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Jewish Journal

Santa Monica Gets A Clue

by Mike Levy

September 27, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Did you hear the one about the rabbi, the priest, the minister, the union and the hotel? It's no joke.

As workers at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel decide whether or not to organize in a union, more than 300 clergy members signed an open letter to Loews Hotels CEO Jonathan Tisch, asking that he allow union representatives access to the hotel workers. Under the umbrella of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), the group, including many prominent local rabbis, has been involved for over a year in the fight to allow about 300 housekeepers and other hotel service workers to vote on whether to unionize.

"We believe there is a lot of moral strength in religion," says Kurt Peterson, organizing director for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Union local 814. "It works for the workers, helps them understand what they deserve."

At the core of the Loews workers' dispute is a disagreement over how a unionizing vote might take place. Tisch sent a letter to employees in August 2000 saying the hotel would recognize the results of a federally supervised election, through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Union leaders feel the NLRB election process is too lengthy, and advocate a faster "card-check" vote on unionization.

James Tisch, CEO of the parent Loews Corp. and a cousin of Jonathan, told The Journal, "We strongly believe that a secret ballot [through the NLRB] is the fairest way for this to be settled. There is a lot of opportunity for intimidation with 'card-check.'" He added that a number of Loews hotels are unionized, as are workers at factories owned by Loews' tobacco division, Lorillard.

The dispute between union organizers and the Loews Hotel is not the first in Santa Monica's tourist-heavy beachfront. The nearby Fairmont Miramar and Pacific Shores hotels both recently settled similar disputes, allowing workers to vote on whether or not to join a union. Clergy affiliated with CLUE were involved in both negotiations, and with the broader labor movement in Santa Monica and Los Angeles, which includes the much publicized "living wage" drive.

Two distinguishing factors, however, have made the Loews dispute, ongoing since May 2000, a lightning rod for involvement by the religious community.

The first is the involvement -- surprising, to many -- of Jonathan Tisch in a fight against a union. Tisch, scion of the Tisch family, which owns the Loews Corp. holding company, is a major financial supporter of the Democratic Party, friend of Al Gore, philanthropist and leader in New York's Jewish community. According to Rabbi Jeff Marx of Shaarei Am Synagogue in Santa Monica, "It's particularly egregious that a Jewish owner should fight this so strenuously."

The second flash point in the unionization battle involved the clergy directly. In December 2000, a priest visited the home of one of his parishioners, a Loews hotel employee, with a union representative. The hotel management responded with a memo to employees warning of "a person dressed as a priest who says he is from a local church." The hotel has since sent letters of apology, but according to CLUE's hotel organizer, the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, "The level of frustration and anger among the clergy was pretty high."

For Salvatierra, a Lutheran minister, religious leaders have a natural place in labor disputes. "One of the things our opponents do is accuse us of being puppets of the unions," she says, "but we've been talking about economic justice long before there were unions."

"Coming from our tradition, I can't do anything else," says Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica.

The tradition to which Comess-Daniels refers is not only a social or political tradition of liberal Jewish Los Angeles, but a tradition in the form of Jewish texts.

Sha'arei Am's Rabbi Jeff Marx recalled a protest led by clergy following the hotel management's memo: "We re-enacted the battle of Jericho, that the walls of discrimination should come down. I read sections from the prophets about the treatment of workers." Comess-Daniels remembers another leader: "Jewish tradition has within it the first recorded labor action in history -- the story of Moses."

There is another Jewish history at work, too, in the eyes of the Santa Monica rabbis of CLUE.

"For almost all of us in the congregation, we either had parents or grandparents involved with this labor organizing business," Marx says.

Comess-Daniels says, "I hear these workers speaking Spanish, and I hear my grandparents in Yiddish."

The timing of the open letter to Tisch, published as an advertisement in The Jewish Journal on Sept. 14, may have both positive and negative effects on its message. Comess-Daniels hopes the High Holy Days will help Tisch hear the clergy's call. "I am very much respectful of Mr. Tisch and his donations to the Jewish community," he says. "I just wish his sense of justice and fairness extended to his employees. It saddens me that it doesn't, particularly at this time of year, when we're examining ourselves."

But the tragedy of Sept. 11 has had undeniable effects on the lives of hotel workers and owners, as travel fears affect hotels across the country. "At the moment, the whole country is in an altered state. That includes the hotel industry," Salvatierra admits. "There's a sense that workers are going to need to be sensitive to the needs of management. If they are able to organize a union, they're not going to come to [Tisch] with huge demands."

For his part, union organizer Peterson believes CLUE has been invaluable both for inspiring workers to unionize and for pressuring the hotel to allow the vote. "I'm hoping the clergy letter and our ongoing struggle will lead to success. The Tisch family are people of conscience," he says.

"We generally last one day longer than the hotels do. Having the clergy on our side will help here," Peterson says.

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