The gala dinner was like many others at the Century Plaza Hotel, featuring festive centerpieces atop crisp tablecloths, well-dressed guests exchanging greetings and servers bustling about offering trays of beverages.
However, this event wasn't actually inside the hotel. Set in front of the hotel on the Avenue of the Stars, which was blocked off, this banquet-in-the-street supported some 4,000 striking workers at seven Los Angeles hotels. The traffic-stopping April gathering was among a series of actions organized by a coalition of community groups, including the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), in support of an 11-month strike that ended in June.
The outcome was an important step forward for the union: It achieved a wage hike, continued health benefits and a short contract that will expire at nearly the same time as the contracts of other hotel workers in other parts of the country.
Last week saw the next round of activism -- a transnational effort in support of hotel workers in eight cities fighting for a new contract in 2006.
On Wednesday, inspired by the success in Los Angeles, Jewish social justice organizations from the United States and Canada gathered at the hotel workers' union headquarters just west of downtown. The strategy session was convened by New York-based Jewish Funds for Justice and Los Angeles' Progressive Jewish Alliance. Representatives also attended from other Jewish organizations in Los Angeles, as well as from groups in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, St. Paul, Washington, D.C. and Toronto. In mostly closed-door meetings, organizers discussed the tactics and the coalition building that worked in this year's L.A. campaign and how the lessons would apply in other cities.
Organizers say that Jewish involvement has been a central fixture within the effort.
Jewish participation, particularly at the Century Plaza Hotel, was essential, said Maria Elena Durazo, president of the hotel workers local, UNITE HERE. The Century Plaza is sufficiently serious about Jewish clientele to maintain a sealed-off kosher kitchen, she said.
"There's no doubt that if it had not been for the influence and the participation and the constant, constant communication of the Jewish organizations, the Century Plaza would not have settled," Durazo said.
"The most important aspect of what we did there," said Jaime Rapaport, the architect of PJA's hotel worker support campaign, "was this national Jewish response to a campaign that's addressing poverty."
The national average median wage for housekeepers is $7.85 an hour, according to the union. Wages are higher where more hotels are organized: In New York, where hotels are 95 percent unionized, a housekeeper's wages start at $19 an hour; in Los Angeles, with a 35 percent union density, housekeepers average $11.31.
"It's not just about a contract fight," UNITE HERE organizer Vivian Rothstein said. "It's a national approach to address conditions for nonunion and union workers."
But a hotel industry representative said the union activists are over-reaching with unrealistic demands and that they misrepresent how hotels treat their workers.
"The bulk of hotel workers are housekeepers. They make, under this contract, approximately $13.50 an hour," said Fred Muir of the Hotel Employers Council, which represents seven unionized Los Angeles-area hotels. He points out that the contract also provides for a pension fund, paid health care and free meals at work.
The strategy on the hotel side has been to prevent union contracts across the country from expiring at the same time. Hotels gave ground on that issue in the last year. Beyond that, individual hotel chains have opposed union organizing and simply worked to hold down labor costs in a business environment that includes rising health-care costs.
The economics of the hotel industry are simple, Muir said. "How many rooms can you fill and how much can you charge for them? The money to pay everyone has to come from somewhere."
Room rates in New York are twice what they are in Los Angeles, so workers in New York can be paid more than those in Los Angeles, he said.
The activists who gathered last week emphasized that they are trying to make their labor campaign about Jewish values. The meeting's purpose was to link local Jewish groups to the union organizing in their cities, and, just as important, bring them together to develop "a common language, a common strategy, common goals that would enable us to speak in a louder and more aggregated voice," said Daniel Sokatch of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. He wants to expand the notion of what constitutes "Jewish issues."
"We want to put out there on the radar the notion that social justice is central to our identity as Jews," he said.
The idea resonates with Simon Greer, who just six months ago took over as executive director of Jewish Funds for Justice. The foundation, which handles some $15 million annually, underwrote transportation and lodging costs for participants from the Jewish social justice organizations.
Greer said that the campaign seeks to boost hotel workers into the middle class. "As Jews in this country, the beneficiaries of America as an open society, we are obligated to do something for others in this society," he said. "A piece of this is about how we reclaim justice as a centerpiece of Jewish identity in America."
When Jews make choices that support social justice, he added, they are, in effect, expanding the notion of keeping kosher.
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