MORE

Taken for a Ride

In the 10 years Edith Garcia has worked as a housekeeper at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, she never met any of the top bosses. They always ignored her when she walked by, Garcia said, and any requests for a meeting fell on deaf ears.

But last week, a ride in Santa Monica’s City Hall elevator achieved for a moment what her requests and a vociferous union-organizing campaign had never accomplished. That elevator ride, from the first floor to the second floor, brought the administrators of the non-union hotel face to face with Garcia and other pro-union workers.

The Tuesday encounter began when three Loews managers arrived at City Hall and had to pass by a rally attended by more than 50 union supporters, who greeted them with a round of boos.

Charged by speeches and chanting, the demonstrators followed the hotel brass through the lobby toward the elevator, where a handful squeezed in with management just before the doors closed. They immediately began to ask questions: Why did the hotel hire ”union busters“ and additional security? Why won‘t management talk to the workers or let them freely organize?

”They didn’t know what to answer,“ Garcia said after the elevator ride. ”They felt very uncomfortable. They got in the corner. They stayed quiet and looked at each other. They were scared. It made me feel good because we are the ones who are always afraid. We made them feel the way they make us feel at work. That was a victory.“

But if anything, the chance meeting underscored the contrasting perspectives.

”I absolutely was not intimidated or threatened,“ said Alan Rose, the director of community relations for the Loews corporation, who was in the elevator with Skip Hartman, Loews‘ regional vice president, and Dick Seifert, who is in charge of labor and human relations for the corporation. ”We could have gone through the back door instead of walking past the crowd. They didn’t want to talk in a reasonable manner. We told them that if they want to talk to us, they can visit us in our office.“

And that‘s about where things stand between management and pro-union workers at Loews. The two sides remain deadlocked. The key issue: How to decide the fate of a union for the 375 employees at the 325-room luxury beachfront hotel just south of the Santa Monica Pier.

Hotel officials -- who took out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times’ local insert last week -- say they are willing immediately to hold an election supervised by the government‘s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In the ad titled ”An Independence Day Letter,“ they noted that such elections are used across the country to form or reject unions, and that they give workers the privacy of a ballot box in which to cast votes.

Union organizers, in contrast, want to settle the matter of union representation through a card-check process. Under that format, workers have the option of signing a card signifying their support for a union. At the point that a majority of workers have signed cards, the union is recognized. Nationwide, unions are moving increasingly toward the card-check system because, simply put, it is a more effective method of getting a union approved. And for that very same reason, management, if they oppose the formation of a union, invariably oppose a card-check.

The NLRB elections are a ”faulty process,“ said Kurt Petersen, the lead organizer for Local 814 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union (HERE). An NLRB election opens the door for management to conduct an anti-union campaign, he noted. And if management crosses the line of legality, by intimidating workers or even by firing union supporters, it could take years for the NLRB to rule that a transgression occurred. Moreover, said Petersen, ”We could win an election, and it could take years before it’s certified. They know this. They know all the tricks.“

The elevator was not the only room at City Hall where hotel honchos got singed. City Council members made it very clear where they stand, unanimously approving a resolution denouncing ”union busting“ and calling upon local businesses to ”respect worker dignity, management neutrality and the right to choose union representation without intimidation.“

Although the resolution itself is purely symbolic, it was an unmistakable message to hotel officials, as was the grilling by council members that preceded the vote.

”Santa Monica is a community where bullying the vulnerable is not acceptable to us,“ said Councilman Kevin McKeown, who sponsored the resolution. ”We cannot allow those with power and privilege to ignore the community.“

Company officials -- who said they found out the resolution was on the agenda by accident -- were taken aback.

”This is a sham,“ Rose said after the meeting. ”This is the first time in my 35-year history [with Loews] where city government has come out and blatantly taken sides on an issue that‘s not appropriate to them. It’s just blatantly unfair. They made up their minds before the meeting. They made us sound like we‘re union busters.“

In the end, the council meeting was, for the most part, one more theatrical event in a four-day-long cavalcade of well-orchestrated demonstrations last week.

At various times, hundreds of union supporters marched through Santa Monica and downtown Los Angeles. They also draped freeway overpasses with pro-union signs, staged street theater and revved up a 50-car caravan, all in the push to make Loews the city’s second unionized hotel.

Last Thursday afternoon, nearly 250 union supporters marched past Loews banging buckets and drums, before stopping at the entrance to the Santa Monica Pier. There, they set up a table and put Loews management (in absentia) through a mock trial for trying to buy workers off with raises, and for hiring ”union busters.“

After listening to the ”evidence,“ the crowd chanted, ”Guilty, guilty, guilty!“

The demonstrators then sat at the intersection as police diverted traffic to other streets. The Reverend Sandi Richards, pastor of the Church in Ocean Park, stepped forward in a flowing white robe and gave an invocation: ”Send forth your spirit, and we shall bring forth hope and justice in our town,“ she said, arms upraised.

When nearly 50 police officers in riot helmets surrounded the protesters, most dispersed, leaving two dozen holding hands in a circle, chanting. The officers began arresting them one by one, in some cases using plastic strips as handcuffs. The protesters -- some of them smiling -- were taken to the city jail and released a few hours later.

The battle at Loews is framed by earlier events at the city‘s only union hotel, the Miramar Fairmont. At that hotel, the former management hired a firm to campaign against the hotel’s existing union, and it won a 1997 election, by a vote of 120 to 109, to decertify the union. It took a union appeal to the NLRB before the results were overturned, and it took four years for a fired pro-union worker to be reinstated. The bitter dispute ended only when Maritz, Wolff & Co., which bought the hotel late last year, remained neutral in an April 2000 election that resulted in a 161-to-7 union victory.

”I will never put [hotel workers] through that gauntlet of terror again,“ said Local 18‘s Petersen, who was depicted as Hitler in an anti-union poster during the Miramar election campaign. ”They [Loews] have already ruined the atmosphere for an election. They’ve given $4,000 raises to buy people off.“

At the City Council meeting last week, half a dozen Loews workers once again repeated some of the 23 charges of intimidation and threats the union has filed with the NLRB, and complained about constant surveillance by beefed-up security.

They also denounced the hotel‘s hiring of Cruz and Associates, the consulting firm brought in by Miramar management during the height of that hotel’s labor war. Charges filed by the union during the Cruz-orchestrated campaign led to the NLRB‘s overturning of the vote against the union.

”It’s not right for the hotel to pay so much to confuse us,“ said Luis Marquez, who has worked at Loews for four years. ”I don‘t think that’s fair. Please get those people out. Give us the freedom to organize.“

Rose responded that ”Not a single one of these allegations has been substantiated.“

Interviewed later, workers on both sides of the issue said that management‘s strategy was having an effect. ”For us it’s bad,“ said Julio Aviles, a housekeeper at the hotel for nine months. ”Morale is low. The raises are making the workers complacent. Some workers say, ‘We don’t need a union. Why do we need it?‘“

”The raises worked,“ said Francisco Vasquez, a kitchen worker and a member of the organizing committee.

Blanca Esquivel, a worker in the food and beverage department, is evidence of that. ”We don’t need to have someone coming and telling us what we can or can‘t do,“ she said. ”Instead of encouraging people to rally, they should encourage people to move up,“ she added, by taking advantage of free ESL classes and tuition reimbursement offered by the hotel. ”We don’t need anyone to speak for us.“

But in an interview after last Thursday‘s arrests, Petersen interpreted a victory of sorts in the ongoing battle. He pointed to the $6,000 full-page ad in the Times, the hotel’s ”An Independence Day Letter“ opposing the card-check. ”We know that we‘re winning when the company is reacting,“ he said, ”and that’s a big reaction.“#