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Union Efforts Focus on Organizing Hotel Industry in County

Times Staff Writer

In a labor union’s Garden Grove office, organizer Bill Granfield stands before a cluttered wall filled with charts. On the charts are the names of hundreds of maids, cooks and bellmen who make up the ranks of Local 681.

“Gracie, where’s Gracie?” he asks, scanning the faces of a dozen union captains until finally a hand goes up.

“Estoy aqui, Bill,” says 59-year-old Engracia Gabaldon, who for 14 years has worked in the Disneyland Hotel pantry and prides herself on her salads and fruit baskets.

Granfield first speaks English, then Spanish as he quizzes Gabaldon and each person in the room. Did you get volunteers for Saturday’s demonstration? How many? What happened to the three you promised?

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At 35, Granfield boasts organizing experience especially suited to Southern California, where seven out of every 10 hotel employees are Latino, according to union figures. He learned how to speak Spanish and recruit immigrant workers in the Salinas Valley for the United Farm Workers before he joined the staff of AFL-CIO Hotel Employees and Restaurant Workers International. Of the union’s five organizers in Orange County, three speak Spanish.

“The fact is,” he said, “that our unions have been around while the work force has changed right under (our) nose. Years ago, you had black maids, black bellmen and a few Spanish-speaking people working in the kitchen. Now, you can walk around the hotels in Orange and Los Angeles county and you’re talking about 100% (Spanish-speaking) among maids or housekeeping staffs.”

Disneyland Hotel Dispute

This is a pivotal time for Long Beach-based Local 681--one of four locals in Southern California--and its 5,000 members working at hotels in Long Beach and Orange County. It is locked in a labor dispute with Disneyland Hotel, and its nearly 1,200 employees there have been without a contract since Feb. 28.

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But there is more at stake than a contract, union and hotel industry experts say. The international union for the first time in the local’s 68-year history has focused its organizing activity on Orange County as part of a national organizing project that includes Chicago, Boston, Washington and New Haven, Conn.

“In the past, they just gave locals money and had them do their own organizing,” said Granfield, who holds the title of area project coordinator. “Based on an assessment by the national leadership, Orange County was picked as an area where we knew the hotel industry was strong and getting stronger and here to stay, and where we had local unions with a good track record.”

New York has Manhattan and Los Angeles has a hotel boom around Los Angeles International Airport. But Orange County is experiencing a phenomenal flurry of high-class luxury hotel development, at a pace that industry experts enjoy describing as “one-a-month.”

“If this was one city with one name, we would have international recognition,” said David R. Kinkade, a consultant at the Costa Mesa office of Laventhol & Horwath, an accounting firm. “With office construction up, it’s the fastest growing, most dynamic market area in the United States.”

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Already 150 hotels compete in the county’s Anaheim core, anchored by such tourist attractions as Disneyland in Anaheim and Knott’s Berry Farm in neighboring Buena Park. Today, there are more than 32,000 hotel rooms, including 9,000 so-called first-class rooms at luxury hotels. But at least 32 more hotels are scheduled for construction within two years, which could mean 5,000 to 7,000 additional rooms in the county.

Majority of Hotels Non-Union

What makes the build-up even more significant is the introduction of luxury hotels such as the $100-million Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel and the ultramodern, $65-million Meridien and $70-million Four Seasons, both in Newport Beach. These are the creme de la creme of the luxury hotel market in terms of price, prestige and service.

The majority of these hotels are non-union, and employers insist that they remain that way. Aside from a few very small hotels, only four major Anaheim hotels are unionized: Disneyland Hotel, the Anaheim Hilton and Towers, the Grand Hotel and the Inn at the Park.

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The non-union hotels say that they can preserve that status by treating workers well.

“We offer employees free meals, free parking and a full benefits package, more so than a lot of unions,” said Mary McGuire, personnel director of Emerald of Anaheim.

McGuire and others said the larger hotels have a distinct advantage and are not as vulnerable to union organizers as hotels with fewer than 200 rooms. The larger hotels can hire personnel professionals to help quell employee dissatisfaction, they said.

Union Shop

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What makes Disneyland Hotel so unusual is that since its opening in 1956, it has been a union shop. In all, five unions are represented at the hotel--a testament to peaceful co-existence.

The hotel, next door to Disneyland and near the Anaheim Convention Center, has grown into a 1,124-room mini-city. Brochures mailed worldwide highlight the hotel’s man-made marina, outdoor cafes and, during the summer tourist season, live shows at no cost to the public.

The hotel, which takes special pride in its Four-Star rating by Mobil Corp., is among the three most expensive in the county (the others are the Ritz-Carlton, Orange County’s only other Mobil Four-Star hotel, and the soon-to-be-opened Alicante Princess in Garden Grove). Despite its rates--an overnight stay is $158 for a double, slightly more than the Ritz-Carlton--Disneyland Hotel enjoys an almost 90% occupancy rate.

The hotel is owned by the Beverly Hills-based Wrather Corp., which operates the Spruce Goose and Queen Mary attractions in Long Beach.

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Union organizers have taken note of the high costs and top quality and service which hoteliers stress.

“Here you have basically poor, Spanish-speaking maids whose families are living in crime-ridden neighborhoods who have worked for years making the Disneyland Hotel what it is today but who are barely getting $4 an hour,” Granfield said.

Food Costs Cited

Added Steven Beyer, another union official: “Yet, they have to pay $7 for a hamburger at lunch or $5 for an English muffin and coffee . . . .”

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“The disparity is that Orange County has nationally competitive services, and they do give good services; the Disneyland Hotel is a four-star hotel. And these other new hotels coming in here have the reputation for top-quality service. They’re getting the big conventions and the national meetings, but labor costs are very low compared to other large convention areas in the United States,” Beyer said.

Another factor now at work here is that the crush of new hotels has created a “highly competitive” market, said Kinkade, adding that Orange County’s average daily occupancy rate has slid from 71.4% in 1983 to “several” percentage points below 1984’s 66.7%.

To remain competitive, industry experts said, in-house services, including a range of selling points, from the smile of a friendly waitress to the fine china in a hotel restaurant, must be assessed and, if needed, enhanced.

To do that, labor costs must be kept in check.

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“It’s not impossible to run a fine hotel with union representation and make a profit,” said Joseph E. Herman, Disneyland Hotel’s legal counsel. He is with the Los Angeles law firm of Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather & Geraldson, considered one of the nation’s leading management law firms.

Good management is essential, noted Herman and other industry spokesmen.

Hotel’s Offer

The current labor trouble escalated when members began demonstrating March 1 after turning down a four-year contract offer that called for wage increases averaging about 28.5% over the life of the pact.

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The hotel’s offer included no increases for food-service employees and raises of up to 30 cents an hour for other employees. Top hourly wages are $3.90 for waitresses and busboys, $4.90 for maids and more than $6 for cooks. The union is asking for raises ranging from 30 to 60 cents an hour.

The biggest obstacle is management’s push for a contract clause that would pay employees the same wage rate as other, smaller hotels where the union is the bargaining agent.

What rankles union officials is that despite the growth of the hotel industry in Orange County, workers here are paid less than their counterparts in other cities around the country. They point to the large concentration of immigrant workers here who are hard-working, but who are sometimes exploited because of the language barrier or immigration status.

Said Granfield: “You saw a little bit of the future when, on our March 1 deadline, management brought in their proposed strikebreakers. In housekeeping, they brought in about 20 Vietnamese, although they never had any Vietnamese women before. They’re quick to pit one ethnic or language group against another.”

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Question of Losing Jobs

Why doesn’t the union strike?

Because the hotel currently has the upper hand, said veteran union members. Said Jim McDevitt, a 30-year veteran bellman: “Hey, the hotel was ready to replace all of us the day after the contract expired. What would we have gained? Nothing, except losing our jobs.”

Indeed, the hotel was ready to bring in 900 new employees the day after the contract expired. But McDevitt said the union has managed to turn that around, giving members a chance to convince the new employees that “our union isn’t such a bad thing after all.”

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Since March 1, the union has been promoting a boycott of the hotel, which relies heavily on convention and tourist trade. Additionally, tensions have flared during picketing and demonstrations that have ringed the huge hotel and the private homes of the hotel’s executives.

The boycott is an effort to force management back to the bargaining table, union officials said. However, a hotel spokesman said the boycott has had little, if any impact.

Ric Morris, a hotel spokesman, said the union is trying to use its Latino members as pawns to play a high-stakes game.

“The reason they can’t strike is they can’t get 200 people to go out and strike. I don’t think a union can come between the relationship that many loyal employees have with this hotel. But they are using negotiations here to help create a foothold in the union’s campaign to organize at other hotels,” he said.

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Chavez Voices Support

“With six outside organizers sent here by the international union to direct the strike, we can’t help but believe they think it is very important to make an example of our hotel,” he said.

Last week, the union received a boost when labor leader Cesar Chavez spoke in support of the boycott after joining pickets denouncing the hotel as unfair.

Chavez said he was happy to be in Orange County, supporting many hotel workers who are Mexican-American.

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For Engracia Gabaldon, Chavez’s visit was a special treat. “Look. He autographed this piece of paper. And I kissed him many times,” she said exuberantly.

She said that after 14 years with the hotel, she makes $5.46 an hour, yet, “I do the work of three people. Ask my managers; they know I do this.”

Then in a pensive moment, she said: “You know, when I started work here I never wanted to join a union. But the managers said I had to. Now, they’re telling me to quit the union. But I won’t.”


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