Last week there was a party in Santa Monica to celebrate a remarkable success: that of the labor movement in our city. The event, called “Celebration with a Vision,” was low key but inspiring — a few speeches, some rousing songs, and sitting down together for dinner. It took place Wednesday evening at the Unitarian Universalist Church on 18th Street. The purpose was to take stock of and satisfaction in the victories the hotel workers union, UNITE HERE Local 11, has achieved in Santa Monica, most recently the agreement the union signed with OTO, the developers of the two hotels coming to Fifth and Broadway, to allow the future workers there to unionize without interference from management.
The victories are the result of a 19-year long process that had its ups and downs.
The event was, as City Council Member Kevin McKeown described it in an inspiring address, a “gathering of the tribes.” Nearly all those attending were, as either union members and staff or members of the union’s support groups in the community, veterans of a long and now seemingly successful struggle to make Santa Monica, at least with respect to hotels, a “union town.”
That struggle began inauspiciously in 1995 when the management of what was then Santa Monica’s only unionized hotel, the Miramar (then a Sheraton), sought to “decertify” their workers’ union by filing petitions with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a decertification election. The NLRB ultimately determined that the hotel used unfair labor practices to call the election (by paying three employees to file the petitions) and invalidated the vote, but in a hostile environment of forced meetings with hotel management and union-busting consultants, hotel employees, in 1997, narrowly voted for decertification.
It was from this momentary defeat that the current labor movement in Santa Monica arose. The hotel workers union reached out for support to the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), which helped organize a local community organization, Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism (SMART), to help gather support for hotel workers in the community. Together with another organization, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (called CLUE), SMART publicized the difficulties hotel workers had earning enough to support themselves and their families, and how few rights they had vis-à-vis not only the union busting Miramar Sheraton, but also the other hotels in the city, none of which were unionized.
As mentioned above, the union ultimately had the decertification election thrown out because of hotel management’s unfair labor practices (in a replay of the vote the union won in a landslide), but in the meantime new owners bought the hotel and they had no problem recognizing the union and signing a new collective bargaining agreement, rendering the NLRB proceedings moot.
Ironically, it was the anti-union activities of the Miramar Sheraton that mobilized both the union and the community. The union and its allies at SMART, LAANE and CLUE focused on enacting a living wage that would cover workers at the big local hotels in the coastal zone where existing hotels had financial advantages because Prop. S, enacted by voters in 1990, prohibited the building of new, competing hotels. (Municipal governments have limited power over labor relations, since federal labor law controls, but they can enact minimum wages.)
The battle over the living wage spawned two ballot measures. The first was KK, a measure the hotels put on the ballot in 2000 that would have prevented the City Council from enacting a living wage that applied to hotels. KK lost badly — the pro-worker movement received crucial support from Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), whose council candidates were also under attack from the hotels.
The second ballot measure was JJ, in 2002, which came after the council passed a ground-breaking living wage ordinance — the first in the nation that targeted workers in businesses that did not have a business relationship with a city or other governmental entity. The hotels gathered enough signatures to put ratification of the living wage on the ballot, and JJ was the result (a vote for JJ was a vote for the living wage).
The 2002 election, the first after 9/11 and during a recession, was a conservative election all over the country. Nevertheless, polls showed JJ passing until the hotel PAC, which had practically unlimited funding, unleashed a flurry of misleading mailers the weekend before the election to confuse voters, and JJ narrowly lost. The living wage was defeated.
But the union movement in Santa Monica was only getting started. Aided by the City Council, which insisted on including a “labor peace” clause in the ground lease for the Viceroy Hotel (which sits on city-owned land), the union signed an agreement in 2000 making the Viceroy Santa Monica’s second union hotel. Then in December 2002, just weeks after JJ’s defeat, the union had an even bigger victory, signing the Loew’s Hotel on Ocean Avenue to a union contract.
A union contract followed for what is now the Sheraton Delfina on Pico Boulevard, which had the same management as the Viceroy.
From one embattled union hotel in 1995, Santa Monica now had four unionized hotels representing 50% of the city’s existing luxury hotel rooms. Starting wages for hotel housekeepers in the area also had increased from $7.25/hour when the organizing campaign began to $11.25.
New hotel development proposals returned to Santa Monica in 2007 with a proposal to convert the landmarked office building at 710 Wilshire, and construct an addition, to build a 284-room hotel. The 710 Wilshire project reached the City Council in 2012. The union and its community allies pushed the City Council to require a living wage of $14.97 for the project.
While the council, on approving the project, made precedent by requiring a living wage, the wage was less than $14.97. The union in April filed papers to gather signatures for a referendum to challenge the development agreement for the project, but shortly afterwards, the owner of the 710 Wilshire project reversed course and contacted Local 11 to negotiate a settlement. The developer and the union then negotiated a neutrality agreement for the project, which means that once the hotel is operating management won’t try to block the workers from unionizing.
Since the end of the Great Recession and the rebound of the economy and tourism industry, five new hotels, in addition to 710 Wilshire, are being proposed for downtown Santa Monica. The first of these were the two “mid-priced” hotels proposed by OTO for the corner of Fifth and Colorado. While originally OTO took the position that a union contract was incompatible with a mid-priced hotel, in the face of organizing by Local 11 and its community allies, and after long negotiations, the union and OTO successfully negotiated a neutrality agreement just before the hotels came before City Council in November 2013. The City Council unanimously approved the hotels.
While each of the other three proposed hotels have unique issues that complicate their developers’ negotiations with the union, and as a result those negotiations will no doubt be long, and while each project has development issues to deal with, all three developers have announced their intention to enter into neutrality agreements with the union. Looking back to 1995, this is an earthquake in the relationship between management and labor in Santa Monica.
It’s that earthquake, and the long struggle that led to it, that “the tribes” were celebrating last week. Take note that if in five years or so there are five or six new union hotels in Santa Monica, operated by topflight hotel companies, this will have national implications, putting the lie to the constant right-wing refrains that union rights are incompatible with topflight economic development and that service workers won’t unionize.
Meantime, it’s impossible not to give some credit to the 19-year struggle in Santa Monica, and others like it around the country, for the current wave of support nationally for higher minimum wages, including a $15 per hour wage for fast food and other service workers.
Yes they can.
Thanks for reading.