On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 8, police moved in to cordon off the doors of the Summit Rodeo, a pricy small hotel nestled among still pricier retail establishments on Beverly Hills’ priciest street. They had been summoned by hotel management to preserve the sanctity of the lobby from the wild men looming just outside: L.A. Episcopal Bishop Frederick Borsch, Suffragen Bishop Chester Talton and Reverend James Lawson (Martin Luther King Jr.’s onetime mentor in nonviolence), not to mention two dozen Methodist ministers and a menacing passel of rabbis who had just completed a mini-seder on the sidewalk outside the hotel.
Fully 60 priests, rabbis and ministers, all in clerical garb, had walked in procession to Summit Rodeo to implore management there to negotiate a contract with its workers, who had labored for two years without one. They came bearing the report of a rabbinic commission assembled by the Jewish Labor Committee, alleging that management has unjustly fired one-third of its 90 employees — disproportionately the most pro-union workers — over the past couple years. And when the clerics were denied entrance, they laid some Passover bitter herbs on the doorstep — an offering, said Rabbi Neal Comess-Daniels, signifying “the taste of inequality, the sting of frustration when one speaks but is not heard.”
They made different offerings at their next stops, presenting token gifts of milk and honey to the managers of the Regent Beverly Wilshire and the Beverly Hilton, signifying appreciation for those hotels’ signing on to the precedent-setting agreement that Hotel & Restaurant Employees Local 11 crafted earlier this year. In January, with much fanfare and the personal blessings of noted Catholic layman Richard Riordan, Local 11 announced a contract with downtown-area hotels that set a new standard for service-sector work in Los Angeles. The contract raised the hourly base pay for housekeepers from $8.15 to $11.05 over the life of the contract, and committed the hotels to holding open positions for their immigrant workers whose papers aren’t in order.
At that time, none of the Westside hotels with which the union was negotiating — including such flagship enterprises as the Beverly Wilshire, the Beverly Hilton, the Century Plaza and the Bel Air — agreed to these terms. It was hard to argue they couldn’t afford it while their downtown counterparts could: In Beverly Hills, according to a recent L.A. Business Journal story, occupancy rates are up to 82 percent, and the average room goes for $281 a night. But with the old contract slated to expire on April 15, the Westside put up a united front against any encroachments of decency.
And then it started to crack. Maybe it was the union members’ authorization of a dues increase (by a three-to-one margin) to establish a strike fund — a first for the hotel union’s L.A. local. Maybe it was all those member mobilizations in the employee cafeterias (a common occurrence at the Century Plaza) and on the sidewalks outside (a common occurrence at the Beverly Hilton). Maybe it was all those troublesome priests and ministers and rabbis, organized by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), which came into being during last year’s battle for L.A.’s living-wage ordinance, and which has now expanded its emphasis to advocacy for the city’s seemingly countless low-wage workers.
By mid-April, CLUE’s clericals had become particularly adept at their own latter-day version of the old lunch-counter sit-in. In a program called Java for Justice, they would have coffee and lunch in the hotel dining room and, upon completion of the meal, rise and deliver what Reverend Dick Gillett, who heads the Episcopal Diocese’s Ministry for Social Justice, calls “a little homily.”
“We know this is a bit unusual,” Gillett and his fellow clerics — invariably dressed in clerical garb for the occasion — would tell the assembled diners, “but we want you to know that the people who have prepared your meals and who wait on you so efficiently and courteously want your help today. And you could help them, just by asking for the manager and telling him you’d like this hotel to sign the contract.”
Such homilies have been delivered at the Bel Air, the Summit Rodeo and the Century Plaza, where, Gillett recalls, “the kitchen staff came out into the dining room and stood by in acknowledgement of our presentation.”
Facing a future that held out small prospect for any kind of peace, the majority of the Westside hotels concluded they might as well opt for justice. On March 26, the Beverly Wilshire signed the contract, followed on March 31 by the Beverly Hilton and on April 10 by the Century Plaza. (At the Bev-Hilt, the stumbling block had apparently been the owner, Merv Griffin, about whom this columnist had some fairly sharp things to say in an earlier piece, all of which I now repent. Zsa Zsa Gabor and Charo were actually talk-show guests of surprising depth.)
There is as yet no agreement with the Bel Air, where the old contract does not expire until May 15. And peace is by no means at hand at the Summit Rodeo, the boutique-hotel-turned-labor-battleground. For the past three years, the Summit Rodeo and its sister hotel, the Summit Bel Air (which is nonunion), have been owned by Efrem Harkham, a leading figure in the rag trade. During those years, according to the rabbinic fact-finding report, “Management. . . 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.”
One of the workers the hotel dismissed was Stephanie Sacker, a server with 10 years’ experience who says the reason that the hotel gave for her dismissal was that she “incorrectly processed a credit card for a customer.” The more plausible reason for her dismissal, she told the Weekly, was that she had taken a leading role in building the union there. A government review of Sacker’s charges, and the other firings, is still pending before the National Labor Relations Board.
Margarito Ramirez, a cook at the hotel’s Café Rodeo since 1979, recounts being called into the office of general manager Stefan Nielsen. “He asked my cooperation to convince my co-workers to throw out the union,” Ramirez says. “He gave me to understand that if I cooperated, he would offer me a different position in the hotel, or a raise if that’s what I wanted.”
Such activities, the rabbis concluded, “constitute violations of Jewish law, according to the Talmud and the Torah.” (Owner Harkham, in case you haven’t figured it out, is active in Jewish community affairs.) Last Friday, a dozen Westside rabbis signed an ad in the Beverly Hills Courier calling on Harkham to “Please sign a contract.”
On the same day, hotel workers at the Summit Rodeo walked off their jobs, beginning a three-day strike that forced management to close its Café Rodeo dining room and scramble to maintain guest services. Management has already been threatening to close the Café Rodeo and open a retail outlet in its place — a move that the union charges is purely retaliatory, since it will reduce the workforce from 90 to 40, and one that still must pass muster with the appropriate bodies of Beverly Hills city government. The threat of shuttering the restaurant places a de facto limit on the duration of any Summit Rodeo strike: If the Café Rodeo stays dark long enough, management may just decide to keep it dark.
When asked Tuesday to comment on the various charges swirling around the hotel, Anna Gargioni, Harkham’s assistant, said only that “We’re in the middle of high-level discussions with the union, and we’re unable to comment on any issues that may come up in that discussion.”
Last Friday — the same day the work ers walked off the job and the rabbis took out their ad — a clerical mini-delegation did lunch at Harkham’s other hotel, the Bel Air Summit, just down the hill from the Getty. The delegation included Father Joe Frazier (a priest at St. Andrew’s Episcopal in Torrance, and a member of the Chad Mitchell Trio way back in the ’60s), some CLUE lay activists and Summit Rodeo cook Oscar Garcia (who, after all, had the day off). At the conclusion of the meal, they asked to meet with Harkham and were greeted instead by Bruce Wenger, general manager of both Summit hotels, who struggled to maintain a modicum of composure, though it was clear he was already having one hell of a day and the last thing he needed was an encounter with a meddlesome priest and a more meddlesome reporter.
While repeating that all discussion of these issues should proceed at the negotiating table only, Wenger did allow as how Mr. Harkham had been “bombarded by misinformation from the religious community. And he’s disappointed by this: He does care about his fellow man.”
Until that care is displayed in ways more apparent to the employees of the Summit Rodeo, however, it’s a safe bet that Harkham & Co. will be subjected to a rising double whammy of worker walkouts and clerical censure. Already, CLUE has assembled the largest local collection of pro-labor religious activists since the heyday of Cesar Chavez. And with its victories on the Westside, Local 11 has shown itself to be a citywide force — in bargaining, in politics, in its ability to construct progressive coalitions — on behalf of low-wage L.A. workers.
The hotel workers’ contract successes aren’t the only recent local labor breakthroughs. On April 1 and 2, the nurses at St. Vincent’s Hospital just west of downtown voted to unionize by a 179-119 margin — the first unionization of L.A.-area nurses in more than a decade. The vote culminated an 18-month campaign by the California Nurses Association (CNA), which began, says lead organizer Diane Hirsch-Garcia, with classes the CNA offered nurses on how to maintain standards in the age of the HMO.
St. Vincent’s boasted a veteran nursing staff — 150 of its 300 nurses had at least 15 years’ seniority — and a history as one of L.A’s venerable Catholic hospitals. Things started to change a few years back when its owner, Catholic Healthcare West, began running the place in . . . well, in the way that hospitals are run in the ’90s. CNA talked with the nurses about a relatively new state law that mandates a ratio of one nurse for every two patients in a critical care unit, and that restricts nurses from being “floated” from one medical department to another if they lack the training in the particular specialty. “The big issue at St. Vincent’s was floating and staffing,” Hirsch-Garcia says.
Catholic Healthcare West didn’t take the campaign lying down; it got several nuns to call on the nurses to reject the union. For its part, the union put out a leaflet to the largely Catholic (and about 95 percent Filipino) nurses “about the Catholic Church supporting their right to organize,” says Hirsch-Garcia. “We quoted the Pope.”
The CNA isn’t the only union targeting St. Vincent’s. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is currently engaged in a massive drive to organize workers at all the nonunion Catholic Healthcare West hospitals in California. SEIU has clearly become the union that sets the standard for organizing at a time when the movement as a whole is only just beginning to rediscover this lost art. Last year, SEIU organized 58,000 new members; this year, it is spending 47 percent of its budget on organizing (in a movement where the norm just two years ago was 3 percent).
Unfortunately, in California, CNA and SEIU are at least as well known for fighting each other as they are for their organizing prowess. Two years ago, each union placed its own HMO-reform initiative on the ballot, ran ads against the other’s initiative, and managed to kill them both. A few months ago, CNA organizers showed up at a Bay Area hospital on the last day before the vote to certify an SEIU union there, bringing leaflets that said if the workers rejected SEIU, CNA could provide them with a real union. Now CNA is considering affiliating with the United Auto Workers, which would mean joining the AFL-CIO, creating the possibility that such turf disputes could be negotiated without major bloodshed.
It would be nice if these two unions — among the precious few that actually organize — found some way not to kill off each other’s campaigns. Where’s George Mitchell when you need him?