L.A. Hotel Workers Are On Strike To Stem the City’s Housing Crisis

Hotel workers in Los Angeles endure grueling commutes as housing costs skyrocket. Now, they’re on strike for both fair wages and affordable housing.

David Helps

Striking hotel workers rally at the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown hotel in Los Angeles on Monday, August 7, 2023. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — As the city’s Hot Labor Summer continues to heat up, workers at Los Angeles-area hotels are back on the picket lines as part of the largest strike in the industry’s history. In June, members of UNITE HERE Local 11 — which represents 15,000 housekeepers, servers, bartenders and other employees at roughly 60 Southern California hotels—voted 96% to authorize a strike. Since then, a series of rolling strikes, beginning with the busy Fourth of July weekend, has caused severe disruptions for L.A.’s $34-billion tourism industry.

With the strike now its sixth week, it’s clear that the hotel industry isn’t going down without a fight. After a brief pause, several thousand workers at 28 hotels walked out last Thursday and Friday — with no sign of when this fourth strike-wave might end. The move to escalate came as fans of Taylor Swift arrived in Los Angeles for the pop star’s Eras tour. Union members, together with dozens of elected officials, had called on Swift to Speak Now!” and postpone the six-concert stint, which began Thursday.

Meanwhile, the hotels have publicly balked at the workers’ demands, which include an immediate $5 per hour raise and smaller raises in years two and three. (The Coordinated Bargaining Group, which represents 44 of the hotels, has offered a $2.50 raise in the first year and $6.25 stretched over four years.)

While compensation remains a major sticking point, it’s the union’s housing proposals that have most rankled the hotel industry. Local 11 is asking the hotels to publicly support a ballot measure which would allow the city to issue vouchers for vacant hotel rooms to unhoused residents. The idea is modeled on Project Roomkey, a California program which turned empty hotels into safe, temporary housing while slowing the spread of Covid-19. Angelenos will vote on the measure in March, during the state’s primary election.

Even more ambitious is the union’s demand to leverage the booming tourism economy to build urgently needed homes. With L.A. set to host both the FIFA World Cup in 2026 and the Summer Olympics in 2028, the city has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Local 11 co-president Kurt Petersen tells In These Times. The union is seeking to create a housing fund for hospitality workers through a 7% surcharge on hotel stays and meals. Petersen estimates that the fee would generate $150 million toward the construction of affordable housing.

Sign up for our weekend newsletter
A weekly digest of our best coverage

For now, the hotels aren’t buying it. They have rejected all facets of our housing proposals,” Petersen says. Instead, management went on the offensive: an unfair labor practice charge filed with the NLRB accuses the union of forcing an illegal strike over demands that have nothing to do” with its members’ wages or working conditions. If the union really wanted an agreement to help the employees, it would have dropped these issues long ago,” Keith Grossman, an attorney for the Coordinated Bargaining Group told the Los Angeles Times.

To striking hotel workers, this claim — that housing issues have nothing to do” with their livelihoods — is nonsense. Many have already been forced to uproot their families and endure grueling commutes because they can’t afford to live in a city where the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $3,195 a month. In a video for More Perfect Union, Brenda Mendoza describes driving four hours each day — sleeping just three hours a night — to support her family as a uniform attendant at the J.W. Marriott. Stories like Mendoza’s are increasingly common amid the runaway cost of housing. According to a Local 11 poll, 53% of members have either already been displaced or are worried they will soon have to move.

Contrary to the employers’ narrative, rank-and-file hotel workers did not need to be convinced of the urgent need for housing. Last year, Local 11 members knocked doors and gathered signatures to get the homelessness measure on the ballot. With UNITE HERE’s impressive grassroots infrastructure, the ballot measure’s success or failure will likely depend on whether the union’s ground game can overcome the powerful hotel industry’s messaging. At a public hearing, one member who spoke in support shared her own experience with homelessness. Laid-off by the pandemic, Bambian Taft found herself living with her daughters in a hotel room not unlike the ones she had cleaned and readied while she was employed in the industry.

Petersen believes that the hotels underestimated their workers’ frustration after years of inflation and soaring rents — a view that’s supported by the industry’s efforts to publicly blame the strike on union leaders. But Local 11— which has been led by Petersen, Ada Briceño, and Susan Minato since 2017, making it probably the first U.S. union to adopt a co-president” leadership structure — has a long and proud history of militancy.

For much of the 20th century, Local 11, of what was then the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, was run by a coterie of conservative white good-old-boys. This corrupt leadership imposed concessionary contracts and even ordered wildcatting laundry workers back to work for protesting a speedup and pay cut. But in 1989, the rank-and-file elected organizer Maria Elena Durazo as president. Together with her husband and fellow organizer Miguel Contreras, Durazo helped turn Los Angeles into a cockpit of labor militancy,” as labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein recently recounted.

According to the “Bargaining for the Common Good” strategy, the labor movement is strongest when it’s fighting not just for better wages and working conditions for union members, but for social investments that benefit the entire working class.

Under Durazo’s leadership, Local 11 embraced an ambitious, community-based approach to negotiations that prefigured the strategy known as Bargaining for the Common Good.” According to this strategy, the labor movement is strongest when it’s fighting not just for better wages and working conditions for union members, but for social investments that benefit the entire working class. It’s a belief that’s been key to Local 11’s success. In 2004, for example, the union secured a pioneering Community Benefits Agreement for the LAX international airport, which raised labor standards and channeled millions of dollars into jobs and climate infrastructure for nearby communities of color.

Now, over three decades since a rank-and-file revolt remade their union, hospitality workers are leading the struggle for a more just and affordable Los Angeles. So far, only the Westin Bonaventure — the city’s biggest hotel — has reached an agreement with the union. That deal — which came at the end of June, after members had authorized a walkout but before the strike began — includes higher wages and pensions, a $20 per month cap on health insurance, a return to pre-pandemic staffing, and policies that make it easier for unauthorized immigrants and the formerly incarcerated to be hired. Still, the deal does not directly address the union’s housing demands, which take aim at the wider hotel industry and the 44 properties represented by the Coordinated Bargaining Group.

Striking Writers Guild of America workers and striking hotel workers march in solidarity on the picket line outside the Ritz-Carlton hotel on July 3, 2023 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

With many dominoes yet to fall, Local 11’s fight has been bolstered by an outpouring of labor and community support. Many of the thousands of Hollywood actors and writers on strike against the major studios have turned out in support, while Teamsters have refused to cross a picket line to deliver food and supplies. On July 13, outside the luxurious Fairmont Miramar in Santa Monica — where a bungalow” room starts at $1,079 per night — entertainment and hotel workers chanted in unison: If we don’t get it, shut it down/​ L.A. is a union town!”

If the Bonaventure victory suggests the limits of what can be won from any single employer, it’s these forms of solidarity that show what’s at stake for all Angelenos. By taking on one of L.A.’s most powerful and prosperous industries, both at the bargaining table and on the ballot, hospitality workers are at the forefront of a struggle for the fate of the working class in Los Angeles. As Petersen puts it: What kind of city do we want to live in, who will be able to live there — and who will be forced out?”

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

David Helps is an historian of policing, cities, race, and inequality and a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Protean Magazine, Monthly Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.