Leticia Ortega de Ceballos lives 170 kilometres away from downtown Los Angeles (henceforth, LA). She told “Counter Punch” that she sleeps in her car so she can work two cleaning jobs: one at the Loews Hollywood Hotel, the other at the Glendale Hilton. Chef Jovani Ramirez also works two jobs: he starts at 6 a.m. at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, then works additional hours at the Century Plaza; often, to support his family, he also takes on a third job as an Uber driver. Francisa Gutierrez drives an hour and a half from San Bernardino to work as a housekeeper at the Intercontinental Hotel in LA; she explains to the “LA Times” that “the babysitter earns half of what I earn”; Francisa earns 22 dollars an hour, of which 1,800 dollars a month goes towards rent and 200 towards gas.
Little mentioned in the newspapers, Central and South American women who are not very young often play drums and vuvuzelas trumpets during the picket lines in front of the large hotels of the “City of Angels”. It is their moment, or rather their need, to make themselves “visible”, shouting slogans in front of the big hotels where they work. There are 32,000 workers in 62 large and luxurious hotels (waitresses, cooks, dishwashers, receptionists and room cleaners) whose previous employment contracts expired on 30 June . Since 1 July there have been alternating well organized strikes, organized by the Unite Here Local (Section) 19.
As reported by “Business Insider,” an overnight stay in one of those hotels, such as the Waldorf Astoria in Beverly Hills, costs a basic $995. Maribel Reyes, a 41-year-old single mother who works as a waitress at that hotel, told Business Insider that she earns $25 an hour and takes home a monthly salary of $2,400, quickly eaten up by rent expenses. and by expenses for the care of her children.
The story of these women and men is the merciless image of the housing crisis in the large cities of California, the richest State in the Union. Crisis that imposes a life with few moments to dedicate to family and one’s own interests and a very early commute to reach the workplace kilometers away, or nights spent sleeping in the car so as not to return home every evening and spend less petrol.
The platform for the renewal of their contract also contains the proposal for a housing fund for the workforce (and the many homeless people), financed by a 7% tax on the prices of hotel stays. It is also asking for an immediate raise of $5 an hour and $3 for each of the next three years of the contract. That is, a total increase of $11 an hour.
Los Angeles welcomed 46 million tourists last year and hotel profits have skyrocketed, but the union agreements in this dispute are proceeding hotel by hotel [and] extremely slowly. With the last [agreements] signed at the end of November, there are only 5 hotels again under contract. Although not yet explicit in content, the agreements provide, in addition to salary increases, [increases] for health care and pension assistance (which in the USA must be negotiated at company level) and more reasonable workloads, with a consequent increase in staff,
Striking female workers, in addition to being assaulted by some private guards and hotel guests, are also subjected to retaliation and disciplinary measures for a wide variety of cases, whether on the job or for being too loud in their protests. Those who participate in picketing are sometimes filmed by hotel management and threatened with arrest if they do not have appropriate residence permits.
Hotels are not always in as good standing as they demand of strikers: in August, the Chinese company Shenzen New World Co. which owns the Sheraton Universal in LA, was fined $4 million for paying bribes of $1 million to a former City Councilman to gain his support for the construction of a 77-story skyscraper downtown. In addition, LA County District Attorney George Gascan is conducting an investigation into the employment of scabs in some striking hotels. Homeless migrants, minors, asylum seekers and refugees were to enter through the back of the luxurious buildings and were paid in cash, at a lower rate than contractual pay.
Labor initiatives during these five months of strikes, proclaimed gradually for a few hours or days at all hotels, have varied. From asking organized travel clientele to boycott hotels particularly hostile to the dispute (the most important victory came this summer, with the adherence of the Inter Miami soccer team, where Lionel Messi plays), to demonstrations, such as the one on October 6, at LA International Airport, with simultaneous strikes at its eight hotels, to the November 1 sit-in of dozens of people in front of the Meridien Santa Monica, the new home of the American Film Market and epicentre of the use of migrants as strike replacements.
Meanwhile, the employers’ bargaining delegation is taking its time, and when it does talk, it makes proposals such as extending the contract term to six years, so as not to have to cough up any more money for more than a five-year period, despite constant inflation. Consider that the metalworkers of the big three auto companies had asked for a 40 percent increase for the four years of the contract and, with the recent contract, got 25 percent which, by the way, was considered insufficient by some of the workers.
A few days ago, the union met at St. Augustine-by-the-Sea Church in Santa Monica with members of LA County’s religious communities to discuss mainly the cases of violence against picketing hotel workers and the exploitation of migrants
However, three recent events could open up some prospects for the renewal of this contract, or at least prevent strikers from ending up starving or doing “survival jobs” paid worse and worse.
Some Democratic Party members introduced the Empowering Striking Workers Act bill in the House last month, which would allow all U.S. workers to enjoy unemployment benefits even in the case of long strikes, after the fourteenth day.
The California legislature is debating improved legislation to regulate short-term rentals advertised on various online sites. Passed five years ago, this legislation has not prevented much-needed housing in the city (renting a two-bedroom apartment costs at least $2,500 to $3,000 a month) from being converted into de facto hotel rooms. So much so that today nearly half of the short-term rental listings in LA are illegal.
Finally, nearly 40,000 hotel workers in Las Vegas, the vacation and legalized gambling city that thrives mostly on California tourism, signed a labor contract renewal in the second week of November with their union, Culinary and Bartenders of Unite Here, after seven months of negotiations. In this case, the agreement came before a planned strike.
Also, in Nevada City, as witnessed by a survey of room workers conducted by the union, corporate profits from 2019 to 2023 skyrocketed and the price of rooms rose 29 percent. While the workforce has decreased by 11%, occupational illnesses due to overwork have increased: 88% of female respondents have pains when carrying out their work (75% of room attendants who were surveyed take painkillers), and 57% seek medical treatment for stress and work-related injuries. In addition, women are often exposed to the risk of harassment or assault by some unsavory hotel guests.
S.Abramsky, The hugely important strike you’re not hearing enough about, The Guardian, 8.9
S.Hussain, Hotel workers at LAX-area properties walk off the job over healthcare proposal, LA Times, 6.10
A.Moss, Shutting off exploitation, one hotel at a time, Counter Punch, 11.10
K.Kelly, Why the hotel workers in las vegas might be the next big strike, Fast Company, 12.10
M.Gruenberg, LA County da probes hotels’ use of refugees and asylum seekers as scabs, People’s World. 27.10
S.Roxborough, Hotel workers stage noisy protest outside AFM headquarters, Hollywood Reporter, 1.11
I.Kullgren, Las Vegas hotels reach deals for new union contracts, averting a strike, LA Times, 10.11
LA needs a better plan to crack down on illegal airbnbs and short-term rentals, LA Times, 28.11
Translation from Italian by Evelyn Tischer