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Trying to Build a Union Movement in Los Angeles

March 20, 1994|Mike Davis | Mike Davis is the author of "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles" (Routledge, Chapman & Hill)

In "The Threepenny Opera," Bertolt Brecht gave an oppressed hotel maid an exquisite dream of revenge. Pirate Jenny summons "a ship with eight black sails and 50 cannons" to render justice on her exploiters ("and when their heads roll, I'll say, 'Hoop-la!' ").

In Los Angeles, as hotel corporations know too well, that militant ship of justice with the black sails is Local 11 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union.

This week, Local 11 will launch one of the most dramatic organizing campaigns in recent history. The result of several years of intensive planning and rank-and-file debate, it is an experiment in 21st-Century labor protest. Traditional union tactics have been completely rethought. There will be no formal strike nor stationary picket line.

Instead, under the leadership of their young president, Maria Elena Durazo, the hotel workers will become a peaceful guerrilla army. They intend to confront the tourist industry with disciplined but unexpected actions. Across the city, there will be leafletting, human billboards, flying pickets, delegations to city officials and, inevitably, mass civil disobedience.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 27, 1994 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 3 Column 5 Opinion Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Convention Center: The cost of expanding the Los Angeles Convention Center was $500 million. The figure was incorrectly reported last week.

Indeed, the hotel workers speak of building not just a union but a social movement, like those of the 1930s and 1960s. If their immediate targets are a dozen or so non-union luxury hotels in Downtown and at LAX, their strategic goal is a living wage for all 50,000 hotel employees in Los Angeles County. (The union currently represents 13,000.) Unionization of the hotels, in turn, is visualized as the first step in lifting hundreds of thousands of other service workers out of their low-wage ghetto.

The national business press has recently hailed entertainment and tourism as the new engines of prosperity, offsetting losses in traditional manufacturing and defense production. In Los Angeles, however, the $8-billion tourist industry--the second-largest sector in the regional economy--is capitalized on poverty. The average worker earns a mere $5.35 an hour--low enough to qualify for food stamps. If the annual incomes of hotel and theme-park employees are slightly above the official poverty line, those of restaurant workers are far below.

Working conditions, meanwhile, are too often indistinguishable from sweatshops or farms. Downtown's great luxury hotels, for example, scarcely look like the cotton plantations of the tourist economy. But ask any maid cleaning a $250-a-day room about her life.

In an ordinary shift, she may make 25 beds and scrub 18 toilets and bathtubs. Her back usually aches, and her hands and eyes are often irritated by caustic cleaning chemicals. She is harassed by management and sometimes by guests. This is stoop labor without the sunshine, and maids--overwhelmingly from Mexico, Central America or the Philippines--are campesinas in white smocks.

Yet, there is no iron law of wages that consigns tourism workers to peonage. In heavily unionized tourist centers like Las Vegas, San Francisco, Honolulu and New York, wages average 50% higher than in Los Angeles. In New York, for example, union maids earn $12 an hour in first-class hotels--a dignified compensation for their toil. In San Francisco and Las Vegas, waitresses, fry cooks and room-clerks can afford to own homes and support families.

Conversely, there is no indication that higher wages have wrecked mass tourism or destroyed profits in these travel destinations. Quite the contrary. But there is growing evidence--as Local 11 pointed out a few years ago in the controversial video "City on the Edge"--that poverty-wage levels and their social consequences are eroding the image of Los Angeles. The worst slums in the metropolis--Lennox, Pico-Union, City College--tend to have the largest concentrations of low-wage hotel and food-service employees.

Yet, the corporate sector of the local tourist industry enjoys huge public subsidies. The Community Redevelopment Agency has given Downtown's luxury hotels tens of millions of dollars worth of density bonuses and land discounts. One Downtown hotel, for example, was able to buy its prime Figueroa site for only $1.5 million in 1980. By 1990, the value of the land alone was estimated to have increased tenfold.

The Convention Center expansion, meanwhile, has diverted tax increments from affordable housing and threatens to hijack general revenue to make up a likely shortfall between its out-of-control cost (now more than $500 billion) and less-than-anticipated bed-tax income. Rumors fly that another $100 million of public funding is being sought to construct a first-class hotel in the wasteland near the center. South Figueroa is beginning to look ominously like Los Angeles' fiscal Vietnam.

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