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Merger Gives More Clout to Local Union

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

August 16 -- In what may come as a wake-up call to hotels in Santa Monica, hotel and garment workers -- who boosted their national numbers to nearly 440,000 union members in a mega merger last month -- flexed their newfound strength in demonstrations Friday in downtown Los Angeles.

After nearly three months of stalled negotiations over labor contracts with nine upscale hotels downtown, hundreds of Local 11 UNITE HERE members brought traffic to a halt at a busy Los Angeles intersection as busy office buildings emptied for the weekend.

In a nod to the labor group’s new strength -- which married 260,000 hotel workers (HERE) and 180,000 garment and textile workers (UNITE) July 8 -- both sides agreed to meet Monday with a federal mediator to try and break the impasse.

And while no serious contract negotiations loom on the horizon for Santa Monica, labor disputes are no stranger to the sea-side city, and the group’s added resources and numbers will bring considerable clout to any future bargaining table, said local 11 representative Kurt Peterson.

“The merging of these two groups means that we have a lot more resources and it also means that it will hopefully translate into better working conditions for workers in Santa Monica,” Peterson said. “We’re unions on the move, we’re unions that have done great organizing and we expect through this merger to do even more.”

During the past five years, both unions have organized over 100,000 new members and now devote over 50 percent of their national budget to organizing, according to the Union’s website.

Further, as recent demonstrations in Los Angeles and San Diego prove, the organization is not afraid to train those extensive resources on hotel chains who the union feels are not providing adequate pay or benefits to their workers.

In addition to Friday’s protests in Downtown L.A., UNITE HERE organized a strike this month in San Diego, leading a noisy and embarrassing protest inside the Coronado, one of the city’s premier beach resorts.

While there is no indication Santa Monica is next, and in fact, Peterson hailed local hotels such as the Fairmont -- which will be renegotiating contracts this December -- as “always acting fair towards their workers,” he blasted other local hotels in the same breath, claiming that some only reluctantly gave recent wage increases to their workers to keep the Local 11 union out.

The super-sizing of Local 11 may also benefit Santa Monica’s non-unionized tourism industry workers, union supporters said.

“The union of UNITE and HERE makes our labor coalition stronger and more unified, said Beth Leder-Pack, a co-founder and active member of Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism (SMART).

SMART has worked for years to establish a “Living Wage” ordinance in Santa Monica, which would insure a minimum for workers, as well as secure health benefits for them and their families.

Leder-Pack was in attendance Friday at the demonstration in Los Angeles and said her group and the Union have an extensive history of working together.

“To the extent that we have actions and demonstrations here in Santa Monica, it will make that much more of an impact locally,” she said.

Leder-Pack added that right now such action seems very unlikely, as the City Council appears on the verge of approving a living wage ordinance for city workers with the year, which she described as a “good” and “important start.”

Although it has yet to come back to council members for a vote, Leder-Pack said she expects the ordinance to be between 11 and 15 dollars an hour with health benefits.

The ordinance, however, will only apply to city workers and contractors and some non-profits, and will not cover workers in many of the City’s hotels.

“It only addresses a subset of workers here in Santa Monica. Many of the workers in these hotels are low-wage workers,” said Leder-Pack. “The reality is it only addresses a small portion of the problem.”

SMART, in fact, helped lead the charge for a 2002 ballot measure that would have established a living wage in the city’s coastal zone, where most local hotels are located. The measure was placed on the ballot by opponents after the council approved the living wage law the previous year.

The measure, called JJ, was defeated narrowly after a contentious campaign which included the mailing of potentially misleading mailers to Santa Monican’s calling for them to vote down the measure.

An investigation was launched to determine if the mailers violated any campaign laws, but the proponents behind the mailers were later cleared as complying with the letter of the law.

A leading opponent of JJ was Tom Larmore, an attorney and Chamber of Commerce leader and an outspoken critic of the original living wage ordinance.

“The expanded living wage proposal would have substantially increased the amount that businesses would have to pay their employees, putting a substantial burden on those businesses,” said Larmore.

Larmore believes that increasing wages for hotel and restaurant workers is unnecessary because those who work for tips “already make enough to live on anyway.”

As far as the union’s merger, Larmore said it may have an impact how the fight for a living wage goes but added “that the addition of these workers does not change my view that the original living wage proposal was a bad ordinance.”

As far as the trend toward more and more workers getting involved with Local 11 UNITE HERE, Leder-Pack sees the Union as perhaps one day making the fight for a living wage obsolete.

“The whole point of the living wage movement is to get good wages and benefits,” said Leder-Pack. “I can see a day when Santa Monica no longer needs to fight for a living wage,”

For now at least, Leder-Pack said she is content with UNITE HERE leading the fight for those improved conditions, and increasing Santa Monica’s standards through a more regional fight.

“SMART is a part of a much greater community movement, and right now the focus for Unite Here is not in Santa Monica,” she said. “I feel the impact of increased membership in the local unions remains to be seen.”

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