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Labor Dispute Threatens Opening of Convention Center


A long-simmering labor dispute between the local hotel and restaurant employees union and the Los Angeles Convention Center's food concessionaire threatens the center's long-awaited November opening, union leaders said this week.

Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, which represents about 100 cooks, waiters and other food service workers at the Convention Center, has been trying to reach a contract agreement with Ogden Food Services for a year. At the center of the dispute is Ogden's refusal to offer health insurance.

The union has been fighting to reinstate workers' medical benefits, which leaders claim would cost Ogden only about $100,000 in premiums. The union and Ogden have agreed to meet again Sept. 7.

After talks stalled for several months, the union staged a brief sit-in demonstration at the convention center last week that resulted in the arrests of 38 union members on trespassing charges. Union leaders said workers have voted to boycott or strike if necessary, but added that they first prefer to pursue other action, including further demonstrations and picketing.

Local 11 President Maria Elena Durazo said Ogden has claimed it can no longer afford to pay for medical benefits. Durazo scoffed at this notion, saying Ogden is a large company with contracts all over the city.

"We say, 'You've got to find a way (to pay medical benefits),' " Durazo said. "The amount of money involved is a very small sum."

Ogden Regional Manager Jeff Ganz declined to comment on the contract dispute. "We're not going to negotiate through the media," he said.

The dispute could hurt the city's efforts to refinance the Convention Center renovation as well as jeopardize the reopening of the center, which the city is counting on to renew tourism and boost the sagging economy, Durazo said. The labor dispute could scare away potential bond buyers and conventioneers, she said.

"The whole economy is counting on the Convention Center," she said. "This one company, for a small amount of money, could screw it up."

Union leaders have thus called upon city officials, the Convention Center and the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau to pressure Ogden to agree to a contract with medical benefits. "All the entities involved must take responsibility," union spokesman Jeff Stansbury said.

But Convention Center, visitors bureau and city officials are keeping out of the dispute.

"It's really between a private-industry concern and the union," said Gary Sherwin, a spokesman for the visitors bureau, which is busy planning grand-opening events. "Our only concern is that they keep talking."

City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie said it would be illegal for the city to intervene.

"We have to remain neutral. Private-sector employment relations have to occur between the two sides and must follow collective bargaining guidelines," he said.

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