The Los Angeles tourist industry, still reeling from the violent imagery of the Rodney G. King and Reginald O. Denny videotapes, is now contending with fallout from another widely distributed video. This one, produced by an embattled local union, portrays the city as a dangerous destination to be avoided.
Mailed to an estimated 2,500 convention planners around the country, the video was produced by Local 11 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union, which is engaged in a bitter battle over wages and benefits. Entitled "City on the Edge," the video contrasts images of beaches, boutiques and fancy hotels with commentary about the pervasiveness of gang killings, freeway shootings and random violence.
The video has been denounced by the mayor's office and already has led to several threatened convention cancellations, according to officials of the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau. While the tourist business has slipped in recent years, it remains the second-largest employer in Los Angeles County, accounting for 370,000 jobs and $7 billion in annual revenue.
The controversial video, which was made before the riots, surfaced just as tourism officials were predicting that the unrest alone could cause $1 billion to $2 billion in lost revenue for the year. Convention bureau officials said the video has made their job of selling the city even harder.
"It has hurt us," said bureau vice president Michael Collins. "We have four large associations that want to pull out, though they haven't done so yet."
Ironically, Collins is in the film, commenting on the city's image problems. His presence, and that of three other business executives and civic leaders, lends credence to a documentary that asserts that the "average tourist in Los Angeles these days might as well be visiting white South Africa. . . . Everywhere, the city is becoming meaner, its streets bristling with malice."
Both Collins and economist Jack Kyser of the nonprofit Economic Development Corp., who also appears in the video, said they were misled about the video's heavy emphasis on violence. They also said they were not told that it would be sent out to groups planning conventions in Los Angeles.
"I thought it would be used primarily as a tool to prompt discussions of issues of concern to the union," Collins said. "I was somewhat surprised by the violent turn it took and I was disappointed that it was distributed to some of our clients."
Officials of Local 11 said the original intent of the video, which they said cost $15,000 to $20,000 to make, was to draw local officials into a dialogue about working conditions in hotels.
"The goal was to inspire debate with local officials, but that didn't happen," said the local's president, Maria Elena Durazo.
When local distribution of about 500 videos led to just "a trickle of responses" from officials, Durazo said, the union decided to up the ante and send the video to future visitors, many of whom said they did not not get around to viewing the tape until after the riots.
Lee Strieb, head of research for Local 11, also said that the video should be viewed in the context of past efforts by the union, most notably a boycott last year of Hyatt hotels in Los Angeles during which the union demonstrated in hotel lobbies and urged groups of visitors to cancel their reservations. Strieb said that the boycott led to improved working conditions for maids, including a wage increase and better relations with Hyatt management.
"What we learned there," Strieb said, "is if you don't take the debate to the customer, the employer doesn't respond."
He acknowledged that "workers may suffer in the short run" by tactics such as the boycott or the video, "but in the long term, they'll be better off for it."
For the last five years, the once anemic local has been redoubling its efforts to organize low-wage service workers, many of whom receive lower wages and benefits than their counterparts in other major California cities. According to union officials, organization efforts have varied in the Los Angeles area, with about 75% of hotel workers downtown unionized, about 50% in Beverly Hills, 25% in the San Fernando Valley and 20% around the Los Angeles International Airport.
In addition to its organizing campaigns, the union has been trying to renegotiate contracts at several unionized hotels where, officials fear, recessionary pressures and changes in ownership have placed in jeopardy a variety of benefits, including job security and medical insurance.
Local 11's video traces the roots of urban violence to inner-city living conditions and holds the hotel industry responsible for aggravating those conditions by skimping on wages and benefits. The message of the video is that the city won't be a nice place for tourists until the tourism business is nicer to its workers.