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Bosses play hardball
Showdown for labor at LA hotels

By David Rapkin | July 2, 2004 | Page 12

GREEDY BOSSES at some of Los Angeles' ritziest hotels are playing dirty in their fight with the workers who make them rich. Since the contract for union workers expired June 1, the hotels have gone on the offensive against Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 11.

Management stopped deducting union dues from members' paychecks--and started distributing forms for workers to quit the union. Workers have responded with mass dues gathering protests inside hotel lobbies, collecting thousands of dollars in front of management and shocked hotel guests.

As Socialist Worker went to press, the hotels announced that they would start charging workers $10 a week for health insurance unless the union dropped demands for a two-year contract. The stakes are huge. Workers, many of them recent immigrants, struggle to make ends meet because their hours fluctuate with seasonal demands.

And so far, the hotels have refused to even address the crushing workload of predominantly Latina housekeepers. "I have to clean 15 rooms every day," said Aida Marmol, a housekeeper at the Westin Bonaventure for 14 years. "I have to get on my knees to clean the bathroom, and if they find one hair, they discipline us."

From the beginning, the hotels have been spoiling for a fight. Three months ago, they signed a secret pact agreeing to lock out all workers if the union strikes just one hotel. The nine hotels--which include the posh Regent Beverly Wilshire and the St. Regis, as well as multinational chains like Hyatt and Sheraton--are insisting that the union give up plans to line up contract expiration dates across the country.

The national union strategy, mapped out by HERE President John Wilhelm, has already succeeded in winning contract gains in New York City, Boston and Chicago. LA would be the fourth major city with a coordinated 2006 contract expiration, with San Francisco and Washington, D.C., to follow later this summer. The unions' coordinated efforts are in direct response to the bosses' increasingly international financial reach.

Maria Elena Durazo, president of HERE Local 11, which represents the 3,000 LA-area hotel workers, pointed to the failure of the California United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) to win their local strike against grocery stores as evidence of the need for a national strike threat against increasingly aggressive national or multinational companies. "Watching the UFCW strike absolutely struck a chord with our members," she told the Los Angeles Times. "It was a lesson on how much money these corporations can lose to fight a group of local workers."

Nevertheless, HERE has hesitated to use aggressive tactics when confronted with employers determined to break the union. In Chicago, Wilhelm was arrested recently in a sit-in outside the Congress Hotel strike, which has dragged on for a year without a union strategy to shut down the scab operation.

The union can't show such weakness in the LA showdown, which will help shape labor relations in the entire industry. The employers' aggressive tactics are "not going to scare anyone," Penny Moore, a Sheraton bartender told a reporter. "It's just going to make us more angry."

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