FOR THREE MONTHS, THE HOTEL workers union, Unite Here, and several local nonunionized inns have been engaged in an escalating cold war that abruptly heated up last week. The trouble began Thursday, when the LAX Hilton suspended waiter Sergio Reyes, an organizing activist, over a work-related matter. Soon, 75 co-workers who sought an explanation of the matter from management were also suspended.

According to waiter Wilfredo Matamoros, he and his co-workers asked to meet with hotel general manager Grant Coonley or someone from human resources in the employee cafeteria. After a long wait they got a visit from housekeeping and security managers, who told them to go home — they would be informed Monday if the hotel wanted them back.

“They say they’re going to investigate us for five or six days,” Matamoros said. “Our plan is to keep everyone together to fight for our rights. We have to survive any way we can make it.”

Matamoros, who says he’s worked at the Hilton for 21 years, was among about 100 demonstrators, led by Unite Here president Maria Elena Durazo, who picketed the hotel the following day. That Friday began with Councilwoman Janice Hahn trying to lead the suspended workers into the Hilton before being escorted out of the lobby.

“We got a little roughed up by the security staff,” Hahn said. “I’ve got bruises on my arm. The general manager and the H.R. person finally agreed to speak to me alone, in a locked storage room.”

In response, hotel guard Amilcar Sanchez claims that Hahn roughed him up, and that he is seeking monetary compensation and pursuing criminal charges. “Councilwoman Hahn led an angry mob . . . and slugged [Sanchez] in the chest, knocking the wind out of him,” says his attorney, Dennis Chang. “She then elbowed him in the upper arm, causing him to fall back.”

(Hahn denies punching Sanchez and says she was thrust toward him by the surging crowd: “I’m a grandmother of three, for god’s sake. It’s not my style to strike security guards.”)

Later in the afternoon, Hahn and Assemblywoman Judy Chu tried to meet once more with management. They were allowed inside the hotel — only to be told, after cooling their heels for a half hour, that general manager Coonley would not meet with them. During that time the demonstrators’ chants penetrated the lobby — noise that would become a familiar soundtrack over the next few days.

By Monday, Reyes had been fired and the 75 others told to return to work Thursday — without compensation for their week’s lost wages. (The hotel’s management did not respond to interview requests.)

AS PART OF UNITE HERE’S national Hotel Workers Rising organizing campaign, Local 11 has targeted the airport and Glendale Hiltons, along with the LAX Westin and Four Points hotels, for unionization. Meanwhile, union-friendly allies have been busy lining up support among political, clerical and residential groups. The recently formed Coalition for a New Century is calling for an infrastructural face-lift of Century Boulevard — while also urging the unionization of hotels along the boulevard. On April 25, a newly minted Century Corridor Commission on Jobs, Tourism and Communities — a blue-ribbon panel created at the coalition’s behest — held a City Hall news conference to release a study titled “Opportunity for All.” The gathering was headed by commission chair Ruth Galanter and drew such sympathetic visitors as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City councilmen Bill Rosendahl and Eric Garcetti.

Opportunity for All claims that Century Corridor hotel workers earn 20 percent less than their downtown counterparts and that banquet-room gratuities are not, contrary to popular belief, tips that go to waiters and other servers, but money that is pocketed by the hotels. One day after the City Hall press conference, Unite Here members packed the City Council’s Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee meeting upstairs to loudly applaud chair Janice Hahn and Councilman Bill Rosendahl as they condemned the wage discrepancy and gratuity policy.

It’s unclear whether the Hilton suspensions were a calculated show of resolve or a heavy-handed blunder. Either way, the hotel has been wiping egg off its face for the past week and has stirred into action Unite Here’s powerful City Hall friends. The union and its supporters returned to Spring Street May 16 to cheer a unanimously passed council resolution calling on the Hilton to sit down and talk with its employees. The council’s action should have come as no surprise to the Hilton. At the Galanter commission’s April 25 news conference, Galanter was asked if her colleagues were considering a carrot-and-stick approach to win over the hotels.

“If we need a stick we’ll find one,” she said. “We know how to find sticks.”

LA Weekly