Los Angeles-area hotel owners are gearing up for what could be one of the biggest labor battles in recent years as they prepare to counter a bid launched this month to unionize the huge hotels near Los Angeles Airport.
With at least 7,000 hotel rooms at stake, a successful unionizing effort could transform the L.A. city hotel market, turning it into a majority union stronghold and giving unions tremendous leverage in future contract negotiations.
That's the hope of the coalition of labor and community activists led by Unite HERE and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which last week staged their first rally to draw attention to their organizing effort.
"It would be a huge jump for us to organize the hotels along Century Boulevard," said Kurt Peterson, organizing director for Unite HERE Local 11. "If that market were to move towards getting workers better wages and benefits, then the whole industry in this region would be moving in that direction."
Currently, about 48 percent of all hotel rooms in the city of Los Angeles are unionized, according to Kent Wong, director of the Labor Center at the University of California Los Angeles. So even getting one or two hotels to agree to go neutral in union elections could push that figure over 50 percent.
Sensing these stakes and the major financial and political resources that Unite HERE is prepared to put into the unionizing effort, hotel owners and operators are preparing to band to-gether in an at-tempt to stop this effort.
"This is a very bad threat looming for the overall hotel in-dustry. Unite HERE wants to unionize as many hotels as they can so that they can shut down the local hospitality industry as a group whenever they don't get what they want," said Marta Fernandez, who leads the labor practice of the hospitality industry group at the law firm of Jeffer Mangels Butler & Marmoro LLP.
"Among the hotel owners I've talked to, they are certainly not going to roll over," Fernandez added. "There will naturally be some banding together among hotel owners to stop this."
Fernandez and industry officials said this effort is closely tied with the other major labor issue confronting local hotel operators this year: a raft of labor contracts coming up for renewal in the second half of the year.
That timing was engineered by Unite HERE last year during their months-long strike at downtown hotels. By having several major contracts expire simultaneously, Unite HERE hopes to put the squeeze on local hotel operators to force them to agree to higher wages and benefits.
Then Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa brokered a settlement of that strike last June that kept the near-simultaneous expiration of those contracts in place.
"2006 will be a defining year, with contracts up for renewal at major downtown hotels and unions seeking broader representation at hotels, an effort underway at the airport right now," said Michael Collins, executive vice president of L.A. Inc., formerly known as the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Speaking last week at an economic forecast conference, Collins said this organizing drive is being fueled by the local hotel industry's rebound after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the relatively low pay of hotel workers. "We are now watching the perfect stew for a labor dispute," he said.
Union officials hope that a breakthrough with the airport-area hotels would reverberate throughout the region, putting employers of low-wage workers in a wide array of industries on notice.
"Nowhere else in Los Angeles is the tale of two cities more prevalent than the Century Corridor," said Martin Ludlow, executive secretary and treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. "You have some of the largest hotels and wealthiest visitors flying in to do business and then you have the low-paid workers in those hotels, some of whom actually walk to work from homes in Lennox.
"We as a labor movement are putting forth the message that this will only be a world-class city once the bottom and the top are doing well," he said.
Hotel operators now find themselves at ground zero in this new battlefront. For now, though, they are lying low. Hotel operators either didn't return calls or declined to comment directly, referring the calls to the American Hotel and Lodging Association in Washington, D.C. The association was not able to issue a comment before presstime.
One hotel general manager said he could not comment because of a prior agreement with Unite HERE.
"We have a memorandum of understanding that we signed three years ago with Unite HERE. Under terms of the MOU, I cannot comment further on any issue involving unions or organizing and our hotel," said Carlton Werner, general manager of the Radisson Hotel Los Angeles Airport.
Indeed, through the years, there have been several unsuccessful attempts to organize individual hotels around the airport area. But if both sides hold their ground, this could turn into the most massive confrontation between a well-funded union and international hotel conglomerates.
In the hopes of avoiding such a battle, union organizers have adopted an unusual strategy: they have dangled a carrot of cooperation with hotel owners in seeking much-needed infrastructure improvements along Century Boulevard.
For years, hotel owners and community activists have sought to spruce up the mile-long stretch of Century Boulevard between the San Diego (405) Freeway and the airport entrance. The streetscape is now dominated by concrete parking garages and hotel frontage, along with the occasional liquor store.
Union organizers say that if hotel owners drop their opposition to their unionizing efforts among hotel workers, they would add their considerable clout at L.A. City Hall and use their relationship with Mayor Villaraigosa to try to pry loose some city money for the Century Boulevard corridor. They've even resurrected a proposal long dear to hotel owners: construction of a conference center along the boulevard to allow business executives to fly in, attend or hold conferences and then fly out.
"This market has for so long been neglected. We have shown that we can help turn the tide and bring more investment into a region. Look at what the unions did in pushing for that Convention Center Hotel and for the Hollywood & Highland project," Peterson said.
Whether hotel owners would go for this is an open question. Fernandez said she was skeptical that they would, noting that hotel owners could band together and get public sector investment.
But Unite HERE is hoping to pick off at least one or two of the 13 hotel owners along Century Boulevard who would be willing to break ranks. That's exactly what they did in last year's strike involving downtown hotels. Peter Zen, the owner of the Bonaventure Hotel, decided to pursue a settlement, which in turn led to the agreement hammered out last June by Mayor-elect Villaraigosa.
"We would hope some of the hotel owners see the wisdom of our strategy," Peterson said.
Indeed, while the hotels along Century Boulevard have high occupancy rates 82 percent during the fourth quarter of 2005 according to PKF Consulting room rates remain among the lowest in the county.
"The area is so unattractive that the rates have to be lower than elsewhere or visitors will decide to stay elsewhere. So unless the area is spruced up, hotel owners really can't raise their rates very much," said Bruce Balton, senior vice president with PKF Consulting.
One point in the union's favor is its strong financial position. Unite HERE was one of the national unions that broke away with the Service Employees International Union from the national AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win Federation.
"There were many predictions that with the split from the AFL-CIO, local organizing efforts would be stymied. But in this case, the reverse is true," labor analyst Wong said. "The breakaway unions have enhanced their organizing budgets and this bold effort around LAX is a reflection of that new philosophy."
What's more, Ludlow said that the County Federation has signed solidarity agreements with each of the local chapters of the breakaway unions, in effect nullifying the local impact of the national labor split.
At the time, the agreements were meant to keep a united front in labor's expensive effort last year to defeat the special election initiatives backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. That effort proved successful and the solidarity agreements have been carried over into this year.
"Nothing breeds continued solidarity like success," Wong said.
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