Shortly after Rick Chertoff assumed his duties as Executive Director of the L.A. chapter of the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC), a colleague called and said he should hotfoot it over to Beverly Hills to check out the picket line outside the Summit Rodeo Hotel. "I went over," Chertoff recalls, "and what I saw were these shmegegges, these little Central Americans protesting amid the opulence of Rodeo Drive."
Shmegegge is one of those oddly expressive Yiddish words; it means a small, bedraggled fellow - more Marxistically, an object, not a maker, of history. What immediately impressed Chertoff, however, was that the objects were taking history into their own hands - in a setting that could not possibly have made them feel more alien. "They were putting their jobs on the line" Chertoff marvels. "The nerve that this took! How could I - how could anyone - not help them?"
The jobs being put on the line were those of housekeeper, waiter, cook, bellhop and parking attendant at the Summit Rodeo, a boutique hostelry on Beverly Hills' swankiest street. And the help that Chertoff provided was to get their story out. Three years ago, the Summit Rodeo was purchased by Efrem Harkham, a leading figure in the local garment industry; two years ago, the Summit's contract with its workers ran out and no new contract had been negotiated. During that time, as documented in a report of a rabinnic commission assembled by the JLC, one-third of Summit Rodeo employees - a disproportionately pro-union third - had been discharged. "Management," the report asserted, "has engaged in anti-union activities including harassing and firing pro-union workers, videotaping and spying on workers, and attempting to indoctrinate its workers with anti-union propaganda during mandatory meetings."
But during the past six months, the shmegegges struck back. They staged three short-duration strikes, the last a three-day walkout in late April. At the same time, the JLC and another worker-support organization, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, mobilized backing - in the Jewish community, and among rabbis in particular - for the Summit workers, on the theory that it might just be possible to shame Harkham, a longtime activist in Jewish community affairs, into re-opening bargaining with his employees. In April, Rabbi Neal Comess-Daniels delivered a brief Passover homily on the sidewalk outside the Summit to an appreciative pick-up congregation of 60 clerics. On June 5, 21 rabbis signed an ad in the Beverly Hills Courier asking Harkham to agree to a settlement.
By the time of the Courier ad, the Summit was the only one of the 14 hotels where Local 11 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees had a chapter not to sign the watershed agreement that Local 11 had negotiated earlier this year. The contract raised the hourly base pay for housekeepers from $8.15 to $11.05 over a six-year period - a 36 percent increase - and committed the hotels to holding open positions for immigrant employees whose papers were not in order. Local 11 had reached an accord with downtown hotels on the contract at the start of the year, then mobilized its members and won management's assent at such flagship Westside establishments as the Beverly Wilshire, the Beverly Hilton, the Bel Air and the Century Plaza over the past two months. And last week, Harkham & Co., facing a summer of rabbinic discontent and shmegegge mobilization, signed the contract, too.
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As events would have it, the settlement at the Summit Rodeo was first announced publicly at the JLC's annual brunch last Sunday, which thus became a celebration both of the victory at the Summit Rodeo and of one of the most effective cross-ethnic campaigns the city's seen in years. Calling coalition-building "the biggest challenge we face in L.A. today," Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (a onetime organizer for United Teachers of Los Angeles) hailed the JLC's efforts at the Summit Rodeo, and Summit bartender Jose Lara presented a scroll to the JLC's Chertoff.
The irony here is that the JLC has been seen for some time as something of a shmegegge itself - a ghost of Jewish socialism past, lacking the resources and elan of L.A.'s more conservative and certainly better funded Jewish organizations. Suddenly, however, that ghost is stirring.
Within the past couple of years, the L.A. Jewish establishment has realized that cultivating good relations with the city's coming Latino majority is a task of utmost importance; joint Jewish-Latino conferences have been springing up all over town. And what the battle over the Summit Rodeo makes clear is that one Jewish organization has already forged a powerful bond with that emerging majority. In the wake of the Summit Rodeo victory, one can even imagine a distinctive battle-cry for this new alliance (and if it doesn't quite parse as social theory, at least it's a proper linguistic jumble, mixing Yiddish with an English translation of the original Spanish):
"Shmegegges united will never be defeated."