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The Truth About the Los Angeles Hotel Workers’ Strike

Despite recent wins, union members still can’t afford to live anywhere near where they work.

This article was co-produced and co-published with Capital & Main, an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues. 

The recently announced agreement on a new contract for hotel workers at the downtown Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles was only one deal, but it mattered. It has raised hopes among union members for favorable outcomes with the nearly 60 other area hotels where they work — and where they have authorized summer strikes, including the new wave of walkouts that began in the early hours of July 10.

The Bonaventure, after all, is the biggest hotel in L.A., and its deal with UNITE HERE Local 11 covers more than 600 room attendants, cooks, servers, front desk agents, and more. Its agreement to significantly raise wages and benefits proves that “the industry can do this,” the union said in a news release. “Now it is time for other corporations to follow suit.”

But there is a larger reality at play in both Los Angeles and Orange County. The truth is that the cost of housing in the area has soared so far beyond the reach of most lower wage workers that only aggressive, sustained increases will enable them to live anywhere near where they work. And that sets the union on a crash course with hotel ownership groups for repeated, grinding negotiations.

According to UNITE HERE, most of its hotel workers earn $20 to $25 per hour. The union is seeking an immediate $5 per hour raise, plus increases of $3 per hour each year over the next three years — a $14 per hour increase over four years. A coalition negotiating for 44 of the hotels says it has offered a $2.50 per hour immediate raise and a $6.25 per hour increase over four years. (Disclosure: UNITE HERE is a financial supporter of Capital & Main.)

A union survey found that more than half its members had moved outside of L.A. within the past five years, or were planning to do so in the near future, because of the cost of housing.

So what does that look like? Taking a hotel worker from, say, $22 to $27 an hour constitutes a pay raise of more than 20%. That would put the worker’s weekly total at $1,080, based on a 40-hour week, or an average of $4,680 a month over a full year — but that’s before taxes.

Now consider L.A. rents. According to the rent research site Zumper, the current average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in the city is about $2,400. The average for a two-bedroom: $3,395. And according to the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate’s forecast, those numbers will rise steadily over the next couple of years.

They are untenable figures, assuming the goal is for a worker to live anywhere near the property at which they’re employed. And the situation is no better in Orange County, where the Lusk Center is predicting a more than 7% overall rent increase by October of 2024.

Even with solid raises, the notion of affordable local housing is slipping further from the grasp of workers. An internal survey by UNITE HERE Local 11 found that more than half its members had moved outside of Los Angeles within the past five years, or were planning to do so in the near future, because of the cost of housing. (The union represents about 15,000 hotel and hospitality workers in Southern California.)

Brenda Mendoza’s story illustrates the extremes to which such workers sometimes go in order to live in a decent place. Born in L.A.’s Koreatown neighborhood, Mendoza returned there as a young adult to raise her family. She took a job as a uniform attendant at the J.W. Marriott L.A. Live hotel, about 10 minutes away.

That was 13 years ago. Mendoza, her husband and two sons made it through a decade in Koreatown before steadily rising rents drove them out. They tried Downey, about a 40-minute commute to her job, but when the rent on a two-bedroom apartment there soared past $3,000, they waved the white flag. Mendoza now commutes 200 miles round trip each workday from Apple Valley, a town in San Bernardino County.

“We wanted our own house to live in,” Mendoza said simply in an interview earlier this year. “We did what we had to do.”

The J.W. Marriott is one of the dozens of hotels at which union members voted to strike. The three-day action over the July Fourth holiday weekend affected 19 of the properties, and thousands of workers walked out beginning July 10 at a cluster of hotels near the Los Angeles International Airport.

In addition to higher wages, the union wants to maintain affordable health insurance; return staffing to pre-pandemic levels; ensure fewer room cleanings per worker daily; and improve pension plans.

“Strikes are only one tool in our toolbox,” said Kurt Petersen, the union’s co-president. “We have put the industry on notice that the workers have suffered enough.”

UNITE HERE is pushing on several fronts in the hotel negotiations, which by all accounts are currently stalled. In addition to higher wages, the union wants to maintain affordable health insurance; return staffing to pre-pandemic levels (hotels cut their workforces drastically during COVID’s peak and have been slow to build them up again); ensure fewer room cleanings per worker daily; and improve pension plans.

It has also asked the hotels to levy a 7% charge on guests to fund employee housing, a novel approach to the crisis but one that the hotel coalition claims falls outside the legal scope of the negotiation.

It’s not clear how much the Westin Bonaventure ultimately gave in wage and benefit increases. Beyond the basic announcement, details are few; Petersen said that until the contract is ratified by the Bonaventure workers, no public announcement will be made. The co-president did note, though, that the agreement upholds the “five pillars” of the union’s plan.

Whether other hotels resist such a deal may depend on the strength of their coalition and how long it holds. Despite sharing a brand name, many hotels in Los Angeles are actually owned by separate investor groups or smaller individual companies, and they have the ability to broker their own deals.

Meanwhile, increasingly bruising negotiations are likely, in part because the hotel market in the area continues to grow and profit. Not only will soccer’s World Cup arrive in L.A. in 2026, but the ramp-up to the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics will be gaining urgency. Both events are expected to send occupancy and rates skyrocketing, and they have already touched off a furious hotel construction boom.

Those properties will need workers. Those workers will need a place to live. Increasingly, that place isn’t Los Angeles. The full scope of the union’s challenge for its members is only beginning to take shape.

Copyright 2023 Capital & Main

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