June 23, 2005
Displaying incredible negotiating skills or amazing timing, mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa helped broker a deal hours after personally intervening in a labor dispute between hotel workers and the L.A. Hotel Employers' Council, which represents seven hotels. The labor discord had been ongoing for 14 months, and a brief strike at one hotel was set to expand into an employer lockout of workers at all seven hotels.
"Workers were ecstatic, beyond belief, in terms of the leadership that Antonio Villaraigosa displayed," said Hilda Delgado, communications director for the L.A. County Federation of Labor.
Most significantly, the union got its wish for a contract that expires in 2006. Hotel-worker contracts in many other U.S. cities also expire in 2006, which could give the UNITE HERE union more leverage against the international conglomerates that own most hotel chains. The employers' council had repeatedly rejected the demand of a common expiration date.
Other terms of the agreement, ratified by union members on June 16, include a 65-cent-per-hour raise and restitution for health care fees charged workers after their previous contract had expired.
"I think if it weren't for the mayor serving as a mediator, we would probably be dealing with a lockout right now," Delgado said.
Jewish groups concerned with workers' rights, such as the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Workmen's Circle, took sides early in 2004 and promoted a boycott of the seven hotels, which are widely used by the Jewish community for functions and banquets.
The union's Delgado said the brief strike was specifically triggered by alleged unfair labor practices (including the fees for health care). For its part, the hotel association had accused unions of being intractable.
Still, after 14 months of acrimony, the council's concession on the 2006 contract date seemed the key to ending the dispute. Although the employers insist they didn't surrender totally.
"The term of the contract, pushing the expiration back from April 2006 until November 2006, should allow Los Angeles to avoid much of the national labor dispute that is expected next year," said Brian Fitzgerald, council president.
The November 2006 union contract expiration will be the last among hotel worker contracts in the nation's major cities. In other words, if other cities' hotel unions secure contracts earlier in the year, L.A. hotel workers may be left out of the loop again -- precisely what the union bargained so hard to avoid. On the other hand, if negotiations drag on, the L.A. workers could add late-arriving clout to the bargaining.
In short, next year will tell whether this deal postponed the conflict or resolved it.
On June 13, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger extended the seemingly permanent voting season in California by scheduling a Nov. 8 special election. Schwarzenegger says inaction in the legislature has forced him to take a package of three "reforms" straight to state voters in initiative form.
Churning out a steady stream of anti-spending rhetoric, the governor has found it difficult to make much progress on his agenda in the California legislature. Critics say he's hardly tried.
"The initiative process is designed to allow the voters to go around a gridlocked legislature or a governor," said Harvey Rosenfield, founder of the Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights. "Schwarzenegger has turned this on its head by invoking a special election without even having bothered to seriously promote his measures before the legislature."
Schwarzenegger spokesman Todd Harris countered that "in January, [Schwarzenegger] told the Legislature that he wanted to pass these reforms and said 'My door will be open 24 hours a day.'"
"For six months now, the legislature has shown zero interest in working with the governor to pass these reforms," Harris said.
Schwarzenegger is endorsing three initiatives so far for Nov. 8. One would increase the number of years required for public school teachers to obtain tenure from two to five. A second initiative would give the governor executive power to cut state spending. The third initiative would change the process for establishing the borders of legislative districts, relying on a panel of retired judges instead of lawmakers themselves.
Sadly, all restraints on spending for this election have been eliminated by a pro-Schwarzenegger group called Citizens to Save California: a March Superior Court decision in the group's favor established that initiative committees can raise unlimited cash from private donors and be associated with a politician (as long as they don't transfer the money directly to his re-election campaign). In other words, expect a deluge of proposition TV commercials featuring the movie star as the winter approaches.
"We're all participants in the Arnold reality show," Rosenfield told The Journal. "I think it's a complete abuse of the initiative process."
"The governor agrees that it would be far better for these reforms to be passed through the legislature," Harris conceded.
Addressing reforms through the Legislature would also have postponed two other politically explosive measures that have qualified for the special election: a constitutional amendment requiring girls under 18 to obtain parental consent before getting abortions, and a measure that would make it harder for unions to use member dues for political campaigns. Schwarzenegger has not announced a position on either initiative, although the union restrictions would weaken the political clout of organized labor, which has frequently opposed the governor.