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Getting Ready for the Big One

By Teresa Rochester

Streets were blocked and traffic backed up for miles during a spirited union protest against the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel that led to the arrests of 56 demonstrators, including a City Councilman, late Thursday afternoon.

The last major dress rehearsal before an anticipated massive demonstration Sunday against the hotel, which is the target of a bitter unionizing drive, was smoothly orchestrated, giving City officials reason to be optimistic that their preparations will pay off.

More than 400 protestors cheered from a side street as 56 demonstrators dressed as chefs, maids, bellhops and tourists sat in a circle in the middle of Ocean Avenue in front of the luxury hotel just south of the pier. The demonstrators, who refused to disband, were arrested and placed on a Big Blue Bus by police in riot gear. They were then taken to a mobile booking unit outside of the Civic Auditorium and released a few hours later.

Among those arrested at Thursday's demonstration were City Councilman Paul Rosenstein; Laurie Newman, Field Representative to Assemblymember Sheila Kuehl, and two members of State Senator Tom Hayden's staff.

Armed with a camera, Hayden snapped pictures of police arresting the demonstrators.

"I have staff members that are getting arrested," said Hayden. "I wanted to be here to record that. I've always been a long-time supporter of workers to get better wages."

Thursday's peaceful protest comes four days before a planned biblical-themed demonstration against the hotel promises to grab the national spotlight Sunday afternoon. High profile Democrats, including House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt and California State Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Rep. Henry Waxman, will join Rev. Jesse Jackson and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney at the rally on the eve of the Democratic National Convention.

On Thursday members of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who are staying at Loews, moved their headquarters to the city's only unionized hotel, the Fairmont Miramar, in response to the widely publicized labor dispute.

Part of Pacific Coast Highway was closed and streets around the hotel were backed up for miles as demonstrators converged on Ocean Avenue, which was shut down in both directions on the 1700 block, where the hotel is located.

"They have made me work really hard even when I was injured," Loews employee Edith Garcia told the crowd before they marched from the beach to the hotel. "We are fighting for respect and dignity so our hard work will be respected. We want Loews to stay neutral."

Chanting and banging pots and pans, demonstrators dressed as cooks, waiters, maids, bellhops, tourists and desk clerks made beds, served imaginary beverages and carried luggage in a mock hotel that had been set up in the middle of the street.

At times the chants of the demonstrators were drowned out by the buzz of the police department's newly leased helicopter, which was joined by television news helicopters hovering overhead.

Police in riot gear, batons drawn, flanked demonstrators on both sides. After announcing that the assembly was unlawful and the crowd must disperse, 56 demonstrators sat in a circle in the middle of the street waiting to be arrested. Police on horseback herded the other protestors to a side street.

Arrested demonstrators were taken by the Big Blue Bus and a wagon to a secluded area at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium where they were processed and cited for unlawful assembly by Los Angeles County Sheriffs.

As the demonstration unfolded two spokespersons from Loews handed out a letter signed by 45 employees denouncing the increasingly bitter unionizing campaign.

"This battle has stained the reputation of all good employees with all the bad publicity that 'HERE 814' has made against the Hotel," the letter said, referring to the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees local union. "In the past few months, 'HERE 814' had made a lot of false allegations against the hotel and its management."

Loews employee Miranda Anda scoffed at the letter.

"Most of those employees have been told they will be supervisors and get more money," she said.

In recent weeks the campaign, which kicked off in May, has escalated, with the hotel coming under increasing pressure from local, state and national politicians. Earlier this month 42 of the state's most influential democrats, including the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, released an open letter supporting the workers' unionizing effort.

Loews management says they support an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

"They have the right to protest," said Loew's spokeswoman Jessica Berg. "Our employees have a right to a union vote."

The local Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union -- which is pushing for a card check election that requires hotel management to remain silent on the issue -- opposes an NLRB election. Union leaders contend that such an election allows management to organize a campaign and that the results could take years to appeal by either side.

Berg also handed out a letter from the hotel's president and CEO, Jonathan Tisch, a major contributor to Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign, which calls for a NLRB supervised vote.

"This really isn't about the DNC," said Berg. "It's an effort to unionize our employees."

On Wednesday in a settlement with the NLRB, the hotel agreed to post conditions on an employee bulletin board that include promises not to "threaten to take away our employees existing benefits," or to "threaten our employees with unspecified reprisals."

As the sun began to set Thursday and the final demonstrators were loaded into a wagon both organizers and police said they were pleased with the way the rally unfolded.

About 50 police officers -- who spent the last two months preparing for the DNC protests scheduled to take place Sunday -- were on the scene, according to spokesman Lt. Gary Gallinot. Union organizers had 70 volunteers in orange vests serving as security.

"Everyone's been really cooperative. That's cool," said Gallinot. "The organizers have been very good about working with us. The main thing is public safety.… That's what America's about, freedom of expression…. It's peaceful. This is the way it should be."

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