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Union Marches on City Hall for Higher Wages in New Santa Monica Hotels

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark


Rusty's Surf

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

September 3, 2013 -- Unite Here Local 11, the regional hospitality workers' union, took to City Hall Friday with a petition demanding officials require higher wages for two new hotels proposed in Downtown Santa Monica.

A group of two dozen hotel workers, representing Santa Monica's four major union hotels, crowded into the front room of the City Manager's office late Friday afternoon as City employees prepared to go home for Labor Day weekend.

  Each of the hotel workers had signed the petition, presented to Deputy City Manager Kate Vernez, demanding that City Hall require OTO Development to agree to a $15 dollar minimum wage for hotel workers -- $2.15 more than the developer has suggested -- as part of the development agreements (DAs) for the South Carolina-based company's two six-story hotels proposed for the corner of Fifth Street and Colorado Avenue.

"We must make sure no other hotel workers are paid less than we are," one worker, a woman in her 40s, told Vernez in Spanish.

While Vernez assured the restless crowd that she would personally make sure City Manager Rod Gould received the petition, one woman's announcement that she was "disappointed" Gould hadn't met them himself was met with murmurs of agreement.

“Whenever they need us, we are there for them,” said Lorena Samayoa, a three-year employee of the Miramar Hotel. “When we need them, where are they?”

Samayoa was referring to Unite Here's efforts during the 2012 election when union members turned out in force to to support City Council and School Board candidates backed by the union's perennial ally and local political powerhouse, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR).

SMRR's candidates enjoyed comfortable victories last November in part due to the vigorous campaign efforts by the union, members of which stood outside every polling station in the city on election day and handed out voting guides in support of the SMRR slates.

But, now, the union isn't fighting for Council seats.

Unite Here hoped Friday's demonstration would draw attention to the two hotel projects, which are scheduled to go before the Planning Commission again early in October.

While the Planning Commission itself does not have the authority to approve or reject projects, it will make a recommendation to the City Council, which will ultimately decide whether or not to greenlight the projects.

“Santa Monica benefits from a thriving $1 billion tourism industry, but has not always produced good jobs for the workers who maintain this business,” the petition reads. “The developer has proposed a weak living wage that goes against the community's standards.”

The $12.85 an hour minimum wage proposed by OTO is based on the minimum wage approved by the Council in March 2012 as part of the DA for a hotel development at 710 Wilshire Boulevard.

At the hearing for the 710 Wilshire DA, the City Council explicitly refused to require local developer Alex Gorby to raise the minimum wage he proposed to $15 an hour despite lobbying by Unite Here.

Those councilmembers who supported Gorby's proposed wage argued that $15 an hour would render the 284-room hotel project unfeasible.

But that was a different project, Union organizers argue. The 710 Wilshire agreement should not be used as a model since OTO, a much larger development company, can afford to pay a higher minimum wage, they say.

The proposed hotels would be located on prime real estate, just a few blocks from the Third Street Promenade and the Santa Monica Pier.

The sites are also directly across the street from the final stop of the Expo Light Rail, which, when it starts operating in 2016, will connect Santa Monica to Downtown L.A. and everything in between.

Before the two projects went before the Planning Commission in July, CEO and founder of OTO Development Corry Oakes, told The Lookout that the company was in ongoing discussions with the union. ("Santa Monica Planning Commission Wants More Commitment from Hotel Developer," July 26)

After Friday's demonstration, it appears that those discussions may have gone south.

The petition claims that the DAs proposed by the OTO allow the developer to reduce the living wage “every three years if so desired.” And union officials claim that OTO will not commit to a local hiring provision.

As of press time, OTO had not returned several calls for comment.

Unite Here has made many gains in Santa Monica over the last 13 years. While the union's 1999 bid to get a living wage ordinance passed in the city failed, several of Santa Monica's major hotels ended up with labor agreements in the wake of the battle.

And the City Council has been largely sympathetic to the union's aims.

In an email sent to The Lookout before Friday's demonstration, Gould said that the City Council is committed to making sure service workers -- hotel workers among them -- get fair wages in Santa Monica.

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