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Airport Workers Say Layoffs Target Union Activists

Labor: A city panel is told loss of business since Sept. 11 is being used as an excuse and is urged to not grant rent breaks sought by some firms.

November 14, 2001|JEFFREY L. RABIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A group of workers at Los Angeles International Airport complained Tuesday that some companies have used post-Sept. 11 business declines as an excuse to lay off union activists.

Union members from an airport restaurant, airline catering company and building maintenance firm told the city's Airport Commission that the businesses are violating union contracts and ignoring seniority when deciding who to lay off.

They said airport businesses should not be granted rent breaks they are requesting until the job grievances have been addressed.

Rosalva Becerra told the commission she was fired Sunday from the El Paseo restaurant at LAX after a manager warned her twice not to talk with employees about their rights under a union contract.

She alleged that the restaurant has laid off longtime employees, hired new workers at lower pay and delayed distribution of paychecks.

Restaurant owner Andy M. Camacho, an attorney and political donor, could not be reached for comment.

Santos Almarac, a worker at LSG Sky Chefs, told the commission that the airline catering company is going back on its union contract by not paying attention to seniority when laying off workers. "We're frustrated. We don't know what to do," she said, speaking in Spanish. "We need you to take leadership."

Tom Walsh, president of Local 814 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, said union members have been hit very hard by layoffs caused by the decline in air travel since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

He told airport commissioners that the city of Los Angeles should not provide rent relief to airport businesses that lay off workers in violation of union contracts. "We agree this is a time of crisis," Walsh said. "We are bracing for things to get worse before they get better."

Walsh said in an interview that operators of the airport's duty-free shops have violated city ordinances by laying off workers, requiring them to take time off or contracting out their jobs.

The union complaints came after Joe Lyons, vice president of DFS North America, asked for relief from the company's $3-million-a-month rental payment to the airport. Instead of the minimum rent required by its lease, Lyons said the airport should charge the duty-free shop operator only "a reasonable percentage of rent, until business returns to normalcy."

Lyons said business at LAX duty-free shops is down 60% because relatively few Asian travelers are visiting the United States since the terrorist attacks.

Asians account for more than half of all duty-free sales at LAX. The shops supply one of the largest sources of revenue to the city-run airport.

Future sales prospects for the shops do not look good, because passenger loads are weak and flight schedules to and from Asia have been reduced, Lyons said.

As a consequence, Duty Free Shops and its minority subcontractors have experienced significant losses.

They are not alone. Koko Sarkari, vice president of operations for ICE Currency Services USA, said the foreign exchange company will "go bust or go bankrupt" if its monthly rent at the airport is not lowered.

He said the loss of business has hit the company globally and it can no longer afford to subsidize losses at LAX. Business is running 40% below last year, Sarkari said.

Sarkari urged the commission to allow the company to pay less rent. "Half a loaf of bread is better than no loaf at all," he said.

But the concessionaires and the union members both left without getting what they wanted.

The airport is facing unprecedented financial problems because of the drop in passenger traffic.

The airport lost $35.9 million between Sept. 11 and Oct. 31. Revenue from parking lots, concessions, rental car companies and other sources was off by $20.6 million during that time. And expenses rose $15.3 million because of additional security.

"Everybody looks at their own little world," said Airport Commission President Ted Stein.

But he said the panel needs to look at the financial condition of the entire airport.

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