The Common Good
September-October 1998

In the Lap of Luxury

by Pat McDonnell Twair | September-October 1998

From City Council to Rodeo Drive: campaigning for a living wage in Los Angeles.

Say "Los Angeles" and just about anyone imagines film studios, sprawling mansions of the rich and famous, and Baywatch life guards. This metropolis—the second largest in the United States—also is gaining recognition nationally because of the way in which labor, civic groups, and the religious community are coming together to build a new movement for economic justice.

A historic victory came March 18, 1997, when the Los Angeles City Council voted in a living wage ordinance, despite opposition from Mayor Richard Riordan and the business community.

This decision did not occur in a vacuum. It was made after the concerted lobbying of the Living Wage Coalition brought the inequities suffered by the working poor to the public's conscience. The coalition included strong participation from the religious community, whose grassroots efforts have been directed since 1996 by an interfaith group, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE). CLUE, according to Donald Smith of the Presbyterian Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, "has brought together the largest number of labor-oriented religious activists since the farm worker movement of the 1960s."

In the months leading up to the vote, CLUE members educated and mobilized others in their congregations, participated in public events to focus attention on the needs of workers living in low-wage poverty, and developed special relationships with council members. It became commonplace for well-known religious figures to step forward alongside low-wage workers and the unemployed to speak out for better wages and working conditions.

On the day of the vote, City Hall was packed with living wage supporters who testified to the council. Miraculously, the ordinance, requiring city contractors to pay employees $7.25 an hour with health insurance or $8.50 without, was unanimously adopted, 12-0, avoiding the mayor's veto.

this year, clue has focused much of its efforts on behalf of low-wage workers in the tourist industry. Many are immigrants from Central America and Mexico, trapped in a cycle of poverty that forces them to visit food banks and use public health services.

As any visitor to Los Angeles quickly learns, the sprawling metropolis is the hub of connecting cities and counties whose residents almost match in number the city's eight million population. Some of these cities—Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Pasadena—were targeted for organizing of low-wage workers because they have tourist sites and world class hotels that charge premium prices but pay the lowest wages to the all-but-invisible workers who make them run efficiently.

In January of this year, five downtown Los Angeles hotels signed a new contract that will move low-wage earners into the middle class. However, posh Westside hotels that charge $281 a night for an average room were unwilling to sign a new contract. The deadline was April 15 for the Regent Beverly Wilshire, Century Plaza, and the Beverly Hilton Hotel; the contract at the world renowned Bel Air was to expire May 15. The fifth Westside hotel, the Summit Rodeo, had been in a protracted fight with workers for the two years since the hotel was purchased by Israeli Efrem Harkham, who refused to recognize any union. A report sponsored by the Jewish Labor Committee alleged that the Summit Rodeo management had unjustly fired at least one-third of its employees over the past two years for seeking union representation.

So Maria Elena Durazo, president of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) Local 11, joined forces with CLUE to develop strategies to push through the Westside contracts. The HERE contracts Durazo had negotiated with downtown hotels set a new precedent and standard: wages that will raise the hourly base pay for housekeepers from $8.15 to $11.05 over six years, plus new health, legal, and training benefits. Domestic partners would qualify for health benefits and many workfare participants assigned to work at union hotels would receive the same protections as HERE members.

CLUE asked why less prosperous downtown establishments could afford to sign a model contract while the Westside multinational enterprises with 82 percent occupancy rates could not. With the Jewish Labor Committee mobilizing the Jewish community to challenge the owner of the Summit Rodeo, Durazo and CLUE joined forces to engage the other Beverly Hills hotels. Groundwork was laid by Pastor James Lawson Jr., of Holman United Methodist Church, and Rev. Dick Gillett, a retired Episcopal priest long active on behalf of workers.

CLUE coordinator Linda Lotz said Rev. Lawson often provided the inspiration for actions. Lawson studied Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent techniques in India and later was an associate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Pastor Lawson brought in a wide range of churches," she said, "and provided significant leadership."

One of Lawson's strategies, "Java for Justice," hearkened back to the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s South. Three to eight CLUE members would sip coffee in the dining rooms of the upscale hotels. After paying the bill, they would ask to see the manager and express hopes that he would sign his lovely restaurant onto the contract.

"We wore large cardboard tags that said æSign the Contract,'" Lotz recalled. "If the manager said he would lose business if he charged higher prices to pay his workers, we expressed the view that if more people were earning a living wage, they could afford to dine in his restaurant."

The java sessions didn't always go smoothly. The most controversial centered around Rev. Gillett. Wearing his ministerial collar, the spunky clergyman would stand and say to diners: "I'm sorry to intrude on your meal, but I want you to know that the people who cooked your meal and are serving you so courteously need your help. Their contract is expiring and we would appreciate it if you would ask the manager to sign the contract."

At least three times, Rev. Gillett's mini-sermons were interrupted by irate hotel security who said they didn't want the customers' meals to be disrupted.

CLUE'S STEADY persistence paid off when the Regent Beverly Wilshire signed a contract March 26 and the Beverly Hilton signed March 31. "Of the 14 hotels that had contracts, five had come to terms on the six-year contract calling for higher hourly wages, job protection, and benefits," Lotz said.

"We realized that Easter and Passover were being observed at the same time this year and it was suggested we have a Holy Week procession in the heart of Beverly Hills. Rev. Lawson said it should be a silent walk and that religious figures should be dressed in their full regalia." So just days before Easter and Passover, CLUE, the Jewish Labor Committee, and Westside Interfaith Council joined forces to sponsor an interfaith procession to support hotel workers at the Summit and two other world class hotels in Beverly Hills.

On April 8—just one week before the hotel contracts were to expire—more than 60 rabbis, Catholic priests, and Protestant clergy in full liturgical garb assembled with laity and union members at Beverly Hills Park. Rabbis were identified by yarmulkes and prayer shawls, priests and clergy were distinguished by robes and beautifully embroidered stoles. Workers wore windbreakers and jeans.

Shoppers froze in their tracks as they witnessed the colorful block-long procession of religious figures and laborers led by three workers carrying baskets containing Easter lilies, bitter herbs, a cup of milk, matzoh, and a charoset mixture of ground fruits and nuts.

On the sidewalk in front of the Summit hotel, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels began a mini-Seder marking the Jews' flight from slavery in Egypt. The symbolism of ancient slaves and hotelier Harkham's refusal to sign a contract that would bring his minimum wage employees from $5.75 to a $7.50 an hour living wage was obvious. When Father Pedro Villarroya asked the police for permission to enter the Summit so a small delegation could deliver the basket of Seder food to the management, the officer folded his arms across his chest and ordered the group to leave.

Rev. Lawson stood face-to-face with the police officer and loudly charged: "The police should not be the gatekeepers of the oppressor, they should be the defenders of the rights of the oppressed."

As we walked past the elegant antique stores and jewelry shops, Gillett explained: "In the wave of plant closures that began in the late '70s, people of color and immigrants lost their chance to work their way out of poverty. If the Beverly Hills hotels sign collective bargaining agreements with the union it will signal to all of Los Angeles that hard-working people deserve better than perpetual poverty." He noted that many employees have worked for as long as 20 years for the same hotel without receiving health or retirement benefits.

The clergy walked to the posh Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel to present a letter of congratulations for signing the contract to the manager, Peter O'Colmain. He expressed surprise that his hotel was being thanked for doing the right thing. A second letter of appreciation was presented to Merv Griffin's Beverly Hilton.

The outcome of the procession?

By mid-June, all 14 hotels had signed onto the excellent contract that will serve as a model for hotel unions throughout the country. "The immediate effect was the tremendous boost in morale for workers whether they marched in the procession or watched from their workplace and realized the support extended to them," Lotz commented.

"We learned that expressing thanks to the hotels brought in far more cooperation from management than we had expected. Even the Summit Rodeo, who said that signing the contract meant it would have to lay off workers, committed to trying to relocate them at other hotels."

SUMMING UP THE efforts of two years, Lotz said the religious community and the labor community have learned a lot about the importance of working together. These activities have brought insight to religious activists, not to mention inspiration for quite a few sermons. Unions are increasingly calling on the religious community for support, to speak at rallies, to join worker delegations to call on employers, to sign letters and newspaper ads, and to join workers in civil disobedience to challenge intransigent management.

"The most effective events, from CLUE's perspective," Lotz continued, "are the ones we plan together—from start to finish—so that religious principles and traditions are included." Lotz said such a large number of clergy participated in the Beverly Hills procession because of a commitment to a quiet, respectful, religious tone. At the same time, she noted that many clergy are learning why union activities often lead to confrontation.

Clergy supporting workers at the Sheraton Miramar in Santa Monica were unsuccessful in trying to meet with the hotel manager. On their third attempt to deliver a letter to the manager, they became aware of a man in a black trench coat who was videotaping them. The manager did not appear, but the clergy challenged the intended threat of the videocam by reading the letter out loud and then closing with a prayer session. The incident gave them insight into the intimidation some workers undergo behind closed doors.

Having succeeded in hotel contracts, CLUE is hoping to deepen its roots in congregations throughout the region. CLUE is recruiting speakers for Labor Day observances in churches, temples, and mosques. Another target is underpaid workers in Los Angeles' garment industry. A soon-to-be released yearlong study by the Jewish Commission on Sweat Shops will serve as the basis for CLUE's efforts to improve wages and working conditions of garment workers. This past spring, CLUE has been active in the Pasadena living wage campaign and in protesting the proposed elimination of general relief payments to the unemployable needy.

Rev. Gillett says one of CLUE's objectives is to make business aware of its responsibility for the well-being of the entire community. "We wanted to start a dialogue between labor and religion so as to present to business our joint concerns about the plight of the working poor. We pray for the poor, the unemployed, the oppressed. Pushing for implementation of the living wage ordinance is a way to do something."

PAT McDONNELL TWAIR is a free-lance writer living in Los Angeles who specializes in political and cultural news of the Middle East. She is writing a book, Ma'alish, on the six years she lived in Syria.

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