Swelled Ranks, Influence Bolster Union as Talks Near

Staff Reporter

The last time the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 11 went up against area hotels in contract negotiations it had a far smaller constituency and faced far healthier management.

That was six years ago, however, and now the local is flexing its muscles, emboldened by last year's merger with HERE Local 814 in Santa Monica, which increased its membership by more than a third.

With its current contract set to expire April 15, the union is seen as a more formidable presence than at any time since its president, Mar & #237;a Elena Durazo, took charge 15 years ago.

Since its last negotiations, the union has signed more labor contracts in the Los Angeles region than in the previous 20 years combined, expanding its base to more than 13,000 housekeepers, bellhops and kitchen workers.

"It's a much more sophisticated union than it was 10 years ago," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

Evidence of that new clout can be seen in its success at organizing Santa Monica hotels that had long been holdouts against the effort.

"In the last five or six years we have begun to see our work pay off in organizing," said Durazo, who is married to the most powerful union figure in town, Miguel Contreras, executive secretary treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. "The work we do in electing politicians who will really help working class folks, that has helped to change what we can expect, and helped change our ability to organize."

Beyond political victories, officials of the local said they must prepare for difficult fights with the new breed of hotel owners, many of them multinational corporations that pose a greater challenge at the negotiating table.

"Before, a general manager and myself would sit down for talks," Durazo said. "Now the same people on the other side of the table from us in Boston and Chicago are the same people sitting across the table from us here."

Perhaps anticipating tougher negotiations this time around, HERE's Los Angeles membership voted in October to create its first permanent strike fund.

The preparations are in character for HERE, seen as one of the most confrontational unions in Los Angeles, according to Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education.

"They take high profile actions and do not hesitate pulling out their members at rallies and demonstrations," he said. "Their leaders have participated in civil disobedience, and they have been arrested for it."

The local also has shown a willingness to inflict collateral damage to make a point. In an effort to gain ground in organizing activities and contract negotiations in 1994, it sent a video to meeting planners nationwide detailing what the union deemed abusive labor practices at L.A. hotels.

"The union was willing to say: If the industry isn't going to take care of its workers we are going to attack the industry itself," Guerra said.

During Durazo's tenure, HERE has also picked up allies in the Los Angeles City Council and in Sacramento by mobilizing its workers to support labor-friendly candidates.

Its members were instrumental in the successful campaigns of Councilmembers Martin Ludlow, Eric Garcetti and Antonio Villaraigosa, whose unsuccessful 2001 mayoral bid it also supported. Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, Speaker-elect Fabian Nu & #324;ez and state Senators Gil Cedillo and Sheila Kuehl also leveraged its support.

Those political allies have let hotel developers know that a contract with the union can only help them gain public support for their project. It's a powerful strategy, Durazo said.

"We could help create quality jobs from the beginning," she said, "instead of waiting until after the projects are built and going through a drawn-out campaign that stretches on for years."

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