The region’s most divisive union

Original Article:

  • Author: Michael Saltsman

  • Publication Date: March 2017

  • Newspaper: Orange County Register

Two years of morning protests and bullhorns. Welcome to Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach, where labor organizers from UNITE HERE Local 11 — Los Angeles’ most aggressive union — have set up shop in hope of unionizing two local hotels.

On many mornings, local residents are woken at 7 a.m. by protesters shouting into bullhorns, the loud noises echoing between hotels and high-rises. The police department receives regular complaints, but union activists continue to ring in the beautiful California sunrise with screams and street theater.

It’s a harsh illustration of the growing disconnect between Local 11 — a union supposedly fighting for “improved living standards” — and those living in the Los Angeles metro area, who are frustrated by the union’s aggressive tactics.

“[I]t’s really loud and annoying,” claims one Long Beach resident in an interview with the Long Beach Business Journal. “The [person] I was most concerned about is my neighbor, who is a surgical nurse working graveyard,” says another resident. “She’s trying to rest, and she can’t sleep while this is going on. And she’s got to get up, work the graveyard shift, and take care of patients.”

But Local 11 marches on, chasing union dues — the lifeblood of any union — at the expense of the public interest. In nearby Santa Monica, known for its picturesque ocean views, Local 11 regularly picketed the Shore Hotel last year, holding daily protests with its trademark bullhorns in hand. Intent on unionizing the hotel’s employees, the union allegedly planted four organizers among the hotel staff who spent their time trying to heighten tensions and recruit workers, an oft-used union tactic called “salting.”

According to Charlie Virzi, a concierge at the hotel, union tactics were “not only hurting our business, but … the tourism in Santa Monica. We receive[d] countless reviews from guests saying they will not return to Santa Monica.”

It’s a nuisance for a warm-weather economy reliant on tourism. Santa Monica receives more than 8 million visitors annually, roughly half of them from outside of the U.S. These tourists generate about $1.8 billion in annual revenue for the local economy, supporting 13,500 jobs — including hotel jobs.

But if they’re not union hotel jobs, Local 11 doesn’t seem to care. When Santa Monica’s City Council was examining the city’s noise ordinance last year, the union sent a letter to then-Mayor Tony Vasquez defending its bad behavior at non-union competitors. The union claimed that prohibiting bullhorns and early-morning rallies “inhibits the rights of Santa Monicans to hear diverse points of view.”

That’s right: Peace and quiet inhibit the rights of Californians.

More recently, a Local 11 official argued that Santa Monica developments should be allowed to exceed the city’s 84-foot height limit. The Santa Monica Lookout reported on outreach from city officials, which found that “a majority of Santa Monica residents do not want projects to exceed the 84-foot height limit.” Local 11 dismissed the voice of the people, and assured the council that their own members felt differently.

But a recent minimum wage debacle raises questions on whether Local 11 really understands its members. When the Los Angeles City Council voted to implement a hotel-specific minimum wage, Local 11 won an exemption for unionized hotels. This prevents dues-paying UNITE HERE workers from earning the same hourly wage as nonunion hotel employees doing the same work. Union members pay hundreds of dollars in dues per year, only to make less than nonunion employees.

In the words of Alicia Yale, a hotel waitress: “It’s completely upside-down. They want to pay us less than the minimum wage.”

Local 11 justified the exemption as a long-term ploy to increase unionization, claiming it might help hotels “be less resistant to unionization.” In other words, the union was sacrificing worker pay to increase revenue, despite its commitment to “improved living standards” and the community’s wishes.

How ironic that a union called UNITE HERE would become California’s most divisive union.