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LARRY KANTER Staff Reporter

It was the winter of 1993, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, Local 11, after years of disarray and dormancy, was looking to launch a new organizing drive at a major Los Angeles hotel.

Their target? The New Otani Hotel & Garden in Little Tokyo.

Within a year, demonstrators were a regular fixture outside the hotel’s doors. A volley of complaints and counter-complaints were flying across the desks of the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board. A costly boycott was mounted by union supporters.

The labor action reached a climax last month, when the AFL-CIO held its national leadership conference in Los Angeles, and union President John Sweeney led more than 1,000 union supporters on a march through downtown L.A. to the New Otani.

Sweeney vowed to travel to Japan and press the union’s case directly to Kajima Corp., the huge construction conglomerate that owns the New Otani an unprecedented display of national support for a local labor dispute.

Clearly, the battle over the New Otani has become much more than a question of who represents the hotel’s approximately 280 housekeepers, cooks, waitresses and other service employees.

The New Otani has emerged as one of the most significant labor battles in the country indeed, in the world.

The bruising fight between a maverick L.A. union local and the hotel’s Japanese owners has come to symbolize the aspirations of a newly energized labor movement engaged in a nationwide drive to organize the growing ranks of low-wage, immigrant workers in an increasingly global economy.

“The New Otani is one of our highest-profile campaigns,” Sweeney told the Business Journal. “It embodies a number of important trends: the plight of low-wage immigrant workers, the need to build solidarity across international borders, and the effort to build coalitions between Hispanic workers and the Japanese community.”

The nation’s top labor leader called the New Otani campaign “a prime example of the AFL-CIO’s new approaches to organizing.”

From the standpoint of management, the conflict also is one of high principle: Standing up against a union waging what the New Otani calls a vicious “corporate campaign.”

In such campaigns which have grown increasingly common a union will seek a collective bargaining agreement with a company not only by building support among workers, but by putting economic and political pressure on the owners of the business.

In the case of the New Otani, that has meant almost four years of weekly “informational” pickets, an ongoing international boycott and pressure from Los Angeles City Council members, L.A. County supervisors, congressional representatives and a host of community and religious groups.

“The corporate campaign is being used by Local 11 because it cannot convince the employees to join Local 11,” asserted New Otani spokesman Charles Ecker. “Local 11 is trying to coerce the (New Otani) to recognize the union against the will of its employees.”

The stakes in the battle are rising for both the union and the hotel’s owners, according to Harley Shaiken, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Industrial Relations.

“The New Otani would like to have a non-union hotel. The union would like this drive to serve as a symbol for other international hotels, and for the industry in general,” Shaiken said. “Both sides are focused on the 280 workers, but the outcome will go considerably further than that.”

Given such implications, it’s not surprising that the fight has grown increasingly bitter over the years.

Local 11 began its focus on the New Otani Hotel & Garden in the early 1990s, shortly after the election of a new activist president, Maria Elena Durazo, who took the helm of the local after a long period of dormancy.

Rather than organizing the new hotels being built in Los Angeles, Local 11 for almost two decades had been struggling to improve work conditions at hotels that already were unionized.

Durazo aimed to change that. It was time for Local 11 to boost its stature by winning a union contract at a new hotel, preferably one of the hotels recently built downtown.

The local considered mounting campaigns at the Sheraton Grande Hotel and the Hotel Inter-Continental. “But the New Otani workers were the most willing to come forward to build the union,” said Jennifer Skurnick, Local 11’s staff director who has overseen the New Otani drive since its inception.

“They have the worst working conditions,” Skurnick said. “Their health insurance is the most expensive. They have the most abusive management. Conditions are rock bottom.”

New Otani spokesman Ecker denied that work conditions at the hotel are any different than those at any other downtown hotel, union or non-union.

Instead, Ecker suggested the New Otani was selected by the union due to its proximity to City Hall, as well as to the offices of the Los Angeles Times, La Opinion, and Rafu Shimpo, the region’s leading Japanese-language newspaper.

The hotel’s restaurant, for example, is a favorite lunch spot for city workers. The L.A. Times holds management training seminars in the New Otani’s conference rooms.

Skurnick, for her part, denied that the hotel’s proximity to local newspaper operations and to City Hall had anything to do with the decision to launch the organizing drive there. But she did acknowledge that proximity to the city’s political and media power centers “became an advantage,” particularly after the union called for a boycott of the New Otani in January 1996.

The two sides do agree on at least one point that workers should be the ones to decide whether or not the union represents them. But they differ on the election process that should be used.

Management favors a traditional, secret-ballot election, to be administered by the National Labor Relations Board.

“Why can’t a vote be held in the privacy of a voting booth?” Ecker asked. “The winner wins. The loser goes home. It should be that simple.”

The union counters that management has created an “atmosphere of intimidation” at the New Otani, which makes it impossible to hold a fair, traditional election.

“From the first day that the company found out about the (organizing) drive, management has run a campaign to terrorize and intimidate people,” Skurnick said.

She referred to the hotel’s dismissal of three union supporters in 1995, the subject of an unfair-labor-practices complaint filed against the New Otani. A federal administrative law judge is expected to rule on that complaint this year.

Instead, the union is pushing for a “card check” election, in which workers who want to unionize sign membership authorization cards. Under that process, a union becomes entitled to represent workers if more than 50 percent of the workers sign the cards.

New Otani management counters that the card check process itself is fraught with the potential for intimidation and fraud. “There is a possibility that cards could be forged, and no one would know the better,” Ecker said.

Sweeney said he plans to leave for Japan to meet with the hotel’s owners early next month. So far, he said, the company has not agreed to meet with him.

In the meantime, all eyes are on the New Otani, said UCLA labor expert Daniel Mitchell.

“For the union, it’s very symbolic,” Mitchell said. “If they win, they would go to newer hotels hotels near the airport, that have never seen unionization and repeat the tactic. If they lose, that’s symbolic, too.”

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