March 24, 2005
This month's Political Journal is a tale of two labor disputes. One is dragging on and on; the other has come to a peaceful conclusion just when it seemed there might be a strike ahead.
Hotels Battle Continues
A protracted 11-month debacle continues between UNITE HERE, Local 11, representing workers at eight (formerly nine) upscale Los Angeles hotels and the L.A. Hotel Employer's Council, representing hotel management.
The crux of the battle is the workers' demand for a short-term contract that would expire in 2006, which is also when contracts would expire at hotels in cities across the nation. The unions would then be able to cooperate, strengthen their common positions and have more clout in dealing with the international hotel conglomerates (like Starwood) that own some of the hotels.
The L.A.-area hotels (Hyatt Regency, Hyatt West Hollywood, Westin Century, Sheraton Universal, Wilshire Grand, Millennium Biltmore, Regent Beverly Wilshire and Westin Bonaventure) have insisted on a longer contract that would extend past 2006, saying that national union concerns are not relevant locally.
At this point, there are no scheduled negotiations.
On the upside for workers, the hotels have stopped charging a $10-a-week health care co-payment, which was instituted last July, after management declared an impasse.
"We didn't ask the union for anything in return, but we hoped that it would help bring them back to the table," said management spokesman Fred Muir.
Not surprisingly, the union doesn't think management canceled the fee out of inherent goodness. It points to a pending complaint by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in January, which is expected to allege that management broke NLRB rules when it declared an impasse and imposed the co-pay.
"They have not refunded any of the [health care] money they collected," said union spokesman David Koff. "Should the NLRB ultimately prevail in its complaint, the hotels could be liable to repay this money with interest."
Taking the issue to trial and through the appeals process could take years. The hotels contend Local 11 is using a delaying strategy to get 2006 as the date for its next contract by default.
"Every time we meet, they don't want to meet again for a month or six weeks," Muir said. "They basically want to keep this thing going until 2006."
Koff responded that five independently owned hotels around the city (including the Hotel Bel-Air and the Radisson Wilshire Plaza), which usually follow the hotel council's lead on these issues, have already signed contracts with the union that expire in 2006.
"If the Bel Air and these other properties can live with the deal Local 11 has proposed to them, there is little question that these other hotels could live with it as well," he said.
In the meantime, portions of the L.A. Jewish community have become deeply involved in the dispute, consistently siding with the workers.
The Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and the Workmen's Circle have organized the Adar Hotel Workers Campaign, collecting $40 supermarket gift certificates for the workers during the month of Adar (Feb. 10- April 9).
"They're not being charged [the co-pay] anymore, but regardless, they're facing extreme economic hardship, and they're still owed the $40 per month from before," said PJA's Jaime Rappaport.
The certificates are being collected at a variety of congregations around the city, including Leo Baeck Temple, Temple Israel of Hollywood and IKAR, to name a few.
Teachers Get a Happy Ending -- For Now
Meanwhile, a second labor dispute, this one brewing for an amazing 18 months, has been settled peacably, which almost counts as a surprise ending. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) reached a tentative agreement with the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) Tuesday.
For the past year and a half, teachers had been fighting for higher pay and more involvement and flexibility in the design of their own training.
"It's not a one-size-fits-all situation, where what's working in the Westside will work in South Central. The teachers in the classroom know what they're dealing with; they should be included in the dialogue with the district, and that hasn't been the case," UTLA spokesperson Angelica Urquijo said the day before the agreement was reached.
In the preceeding week, a work-to-rule protest spread from West Valley schools to the rest of the district. Work-to-rule means teachers stop all the uncompensated work usually necessary to improve students' education, such as spending unpaid hours after school tutoring children.
Urquijo said work-to-rule was meant to demonstrate how hard teachers really work, how the community of parents would stand behind them and how frustrating the interminable contract negotiations had become.
UTLA members reserved some frustration for their own president, John Perez, who was voted out earlier this month. He'll be replaced July 1 by A.J. Duffy, a teacher who pledged to take a harder line against the district, especially on pay raises. That turn of events made the prospect of a strike seem more likely.
But just the day after work-to-rule went districtwide, the union and district reached an agreement running through June 2006. It includes a 2 percent retroactive pay raise from last July 1. The union also made gains on other contested issues, achieving a greater role for teachers in evaluating their own training programs and in providing more input on student assessmens.
Negotiators will go back to the table to discuss health benefits, which are funded through December.
Los Angeles in the past two years has trudged through a series of lengthy and painful labor disputes, running the gamut from supermarkets and buses to hotels and schools. At least LAUSD students, already working against the odds, won't also have to overcome the fallout from a teachers strike.