Since Roxana Tynan took the helm of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy two years ago, the organization has stepped up its pressure on L.A. businesses: Under her leadership, Laane has pushed to expand the living wage, most recently to large hotels throughout Los Angeles. The group has also put pressure on hotels, airline contractors, janitorial firms and other industries to allow union organizing. Tynan, 46, traces her activism to her days as a Yale student. She spent several years as an organizer for hotel workers in Las Vegas and then Los Angeles. But she hasn’t always been at odds with business interests. As then-Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg’s economic deputy, Tynan worked with developers to bring projects to Hollywood. She recently met with the Business Journal to discuss her experiences as a union organizer, criticism that her organization is just a front for labor as well as her love of film and TV.
Question: Why is Laane now pushing for higher wages at large hotels?
Answer: The hotel industry is a huge growth industry with a huge number of low-wage workers. Most of the large hotels we’re talking about are downtown and have benefited from the huge investment that the city has made in revitalizing downtown. We also showed with the living wage at the LAX-area hotels that not only were there no layoffs or cuts in worker hours, but revenue per room is up, overall revenue is up.
Why single out one category?
To go more broadly would probably mean a referendum being put to the voters by folks like the National Restaurant Association. While I’m confident that living wage is very popular with the voters, Laane doesn’t have the funds necessary to run a citywide ballot campaign. It would be a very big and very expensive fight. Targeting industries that are growing, that can’t be outsourced and have large numbers of low-wage workers, we feel that’s the best way to go.
So does that mean the fast-food industry is next?
Food service and retail, both. Our goal is to benefit the largest number of low-wage workers in the shortest period of time.
Why grant exemptions for union establishments?
First, there are legal issues about the binding nature of union contracts. A company could argue that a higher living-wage mandate could interfere with that union contract. More broadly speaking, if workers in a given hotel and the hotel management have worked hard to negotiate a contract that they are happy with, they should be able to decide jointly whether to negotiate a living wage into that contract. You’ll find that virtually every living-wage measure across the country includes an opt-out for collective-bargaining agreements.
Critics say a city requirement to enact living-wage rules on the big hotels is a government mandate to force unionizing.
Most union hotels are already paying their workers more than the $15 living wage, so it’s not really leverage to organize. We want to raise the floor so that union hotels that pay workers more than nonunion hotels operate on a more level playing field.
Your office is in a building that serves as headquarters for Unite Here Local 11. Your campaigns are coordinated jointly with labor. Is Laane just a front for unions?
We believe that unions hold an important place in the economy. But we are an independent organization. We do accept a little bit of money from some unions – maybe 15 percent of our budget – but the vast majority of our funding comes from charitable foundations and individual donors. We’re focused on policies that benefit all low-wage workers, not just workers that are in unions. Now, it’s true, labor unions share many of the same goals that we do.
How do you see your relationship today with the business community?
We have a lot of good relationships with companies that pay the living wage – some are union and some aren’t. Also, fundamentally, we are a pro-growth organization. We want to see businesses thrive and succeed. We also have good relationships with many developers on community benefits agreements. They might not have been all that excited about entering into negotiations with us, but after a while, they figured, “Well, OK, these people aren’t crazy, they want to see us succeed, so we can make this work.”
What made you want to be a labor activist?
When I first arrived on the Yale campus, there was a clerical workers strike. They were fighting for a decent wage and because they were mostly women, they were making the case for equal pay for equal work. They also had a very inspirational leader. This captured my imagination and I got very involved. That’s when I decided I wanted to be an activist once I graduated. I was recruited after graduation as an organizer for the hotel workers union.
That’s a rather unusual career path coming out of Yale.
No one else offered me a job and this job seemed very exciting to me. I was sent to Las Vegas to organize hotel workers.
What exactly does an organizer do?
A lot of meetings and relationship building. I would meet one-on-one with the workers, trying to find out what was important to them, what made them tick and make a connection with them. Because you need that connection if you’re going to convince them to take a risk and get active in fighting to join a union or fighting to get a raise or better working conditions. In union hotels, I would often meet with the workers in the lunchroom; sometimes it would take months for them to feel comfortable enough to open up to me.
What was the hardest part?
The hardest part for me was that I was raised in a very polite English household, and so when I got out on the picket lines to support the workers I found it difficult to spend my time yelling at people.
How did your parents react when you took this job?
My mom really freaked out. She liked the idea that I was active in political causes, but didn’t think I would really become an organizer. And then Vegas – she thought the mob totally dominated Vegas and that I was going to get shot by some mobster. A few months later, she visited me and in her very English way, she said she thought I had lost my mind.
What was your best moment?
When we won a union organizing fight at the Horseshoe Hotel after being on the picket lines for 11 months. When you’re on the picket lines every day for that long, and you win, boy, did that feel so good, so sweet.
Did you ever feel threatened by management?
When I was on the picket lines, sometimes managers would shout back at me. But I never felt any risk at all. The threats that mattered most were the threats they made to the workers on the picket lines – things like, “You’ll never work in this hotel again.” The workers were the ones whose jobs were on the line.
How did you come to Los Angeles?
I had lived in Los Angeles briefly with my family when I was growing up. And after three or four years as a union organizer in Las Vegas, I realized I just didn’t want to live there anymore. I still had a sister out here, and the union was willing to let me keep working for them in Los Angeles. So I came out here in 1991.
What brought your parents from London to Los Angeles?
My father had emphysema and the doctors told him he needed a warmer, drier climate. So when I was 9, we moved to Los Angeles. My father was a theater critic and activist; he was part of the effort to create the National Theatre in Britain. He died when I was 12.
What was your most memorable experience working in Jackie Goldberg’s office?
Just six months after she took office, the Northridge Earthquake happened. And we went around Hollywood visiting people whose walls were gone or whose buildings had collapsed. It was really eye-opening: There was so much slum housing that had been in the shadows but now that was all out in the open.
What did you think of the economic development work?
That was one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had. I really didn’t think in terms of scoring victories for unions. Rather, it was telling the property owners that the only way to turn Hollywood around was to address the underlying poverty and slum conditions. And the timing was right: a lot of property owners were willing to take this message to heart.
You worked on the community benefits agreement for the Hollywood & Highland Center. What did you learn from that experience?
I learned that developers tend not to be too ideological or rigid, especially when it comes to unions. They want to build their project and they tend to be very practical about that. This was a really new approach to development in Los Angeles. The deal was this: If you, the developer, can come to an agreement with the union contractors to ensure high-quality and good-paying jobs, then the councilwoman will fight to help you get this project approved.
What led to you joining Laane?
Jackie had worked closely with Laane on the original city living-wage ordinance. And I really wanted to get back to more direct organizing. So when I came to Laane, I started running the community benefits program, all modeled after that first community benefits program I helped design with the Hollywood & Highland project.
What are your next goals for Laane?
We’ve got to give more focus to actually implementing some of the policies that we’ve passed or are close to passing. It’s not sexy and it’s not always what our charitable foundations want to hear, but we’ve got to make these policies actually work and prove their success. Another focus will be the port: We’re continuing to work with truck drivers there, to raise their standards and end the practice of misclassifying them as independent contractors. We also want to focus on the retail sector, bringing stores with good-paying jobs to underserved neighborhoods.
Your husband, Jesse, is a chef at Chateau Marmont, a nonunion hotel. Is that a problem?
Luckily, the Chateau Marmont has never been a big target for organizing. And while they are in Los Angeles, they are under the 100-room threshold for the living wage. But I’m always teasing him about it. But it’s great that he’s a chef because we’re both real big foodies.
How did you two meet?
We knew each other as kids here in Los Angeles. We both moved away and then shortly after he returned to Los Angeles in 2001 we reconnected.
I understand you’re quite the movie fan.
Yes, movies and nowadays, television. Back when my husband and I were dating and then married, we went to the movies every week and sometimes we’d make it a double feature – you know, come out of one movie and say, “Let’s go see another one.” But since our kids came along, that’s all stopped and movies have become a rare pleasure. Now it’s TV.
What movies do you like?
We were equal opportunity viewers – whatever the big movies were that week we’d go see. I did go a couple times to the Telluride Film Festival; I saw some Chinese films, Iranian films and other amazing films. My favorite moment there was meeting filmmaker Werner Herzog.
What’s your favorite television show?
My favorite show now is “The Americans,” which I’m crazy about. My husband and I have also become binge watchers: we’ll download a whole season of “House of Cards” from Netflix and take an entire weekend.
You like to travel, too.
When my older sister turned 60 recently, she rented a villa in Tuscany, Italy, and we all flew out there for a few days. That was fantastic, as was a trip we took last year to Kauai, Hawaii. And on both trips, the kids were so enthusiastic and so well-behaved.
You mentioned that that you and your husband are both foodies.
My husband is an excellent cook and we both love trying different types of food. We used to go to food festivals every once in a while – we love the L.A. food scene. And when the kids get older, we’re going to do that again.
Do you have any difficulty balancing work with raising your kids?
It is difficult. Look, I’m definitely not one of those workaholics; I’m pretty 9-to-5. I have to leave at 5 to pick the kids up. And on the weekends, 4-year-olds don’t respond well to, “Hold that thought, I just gotta look at these emails. …” There’s just no option there. So, if anything, I worry that work doesn’t always get all the attention it should. And while I love my job and there’s no other job I would want, I’d love it if I could work just a little less each week so I could spend more time with the kids.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
One thing that sticks with me: It’s just not my business what other people think about me. That is very liberating, realizing that you just can’t control what other people think.
Titles: Executive Director
ORGANIZATION: Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy
Born: London; 1967.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in women’s studies from Yale University.
CAREER TURNING POINTS: Decision to join Jackie Goldberg’s campaign for Los Angeles City Council; decision to join Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy in 2001.
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: John Wilhelm, labor organizer; Jackie Goldberg, L.A. politician; Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor; and Madeline Janis, former Laane executive director.
Personal: Lives in Mount Washington with husband, Jessie McBride, a chef at the Chateau Marmont Hotel, and their two children, Izzy, 7, and Jack, 4.
ACTIVITIES: Going to the movies and food tasting events; occasional travel.
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