Friday, September 17, 2004

'Sign the Contract and I'll Let You In'

In a scene straight out of the Soprano's, LA's Wilshire Grand Hotel locked out its laundry workers in the middle of contract negotiations and hired scab replacement workers, telling the members of the union, Unite Here, that they could return to their jobs only if they signed the contract the LA Hotel Employers' Council was offering.

By Ronald D. White, LA Times Staff Writer

The contract standoff between a union and nine Los Angeles County hotels escalated Thursday after the Wilshire Grand locked out its laundry employees and quickly filled their jobs with replacement workers.

At 6 a.m., 17 members of the Unite Here union learned that they had washed and folded their last bedsheets, tablecloths and towels for the downtown Los Angeles hotel. As for the 55-year-old hotel's laundry, it didn't skip a beat.

"We brought in replacement workers. We had them all lined up in case this happened," said Wilshire Grand general manager John Stoddard, one of the most vocal members of the Los Angeles Hotel Employers Council, which has handled the 7-month-old contract negotiations with the union.

The laundry workers are among more than 100 members of Local 52 of the Union of Needlestick, Industrial and Textile Employees, which recently merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, creating the union Unite Here.

The union and the hotels have been negotiating since March for a contract to cover 2,800 hotel and restaurant employees of another Unite Here group, Local 11.

The Local 11 workers on Monday gave their union the authority to strike, as did hotel unions in San Francisco and Washington. And a lawsuit was filed Thursday by some workers at two of the local hotels — the St. Regis and the Westin Century Plaza — accusing them of failing to give workers mandatory meal and rest breaks.

At the Wilshire Grand, Stoddard said he replaced the laundry workers because he couldn't risk an expensive planned upgrade of the aging laundry operation without the assurance of a long-term contract and a reliable workforce. He said he took the action knowing that it might prompt a strike in support of laundry workers.

Cristina Vazquez, deputy administrator of Local 52 and western regional manager of Unite Here, called the ouster an illegal lockout, though she said she wasn't asking for a strike.

"For them to do this is just outrageous," said Vazquez, noting that her local was negotiating a separate contract for laundry workers with several of the hotels, including the Wilshire Grand, on Wednesday.

Maria Elena Durazo, president of Unite Here Local 11, said its 2,800 workers would strike if asked. The hotel is "trying to provoke a citywide dispute," Durazo said.

One of the laundry employees, Rosa Olivares, has been on the Wilshire Grand payroll for 32 years and said she felt betrayed. "Through all of those years, I have been an excellent worker," said Olivares, 57.

Stoddard said Olivares and the others could return to their jobs if they agreed to a new contract. He also said that their being replaced with temporary workers wouldn't trigger an agreement forged by the nine hotels in which they each would lock out union employees if certain conditions were met.