran native, has been employed at the Bonaventure for 14 of her 23 years in L.A. She works on the 27th floor and also finds it nearly impossible to meet the hotels cleaning timetable, claiming some messy rooms may require 45 minutes to an hour to make up.
Im a single mother raising two kids, so the most important things to me are health care, a good salary and job security. If we dont find a just contract, well go on strike. We feel prepared, were ready to stay out until we get all we want.
I ask about how deeply the solidarity runs among hotel and workers.
Im not afraid, she says, because the majority of us are coming out.
PENNY MOORE AND RAUL RIPOLL both say their working environments have turned ugly. Ripoll, who spoke to the Weekly outside of radio station KPFK, claims he and 12 other workers were sacked in March because the Beverly Wilshire wanted to see him, a longtime shop steward, removed just two weeks before the start of negotiations. Moore says her union obtained a Sheraton memo instructing management staffers to threaten union workers with a lockout if they took up picket duty.
That was bad enough, she says, but at the bottom of the memo it says, Look at their faces, their expressions take note. I knocked on my general managers door and asked, Whats that mean? [There was] silence, but Ill tell you what I think it means. It means who can I break? Who can I harass? Who can I target?
Whitlock, who has already signed up for 2 a.m.to8 a.m. picket duty, has other worries that are no doubt shared by City Hall and the business community.
My fear, he says, is that after its all settled the business will still suffer, that it will hurt our business, and some great workers will not come back.
Moore, who works part-time in the current off-season, relies on her job for all her health insurance and feels lucky that she also draws income as a television writers personal assistant, but fears for her colleagues.
The majority are immigrants, and this is their first job. It scares me when they come to me and say, Well, Ill work somewhere else and get health insurance its the law.
Ripoll, who rents a home in Valley Village, knows all about health care and how bad things could get for his family if the hotels get their way. He says the quality of care for his 20-year-old son Richard, who has had six surgeries and is legally blind, will be lowered while costing more money. As it is now, Richard is able to work out in a gym and attend a job-training school.
His quality of life has improved, Ripoll says. I remember how families use to lock up their disabled kids it was like they didnt exist.
All three negotiating HERE locals in Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles have authorized their representatives to call a strike if they feel its necessary, perhaps believing they have little future to lose.
Until 1992, they only put in pennies an hour into the pension fund, Moore says of the hotel owners. Now they dont want to increase our contribution for the first two years of a new contract. After that, in the third year, theyll increase it by one penny an hour. This is the biggest joke of all.
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