Hotel Workers Fight Back

While Democratic visitors inside the posh Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel gussied themselves up for yesterday evening's events, dozens of hotel workers and hundreds of supporters rallied outside the hotel for their right to organize. Taking advantage of this week's national spotlight on Los Angeles to publicize their struggle, the rally, which was sponsored by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, Local 814, included appearances by Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, and Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Attempts to organize Loews' three hundred low-income workers took off last year after a contentious labor dispute with another luxury Santa Monica hotel, the Fairmont Miramar, was settled. The Loews' workers formed an organizing committee which went public on May 25, 2000 with a rally and a campaign to educate fellow workers about the benefits of a union. Loews immediately clamped down on their efforts.

According to workers, they were subjected to relentless threats and intimidation by the management aimed at deterring them from unionizing. The hotel hired union-busting firm Cruz & Associates, which had previously led the anti-union campaign at the Fairmont Miramar, and held meetings in which workers were forced to listen to anti-union admonishments. Workers who spoke at the rally said they were forbidden from talking about wages amongst each other, and from wearing pro-union buttons. HERE has filed 22 charges against Loews alleging violations of labor law, and the workers have remained steadfast in their organizing efforts.

Sunday's rally was a peaceful affair heightened with gospel singing and upbeat chants of "Si se puede," or "Yes we can." Mothers brought their children, and all of the speeches were translated into Spanish. Rally organizers made it clear through flyers and announcements that they were not calling for a boycott of Loews Hotel during the convention, but rather asking hotel guests to support the workers by wearing buttons and signing an Open Letter to Loews Hotel Corporation.

The only threatening aspect of the rally, in fact, was its outlandish police presence. Standing blockade-style in front of Loews' pristine landscaping and circular valet drive was a row of police officers in full riot gear, their helmet covers down and their batons in hand. Mounted police hemmed in the rally with their horses, and a handful of men with dark sunglasses and earpieces stood silent amidst the crowd.

Senator Paul Wellstone cited his own history of defending immigrant workers in Minnesota, and earned exuberant applause when he announced an amendment he plans to add to the highly controversial China trade bill which would enforce workers' rights to organize. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer spoke as well, denouncing Loews' union-busting tactics.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney focused on the glaring social stratification between the class of people who own and patronize Loews' Santa Monica Beach Hotel, and the workers who keep it running. "Behind me you see great wealth and great beauty. People are relaxing in the sunshine, eating, drinking and enjoying life. Meanwhile, behind the glitz of this hotel, there are other people cleaning toilets, washing dishes and making beds," he said. "How can a hotel rent a room for $250 a night and pay workers five dollars to clean that room? This company has no dignity, this conglomerate knows no shame."

The conglomerate to which Sweeney referred was the hotel's parent company, Loews Corporation, which also owns Diamond Offshore Drilling, one of the world's largest offshore oil drilling companies, and Lorillard Inc., the manufacturer of Newport cigarettes. Another corporate link which contributed to the timing of yesterday's rally is the fact that Loews' Hotels CEO Jonathan Tisch is a major contributor to Al Gore's presidential campaign, and -- rumor has it -- the designated chair of his inaugural committee. Fellow Democrats asserted that Tisch should immediately end the dispute between the hotel and its workers in accordance with Democratic pro-labor principles.

Not all Loews workers are behind the organizing effort. While Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke, about fifteen hotel employees stood behind holding handwritten cardboard signs that read "We don't want a union!" and chanting their dissent with their co-workers. Blanca Esquival, a room service operator at Loews for four years, was adamant in her opposition to the union. "I'm good enough to speak for myself, I don't need to pay thirty dollars for someone I don't know to do it for me," she said. "These people don't care about us. Look, they're upsetting our guests and we have to answer to them because of it." Members of the Loews organizing committee claimed that these workers were family members of the hotel's managers who had been set up to counter-protest, and did not represent the majority of workers' sentiments.

The conflict at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel is part of a much larger politicized struggle in the area. Santa Monica's tourist industry has only boomed in the last yen years, now employing three thousand low-wage workers in its designated tourist zone. Beginning in 1998, an alliance of Santa Monicans formed to study and formulate a living wage platform on behalf of the workers. The Santa Monica Living Wage Coalition's platform provided, among other things, that companies of fifty or more within the coastal zone pay employees a living wage of $10.69 per hour. They sent their platform to the City Council for review, and received a sympathetic response.

In retaliation, the luxury hotels of Santa Monica formed the deceptively named "Santa Monicans for a Living Wage," and spent more than $400,000 to put a measure on November's ballot that would provide nominal pay increases to only 200 workers, none of them from the hotel industry, and prevent the City Countil from enacting the Santa Monica Living Wage Coalition's platform.

Vivian Rothstein, a member of the steering committee which supported the original platform, noted that the phony wage initiative being pumped by the hotel industry is having an effect. "They have a very slick PR campaign," Rothstein said. "They've sent out multiple mailings and just took out a $70,000 ad in the L.A. Times. They're defusing attention from the heart of their initiative, which is that it would permanently prevent City Council from ever passing a real living wage law."

Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel has been spearheading the phony wage initiative, investing $125,000 in the effort which is more than any other single hotel's contribution. As the sun set over Loews' yesterday evening, however, it seemed that the tides may soon change.

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