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Hotel Bel-Air to reopen without most of its old union staff

A hospitality workers union plans to protest when the luxury hotel reopens Friday after a two-year renovation.

October 08, 2011|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times
  • The living room of a suite at the renovated Hotel Bel-Air, where rooms rates start at $565 a night.
The living room of a suite at the renovated Hotel Bel-Air, where rooms rates… (Dorchester Collection…)

When the Hotel Bel-Air reopens next week after a two-year renovation, the resort's mascot swans — Chloe, Athena and Hercules — will still occupy the lush 12-acre property visited by presidents, movie stars and other dignitaries.

But absent will be most of the union workers who washed dishes, made beds and laundered towels at the hotel. They were laid off when the hotel closed, and many of them will return only to march and protest outside the hotel entrance.

The historic hotel, closed in 2009 for the multimillion-dollar upgrade, will reopen Friday with only about a dozen of its former union workers on the staff of 275, dealing a blow to the hotel workers union and its members.

The protest will be organized by the hospitality workers union Unite Here Local 11, which contends the hotel used the construction project to oust the union from the hotel.

"In essence, the dedicated employees who took the Hotel Bel-Air from a four-star to five-star resort have been thrown out like the old furniture," said union President Thomas Walsh.

The union plans to fire back with noisy demonstrations and a call on Hollywood actors and directors to boycott the famed hotel. The labor group has already sent out 2,000 postcards warning hotel neighbors to expect a ruckus. "We want to come back to work," the postcard said. "But we've been ignored."

"We are preparing to unfurl very aggressive tactics on the Bel-Air," said Leigh Shelton, a spokeswoman for the union group.

For its part, the hotel management said it laid off its workers in 2009, offered them a severance package that they rejected, and told them they could apply for their old jobs when the hotel reopened. The new workers now have the right to vote to unionize again, hotel officials say.

"It's up to the employees if they want to be a union," said Alisha Mahon, a spokeswoman for the hotel.

The renovation includes an upgrade of all 91 rooms and suites, the bar, its restaurant and private dining rooms. The hotel added 15 new rooms, including 12 built into a hillside on the property and three "loft guest rooms" adjacent to the new 4,134-square-foot spa, dubbed La Prairie.

Room rates start at $565 a night for a guest room, up from $395 before the renovation. Rates for the hillside suites range from $1,900 to $4,800 per night.

As part of the project, famed chef Wolfgang Puck has taken over operation of the hotel's restaurant, room service and catering services.

The design of the remodeled rooms was inspired by Hollywood's golden age, from the 1930s to the 1950s, Mahon said.

Rooms will also come with all the latest technology, including faster wireless Internet service and iPads to control room temperature and lighting and to order room service. A new cellphone tower was installed on the property to improve reception at the hotel.

Former guests who have toured the renovated property say the hotel did not alter the layout but made the rooms more elegant and comfortable.

"It cleaned up well," said Paulette DuBey, executive director of the Bel-Air Assn., the homeowners group in the area, who toured the hotel recently. "It has a more contemporary and elegant feel."

She declined, however, to comment on the labor dispute.

The three white swans that have been the symbol of the hotel stayed on the property during the renovation, Mahon said.

The exterior of the hotel remains a pink mission style.

"We are proud of our efforts and believe Hotel Bel-Air will continue to rank as one of the best hotels in the world," hotel manager Tim Lee said in a statement.

But the union charges that the move to lay off all union workers was reminiscent of when the Beverly Hills Hotel fired more than 300 union workers during a two-year renovation project that began in 1992 and hired mostly nonunion workers when the project was completed.

The Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air are both operated by Dorchester Collection, a company owned by the Brunei Investment Agency, an arm of the Brunei government that manages the oil-rich country's luxury hotels in Europe and the U.S.

Jaime Bravo, 44, was laid off as a cook at the Hotel Bel-Air in 2009 and was told when he reapplied for his old job that an applicant with more experience got the position. "I feel bad," he said. "I'm very frustrated."

Since being laid off, Bravo said he has landed a cooking job at another hotel but had his heart set on returning to the Hotel Bel-Air. "I had a lot of friends there, and it was a nice environment," he said.

Union spokesman Shelton said the union hopes to have hundreds of union supporters marching at the hotel Friday. In the postcards sent to neighbors, the union urged residents to call Lee and demand that he rehire the union workers.

The feud at Hotel Bel-Air stands in contrast to an agreement reached in December between the owners of the Wilshire Grand and the same workers union to offer to rehire the Wilshire Grand's 480 employees after that hotel undergoes a $1.5-billion, three-year renovation, starting in December.

"Faced with a remodeling closure, the Wilshire Grand took the high road and agreed to recall all the union workers when it reopens," Shelton said. "It's not luxury linens or mid-century furniture that make hotels successful, it's the impeccable service the workers provide."

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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