Local business leaders were fuming last week as word spread of a letter that L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti sent to 1,500 meeting planners and hotel business clients nationwide urging them to honor a union-led boycott of the Los Angeles Airport Hilton Hotel, operated under the flag of Beverly Hills-based Hilton Hotels Corp.

In his letter dated Feb. 27, Garcetti said that he felt it was important for meeting planners to book hotels free from disruptions resulting from labor unrest. He also urged the meeting planners to call the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau for a list of local alternative hotels.

"To protect your event and support workers, I urge you to honor the boycott and avoid booking at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport Hotel until the dispute is resolved," Garcetti said in his letter, on city letterhead.

That drew a sharp response from business leaders, who characterized the letter as anti-business.

"In my 32 years of chamber of commerce experience, it's unprecedented for an elected official to communicate with out-of-town visitors discouraging their patronage of a local business, especially one that contributes more than $5.6 million to city coffers," said Gary Toebben, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

Unite-HERE Local 11, which has been trying to unionize airport hotels, launched a boycott of the Hilton in August in response to what hotel workers perceived to be unfair disciplinary actions by the hotel. At the same time, the union was pressuring councilmembers to pass a living wage ordinance aimed at the Hilton and 11 other hotels near the airport.

The living wage ordinance would require the 12 hotel operators to pay their employees $9.39 an hour with health benefits or $10.64 an hour without benefits. The ordinance was slated to go into effect on July 1. But the business community and most of the hotels objected because the hotels would be the only class of businesses in Los Angeles not doing business directly with the city that would have to pay the higher wage.

A state Superior Court judge intervened with a temporary restraining order. And last month attorneys representing the hotels filed suit against the city, claiming the ordinance was too similar to an earlier version that was about to be placed on the ballot in a voter referendum backed by the business community.

Another setback

But last week, the hotels and local business leaders sustained what could be a setback as the case was shifted from a judge deemed friendly to their challenge.

The Unite-HERE local, which is a strong backer of the living wage ordinance, filed what's known as a peremptory challenge to the assignment of Judge Dzintra Janavs to preside over the case. Janavs had issued the temporary restraining order preventing the living wage ordinance from taking effect.

Richard McCracken, the attorney for the Unite-HERE local, called the temporary restraining order "unconstitutional in the most fundamental sense," saying it represented a judge stepping into the legislative process.

In what was described as a routine move when such a peremptory challenge is filed, Janavs agreed to have the case transferred to Judge David Yaffe. As a result, the May 11 hearing date previously set has been scrapped and a new date will be scheduled in the next few days.

It was widely believed that Janavs leaned in favor of the hotels, given the angle of her questioning in the hearing that led to the temporary restraining order.

Also, Janavs has a history of ruling against the city. Last fall, she struck down Assembly Bill 1381, the measure backed by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that would have given him more authority over the Los Angeles Unified School District. That case is now being appealed.

Yaffe, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity in this case.

The lead attorney representing the hotels and business leaders, Colleen McAndrews, downplayed the switch in judges. She said she believed the hotels could still get a fair hearing from Yaffe.

"We're fine with either judge. We think our case is strong and we will prevail in any case. The case law is clear that the second ordinance is unconstitutional," McAndrews said.

"Not anti-business"

As for the letter, a Garcetti aide rejected claims that it represented a major anti-business statement.

"This is not an anti-business move," said Garcetti spokesman Josh Kamensky. "In fact, it's pro-business. We do not want business organizations to book events at this hotel, then have a bad experience there due to labor unrest, and decide not to come back to L.A. in the future."

Airport Hilton General Manager Grant Coonley said he did not expect the letter to have a significant negative impact on Hilton's business. He noted that business in January was at the highest level in three years despite the union-led boycott that has been in effect since last August.

But he did take issue with singling out the Hilton.

"I'm the biggest and they are simply trying to get the biggest to go under. It's just part of the tactics. They don't want a vote on the living wage ordinance; they just want us to fold due to economic pressure. Well, we're not going to fold," Coonley said.

The Unite-HERE local has alleged that several Hilton hotel workers have been suspended or fired in recent months because of their union organizing activity. Hilton officials have denied those claims, saying the workers were disciplined for poor performance but has reinstated some of the workers.

Union backers also note that it's not unprecedented for L.A. city councilmembers to send letters to meeting planners urging boycotts of hotels in the midst of fights with unions. According to James Elmendorf, senior policy analyst with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, former Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, recently re-elected City Councilman Richard Alarcon and several other councilmembers have sent such letters during past hotel-union disputes.

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