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With the local tourism industry making its strongest showing in years, L.A.’s labor unions are gearing up to demand a larger share of the pie.

Between now and next spring, union contracts for more than 6,000 employees at 15 leading hotels will come up for renegotiation.

While most of those agreements are not set to expire until next April, unions representing housekeepers, cooks, waitresses and other service employees have begun their strategizing and public posturing setting the stage for what could be a heated series of negotiations when the parties begin talking in December.

“Both the hotels and the union have some very serious issues that need to be addressed,” said Maria Elena Durazo, president of Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, which represents the bulk of L.A.’s unionized tourism workers. “If we wait until the contracts are about to expire, we’re not going to give ourselves the room and the time we need to deal with them.”

The thorniest issues are likely to involve subcontracting, job security and wage increases, she said.

Randy Villareal, general manager of the Biltmore Hotel and a member of the Employer’s Council an informal group of hotels that negotiates their union contracts as a unified bloc was more sanguine about the upcoming talks.

“It’s part of doing business,” he said. “We will address the needs as they are presented and we’ll see what happens.”

Local 11 organizers and their supporters kicked off their drive July 31, when more than 1,000 activists staged a noisy afternoon march along Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive. Bemused tourists and merchants looked on as tourism employees, many of them clad in their work uniforms, pushed luggage carts and vacuum cleaners up and down the street.

Other such events are likely to follow in the months to come, Durazo said.

The last city-wide tourism contracts were negotiated in 1992, when union and management engaged in a bitter and protracted fight over the extension of health benefits to service workers.

The tensions reached their apex when Local 11 produced and sent to tourism professionals the controversial video “City on the Edge,” which portrayed L.A. as a city bitterly divided along racial and economic lines.

Five years later, much has changed both in L.A.’s tourism industry and among the city’s labor unions.

For the first six months of 1997, hotel occupancy in L.A. County averaged 74.4 percent, compared to 61.1 percent in 1992, according to the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau. Daily room rates increased from $75.25 to $96.25 over the same period.

“When it comes to tourism, the general climate has changed it’s light years from where it was,” said David Koff, senior research analyst for Local 11. “It’s only natural that workers would expect to share in those benefits.”

But many L.A. hotels are still recovering from the staggering losses they experienced in the early 1990s, said Bruce Baltin, senior vice president of PKF Consulting, a Century City group which monitors the tourism industry.

“From a rate and occupancy standpoint the industry is looking very strong,” said Baltin. “But from a bottom line standpoint, while things are looking better, we’re still not seeing phenomenal profits. A lot of hotels still aren’t making money.”

At the same time, organized labor in general and Local 11 in particular is in a far stronger position than five years ago.

That strength was recently on display when the L.A. City Council rejected plans for an 18-hole golf course in Big Tujunga Canyon. City Hall observers say the council’s opposition was at least partially the result of Local 11’s opposition to the project.

The union objected because of the involvement of Kajima International, the Japanese conglomerate which owns the New Otani Hotel & Gardens whose workers the local has been attempting to organize for almost five years.

In addition, a number of L.A.’s largest hotels including the Biltmore, the Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites and the Regent Beverly Wilshire have changed hands over the past five years, bringing a number of brand new players to the negotiating table.

“The new ownerships has brought a different perspective on how business is done,” said the Biltmore’s Villareal. “Business is run on a more entrepreneurial basis, as opposed to a corporate basis.”

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