NINETEEN LOS ANGELES elected officials, including Mayor Jim Hahn, City Council President Alex Padilla and state Senator Sheila Kuehl, are girding for a strike or lockout of hotel workers by gathering food to tide over employees during what could turn out to be a long period without pay.
Negotiations were continuing this week, and representatives of the nine-member Hotel Employers Council and Local 11 of Unite Here were still hoping to reach agreement on contract terms. But the two sides appeared far apart and prepared to walk away from the table. Local 11 already has received strike authorization from its members. One hotel — the Wilshire Grand (formerly the downtown Hilton) — locked out laundry workers from another local a week ago.
The “Hungry for Justice” campaign that put food bins in the offices of elected leaders actually is just a symbolic portion of a food-gathering campaign that dates back to this year’s Easter and Passover season, and hints at Local 11’s intense planning and organizing, and its preparedness for a lengthy stalemate.
Last spring, according to Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy’s deputy director, Vivian Rothstein, church congregations around the city began collecting nonperishable foodstuffs such as rice and beans, as well as laundry detergent, diapers, baby formula and other goods that hotel workers would need if they are locked out or call a strike.
The food and supplies will be needed to help supplement strike pay from Unite Here coffers, Local 11 president Maria Elena Durazo told hotel workers earlier this month as they cast their strike-authorization ballots. But the donations were even more important, Durazo said, because they are a result of the union’s outreach to community leaders and clergy.
“This community supports the hotel workers and wants them to have a fair contract,” Durazo said.
A concerted effort to reach beyond Latino immigrants, who now make up most of the region’s hotel workers, has characterized Unite Here’s organizing efforts and is in part a response to the grocery strike that began nearly a year ago but ended with a contract that gave supermarket workers far less than they sought. In that campaign, the United Food and Commercial Workers were criticized for failing to make the best possible use of allies in other unions and a deep well of goodwill that Los Angeles residents had for the checkout clerks and box boys they see every week.
A hotel strike would present a different kind of challenge because most residents never check into a local hotel and have none of the connection to housekeepers or bellmen at local establishments that they have with supermarket workers.
Local 11 has attempted to overcome that structural problem in several ways. First, they are working to make their movement nationwide. The primary sticking point in contract negotiations, in fact, is a demand that the next agreement expire at the same time as similar contracts in cities around the country.
But the union also has made outreach to the African-American community a key part of its strategy. Unite Here international president John Wilhelm came to Los Angeles in April to present demands for a “diversity strategy” to pull black workers back into an industry from which union leaders say they were gradually excluded beginning in the 1970s.
Joining immigrant Latinos with black workers, union strategists say privately, would strengthen the union’s hand by taking advantage of a heritage of African-American strength in the labor movement while reducing the perceived exploitation of immigrant workers.
AT A NEWS CONFERENCE Tuesday, black clergy and community leaders vowed to support Unite Here by asking African-Americans not to eat, meet or sleep at the nine major hotels involved in the labor action until a contract is signed, and not to take replacement jobs in the event of a strike or lockout.
“The African-American religious community is standing with the hotel workers in order for them to have a livable wage and health care paid for by their employer and dignity and respect in the workplace,” said Bishop Henry M. Williamson of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. “We will stand with them and we will not cross picket lines. We’re standing because Dr. King stood with garbage workers. We have the moral, the historical, the spiritual perspective through Dr. King, who lost his life fighting for garbage workers.”
Similar news conferences were planned with leaders of immigrant Asian and Latino groups.
“These are really justice campaigns,” Rothstein said. “They are not just union campaigns. We all bemoan that corporations are taking over every aspect of our lives, and here workers are standing up and demanding dignity on the job.”
The elected officials’ food-gathering efforts were to be unveiled Friday. Padilla spokesman David Gershwin said his boss took the issue personally, in part because his father was a member of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union when he worked at a restaurant.
“Of course, there is also the selfish matter of the city’s transient-occupancy tax,” Gershwin added, referring to the per-bed tax that the city gets for every visitor staying in a local hotel. City officials fear a strike or lockout would dry up that vital source of revenue.