"I've been working at the Century Plaza for three years. I've had only a 44-cent raise, and I have two children. It's hard to support a family with this salary," hotel worker Sonya Lopez told a crowd in Roxbury Park at the Progressive Jewish Alliance's (PJA) Aug. 8 event, "Justice in the Park," to educate groups on the hotel workers' position.
Since their extended contract expired June 1, unionized workers at nine Los Angeles hotels have been embroiled in a struggle with hotel management over new terms. Aside from a battle over wages and other benefits, the main sticking point between the two groups is the length of the contract.
Most of the workers are low-wage earners, starting at about $11 an hour, and many are recent immigrants.
"These are people who are part of the working poor in Los Angeles," said Daniel Sokatch, PJA executive director. "These are folks who are one step away from poverty, sliding down the slippery slope, the abyss of being the true poor."
PJA organized the "Justice in the Park" event to bring together Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Workmen's Circle, Sholem Community and the Jewish Labor Committee. "[At] PJA, we see it as our role both to be the Jewish voice in the economic justice community, and the economic justice voice in the Jewish community," Sokatch said.
After 16 negotiating sessions, the Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees Union, Local 11 and the Los Angeles Hotel Council, which represents nine hotels, have no more meetings scheduled. The hotels involved are the Hyatt Regency Los Angeles, Hyatt West Hollywood, Westin Century Plaza, St. Regis, Sheraton Universal, Wilshire Grand, Millennium Biltmore, Regent Beverly Wilshire and Westin Bonaventure.
"On July 1, the union took a vote, rejecting our last, best and final offer," said Fred Muir, representing the Hotel Council.
"There have not been any major points of agreement thus far on any substantive issue," said David Koff, a union representative. He said that the hotels' final offer was rejected by 92 percent of the workers on July 1. "The parties are far apart."
On July 2, the hotels officially declared an impasse, Muir said, which, in the absence of a contract, allowed management to enact a $10-a-week co-pay for healthcare without the union's consent.
Family healthcare had previously been provided free to employees.
But even more than wages or healthcare costs, the one major sore point for management, Muir said, is the union's insistence on a two-year contract. The hotels want a five- or six-year contract.
"Look at all the time and expense and unhappiness and uncertainty we're going through right now with a contract negotiation," Muir said. "We don't want to do this again in two years. It's not good for us or our workers, and it's not good for the L.A. economy."
But renegotiating in 2006 is very important for the union, because hotel workers' contracts in cities around the nation are expiring, and unions want to band together to improve their bargaining positions.
"Over the last decade, the employers have consolidated into several large national and multinational corporations, [while] the workers have remained more or less local entities," Koff said. "The hotel workers want to be able to all negotiate with all those chains at the same time." He pointed out that the grocery workers' recent struggle demonstrated management's divide-and-conquer policy, and that multinational corporations' deep pockets usually let them win out. "If they're negotiating in one part of the country, they're still doing business as usual in the rest of the country," Koff said.
Although several of the Los Angeles hotels are part of multinational corporations, the council will not accept a two-year contract.
"We consider it a local issue," Muir said.
He noted that hotels are willing to reinstate free healthcare for workers, as long as they accept a five-year contract.
After eight months of steady work at a hotel, worker Lester Obado said he's received a raise of only 23 cents. "A lot of my co-workers tell me, 'You're young; you can find another job.' I could do that," Obado told the crowd of more than 100 people at the event. "But no. I'm staying, and I'm going to fight for my job."
Sokatch believes that "Jewish history, tradition and ethics" support workers' rights.
"We were immigrants to this country who came and took these kinds of jobs, and we realized the American dream through hard work, education and organizing in the labor movement," he said. "But hard work no longer guarantees that you can come out of the ranks of the working poor and into the middle and upper classes in America," Sokatch said of today's economy. "These people are in this precarious position that one thing going wrong in their lives, a sick child, a broken car, an increase in healthcare, can tumble the entire house of cards."
At "Justice in the Park," Jewish community leaders broke the crowd into small groups to discuss how Jewish tradition and belief can be instructive in the hotel dispute. Educators like Aryeh Cohen, chair of rabbinic studies at the University of Judaism, and Susan Laemmle, dean of religious life at USC, among others, led the small discussions.
There is no sign of a strike yet, and workers are continuing to work without a contract. However, Koff said, "the union will step up actions in the streets, working with the community and to make the employers realize that it's in their best interest to be responsive to what the workers have told them."
"What we're hoping is that the Jewish community will make a statement," Sokatch said. "That they will say to the owners, 'We like your hotels, [but our] notion of what is kosher goes beyond how your kitchens are kept -- it goes to the way you treat the people who work there.'"