Police arrested 37 demonstrators Thursday during a union-organized act of civil disobedience designed to dramatize the plight of about 550 hotel workers facing loss of their jobs because of an impending management change at the Los Angeles Hilton and Towers complex.
"What would we do without our work?" asked Guadalupe Garcia, a widowed, 41-year-old mother of three and longtime housekeeper who was among those taken into custody in Downtown Los Angeles. "There's no one else to take care of my family."
As part of the well-choreographed spectacle, Garcia and another maid, Rosa Rivera, made up a bed placed in the middle of Figueroa Street in front of the hotel.
Along the sidewalk, a multicultural crowd shouted pro-union chants to the rhythm of Korean drums.
"These jobs belong to us, and we're not going to give them up!" vowed Maria Elena Durazo, president of Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, which represents most workers at the Hilton and organized the demonstration. She was among those arrested.
Police were alerted to the planned event days in advance and were ready in force. Officers quickly sealed off a one-block stretch of Figueroa, rerouting heavy rush-hour traffic.
Mounted units and police in riot helmets kept a close eye on the demonstrators. According to plan, 37 refused to move even after officers informed them that they were illegally obstructing a public street. There was no violence as, one by one, the activists were picked up in the middle of Figueroa by officers, handcuffed with plastic bonds and placed on a blue Los Angeles Police Department bus headed for Parker Center.
All were expected to be released on their own recognizance. Lt. Mike Hillmann, who oversaw the operation, said those arrested were charged with "unlawful assembly and failure to disperse," a misdemeanor.
At the core of the protest is the management change slated to go into effect Jan. 31 at the 900-room Hilton, owned by Hanjin International Corp., a subsidiary of the Hanjin Group, a South Korean conglomerate whose many holdings also include Korean Air. Hanjin International is expected to take over direct management, replacing Hilton at one of Los Angeles' premier hotels.
With new management, all workers will lose their jobs--the point emphasized by demonstrators, who characterized the management shift as a union-busting tactic.
Union officials, now engaged in an organizing campaign in the tourist industry regionwide, said it is critical that the Hilton--one of only about a dozen major Los Angeles-area hotels with unionized work forces--remain a union shop.
"This is a line-in-the-sand battle," said Madeline Janis Aparicio, a spokeswoman for Local 11. "The Hilton cannot become non-union."
But Hanjin officials have rejected the union-busting allegation and stated the owners' desire to discuss new union contracts and rehire all or most employees, subject to an application and interview process. All would have to go through a probationary period. Rehired employees kept on would receive the same wages and benefits as now, Hanjin officials said.
"We want to keep the union, and we want to keep as many people as economically expedient--and that may be all of them," said Keith D. Grossman, a Hanjin spokesman in Los Angeles.
Local 11 leaders are imposing unrealistic demands--guarantees of a union contract and full employment, full seniority and full benefits for all current workers--even before the owner has been able to evaluate what is needed, according to Hanjin.
Grossman characterized Thursday's demonstration as "premature, excessive and not justifiable."
But union officials said the public display was needed to pressure Hanjin to rehire current employees, mostly Latino immigrants, some of whom have worked at the hotel for 10 years.