Strike Talk in the Suites

“I voted yes,” Regent Beverly Wilshire bellman Carlos Tejada said Monday after marking his ballot to authorize a strike. “I think we are sending a message to the hotels, the corporations like the Beverly Wilshire, the Hilton, the Sheraton. We are willing to stand up for ourselves.”

Tejada and more than 2,000 other members of Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (Unite Here) filed into a conference room at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles to empower their union to call a strike against nine L.A. hotels. The move followed a similar vote among Washington, D.C., hotel workers and came just before employees in San Francisco took the same action.

By coordinating their votes, the hotel workers in the three key cities showed they already were a step ahead of their counterparts in L.A.’s grocery unions. Southern California’s seven United Food and Commercial Workers locals had to fold their strike earlier this year after their time-honored insistence on local control weakened their efforts in the face of nationwide solidarity among the big three grocery corporations.

Hotel unions’ strategy to line up contracts in all major cities began after New York hotels and workers reached a five-year accord in 2001. Now Local 11 and the Unite Here locals in D.C. and San Francisco have made it their top priority to win a brief two-year contract so that instead of being left to bargain separately again, their new contracts will come due in 2006 along with those in cities up and down the East Coast, in Canada, through the Midwest, and Hawaii.

Union leaders say such nationwide strength is needed to match the global clout of major hotel chains. “It wasn’t just yesterday we started planning for this,” Local 11 chief Maria Elena Durazo said. “We need to be ready. We need to be organized. We need to defend ourselves.”

The vote does not by itself mean there will be a strike. Strategists believe the move will give Local 11 negotiators more power at the bargaining table, since representatives of the Hotel Employer’s Council will know that they are facing off against people who have authority to call an immediate walkout.

Fred Muir, spokesman for the Hotel Employer’s Council, said he hoped there would be no strike and that there would be no lockout without a labor action. He noted that six of the nine hotels recently reached a quick five-year agreement with the Service Employees International Union that included raises and free health care for gardeners, reception workers and other hotel employees. The only thing holding up the Unite Here contract, he said, was the insistence on a two-year term.

The current contract expired in April but was extended into June. The hotels then terminated the pact and for the first time imposed health care copayments for employee family members.

Tejada, who commutes five hours a day to and from his home in Chino, said he was prepared to strike for “decent wages” and health benefits. He makes $7.05 an hour, plus tips — but he said wealthy travelers aren’t very good tippers. “They are penny pinchers. So many rich people don’t understand the cost of living. They pay up to $5,000 a night to stay in the hotel and in the end we get just a ‘thank you.’”


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