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Hotel Workers in L.A., D.C. Cast Strike Votes

Unite Here union officials in Washington say 95% of ballots favor the action. Los Angeles results come today.

September 14, 2004|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

The room-service waiter's eyes watered as he gave his union the authority Monday to strike against nine Los Angeles County hotels. But Miguel Vasquez Jr. said it was more from fatigue than emotion.

There was never a question of how he would vote, he said, just a question of when. He had to squeeze it in during a 45-minute break between one eight-hour shift at the Hyatt Regency in downtown L.A. and another eight-hour shift at the nearby Wilshire Grand.

Vasquez was one of thousands of hotel and restaurant workers, all members of the union Unite Here, who cast strike-authorization ballots in Los Angeles and Washington after several weeks of unsuccessful bargaining talks. Another vote will take place in San Francisco today.

"We hope there is no strike," said Fred Muir, a spokesman for the Los Angeles hotels, "but if there is one, the hotels will be open and operating."

Votes were being tallied Monday in Los Angeles, where Unite Here officials said they would announce the results today.

In Washington, the union said nearly 60% of the 3,400 eligible workers voted and that close to 95% of them authorized a strike.

Vasquez did too. He said he was ill-prepared financially for a strike but was adamant that his vote was the right one.

"If I go on like this, I will never advance as a person. I will never progress in my personal life, like being able to send my children to college," said Vasquez, 43, who earns $6.75 an hour.

When he turned in his ballot at 2:15 p.m., more than 1,100 members of Unite Here Local 11 in Los Angeles had voted at the polling place set up in a conference room at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown. They were among about 2,800 union workers at the nine Los Angeles County hotels that are involved in the labor talks. An additional 1,200 workers at eight other local hotels probably will be bound by the same contract.

Votes for a strike would give union officials in the three cities the right to call one "if necessary ... to win a fair 2006 contract," according to the ballot language in Los Angeles.

The locals in all three cities are lobbying for two-year contracts that would expire in 2006, when contracts in six other cities and the state of Hawaii run out. The union reckons that that would give it more collective clout.

The hotels have said they would never agree to such a short contract.

"A long-term contract like we've always had gives the hotels, the union and our employees the stability and confidence in knowing what their wages, benefits and health insurance rates will be," the Hotel Assn. of Washington, D.C., said in a statement.

Negotiations between the Los Angeles local and the nine downtown and Westside hotels began in March.

The nine are the Hyatt Regency Los Angeles, Hyatt West Hollywood, Millennium Biltmore, Regent Beverly Wilshire, Sheraton Universal, St. Regis, Westin Bonaventure, Westin Century Plaza and Wilshire Grand.

Their last offer provided for moderate wage and pension increases under a five-year contract. The offer also requires workers to contribute $10 a week for health insurance, something that the hotels have already begun to collect.

Maria Elena Durazo, president of Local 11 in Los Angeles, said the union expected to win substantial raises and keep family health insurance as well as reduce workloads that she said had become intolerable.

The hotels forged an agreement in March requiring all of them to lock out union workers if the union strikes just one of them. That was one reason the union wanted a strong strike-authorization vote as leverage.

Bargaining in Los Angeles and San Francisco was on hold this week, though Peter J. Hurtgen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, was talking with both sides in both cities "several times a day," according to a spokesman for the mediation service.

For Vasquez, Monday began as usual at 6 a.m., delivering breakfasts to Hyatt guests.

More than 20 times a shift, Vasquez carries a heavy tray or pushes a table that weighs 50 to 70 pounds when fully laden with food, plates and a food warmer. If the bacon is undercooked or the eggs are runny, he has to make more trips.

Then around 2 p.m. he commutes a quarter-mile to the Wilshire Grand to begin a second shift delivering food. As the sole wage earner in his household, Vasquez also works overtime when it is available.

The work has worn down the cartilage in his knees and left him with a chronically tired back. But mostly, he's exhausted. "I feel my bones," he said.

Vasquez said he hoped for a strong vote that would sway the hotels. Providing for his family -- wife Maria Theresa and children Elizabeth, 14; Miguel, 11; Jonathan, 10; and twins Guadalupe and Maria, 8 -- is a struggle, Vasquez said, that will get only more difficult if the union goes on strike or if the hotels lock out workers.

He said he had been told that the union could afford to give each member $400 a month in strike pay.

"I know it will be very tough," Vasquez said. "I don't think anyone is ready for a strike, but I am ready to fight for my family."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Affected hotels

Here are the L.A. area hotels targeted by the union.

*--* Hotel and Number Union location of rooms workers Hyatt Regency 485 180 Downtown L.A. Hyatt West Hollywood 262 127 Millennium Biltmore 683 329 Downtown L.A. Regent Beverly Wilshire 399 424 Beverly Hills Sheraton Universal 436 242 Universal City St. Regis 297 208 Century City Westin Bonaventure 1,354 488 Downtown L.A. Westin Century Plaza 728 453 Century City Wilshire Grand 896 368 Downtown L.A.

*--*

Source: Company reports, Unite Here

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