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Hotel's owners dig in for labor fight

The reclusive Hsus, who operate the Hilton Los Angeles Airport, take a strong, quiet stand against union efforts to organize employees.

July 06, 2007|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

On some days, Christine Hsu scarcely sees the city whose political and labor leadership her family has up in arms. Instead, she stays inside the Hilton Los Angeles Airport, the hotel her father bought, the hotel his company still owns, the hotel where she and her brother live for weeks at a time, 15 floors above Century Boulevard.

The Hilton, with more than 1,200 rooms, is the second-largest hotel in Los Angeles County. Over the last year, it has become the primary battleground for one of the city's loudest disputes: a union organizing campaign of a dozen airport-area hotels.

The effort by the union, Unite Here, has spawned other fights, including the city's attempt to extend so-called living wage protections to hotel workers and a boycott of the Hilton supported by eight members of Congress, seven City Council members and a presidential candidate.

Last month, union protesters criticized the famous "hugging saint," a mystic from India named Amma, for violating the boycott by holding a spiritual retreat at the hotel.

Although the clash has been described as a contest between labor and business, or poor immigrant hotel workers versus corporate hotel owners, the central players are the Hsus.

Union officials claim the Hsus are the most hostile of airport-area hotel owners to labor's efforts to organize. And, like the immigrant workers the union seeks to represent, the Hsus are from overseas.

Hilton does not own the property. The Hsus hire Hilton to provide management and the corporate name.

The family is at once well-known and reclusive, isolated from Southern California and connected to prominent athletic and charitable organizations.

Patriarch Henry Hsu (pronounced "shoe") is 94 and lives in Taiwan, where he has been a major sports, business and political figure, but he maintains church ties to Los Angeles and is listed in public records as chairman of Universal Fortuna Investment Inc., the hotel's parent company.

His son, David, is Fortuna's president and spends weeks at a time in the hotel, employees say. Henry Hsu's daughter Christine also lives there and supervises the finances.

"It certainly is a family business. Christine actually lives in the hotel," said lawyer Edward Zaelke, who represented the Hsus in their 1992 purchase of the hotel. "They are salt-of-the-earth people."

Acquaintances say the Hsus also share key traits: stubbornness and a history of pursuing fights for years without giving ground.

In Los Angeles, that pattern is recurring.

Throughout the fight, the Hsus have maintained a public silence. Through a lawyer and a public relations consultant, they declined to be interviewed or to answer written questions from The Times.

Family members did not respond to repeated phone messages left for them in Los Angeles and Taipei.

"They've never talked to the media, and they're not going to start now," said Harvey Englander, the consultant, who said he had never met the Hsus.

For most of the last year, hotel managers and spokesmen have issued statements accusing politicians and Unite Here organizers of lying about the hotel and demanding unionization without a vote of workers.

One statement said the union and city councilmen who support its efforts are "deliberately hurting our employees' way of life."

The owners of other airport hotels say they have had little contact with the Hsus, who prefer to communicate through their Hilton managers.

"We have tried to communicate with them, but we have not been able," said Michael Gallegos, chief executive of American Property Management Corp., which owns the Sheraton Four Points. Like the Hsus, he opposes unionization, but he has backed the living wage legislation that the Hsus fought.

Elia Roan, a Fortuna Enterprises partner whose family has been close to the Hsus for years, says they offer little information on the hotel, including during annual meetings in Los Angeles. Roan said she had not been made aware of the union organizing effort.

"My family is close," Roan said. "And their family situation is closer than mine."

The Hsus have been hurt by the criticism, particularly the suggestion that they are hostile to immigrant workers, said Paul Szeto, president of a Monterey Park-based Christian ministry the Hsus have supported.

"They are immigrants helping immigrants," Szeto said of the Hsus. "They really want to help the people, the staff. And they themselves live frugally. They save. They don't waste. It's a very Christian kind of living."

Long career

When Henry Hsu bought the Hilton in 1992 for $45 million, the purchase appeared to cap a long career for a renowned Taiwanese businessman, legislator, sportsman and philanthropist.

Born in China to parents who were doctors, Hsu had planned to be a doctor himself until his mother was killed in a hotel fire when he was 18, he said in an oral history project that was obtained and translated by The Times.

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