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Hotel Union Must Use Translator, Court Rules

Times Staff Writer

In a decision that could have wide-ranging implications for minority participation in labor unions, a federal appeals court has ruled that Southern California’s largest hotel workers’ union must provide Spanish translations at its meetings.

Ruling that Latino workers’ most fundamental representation rights are jeopardized when they cannot participate in union policy discussions, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court order requiring Spanish translations for even the most routine union business meetings.

“If union members cannot understand the discussion taking place at the membership meetings, they cannot be expected to make informed nomination and voting decisions. Thus, the practical effect of the union’s non-translation rule is to restrict not only participation rights, but voting rights as well,” Judge J. Blaine Anderson wrote for the court majority.

The decision was directed at the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union, Local 11, nearly half of whose 16,000 members speak no English. But lawyers in the case said it is likely to have a broad effect on the ability of Latinos, Asians and other minority members throughout the Southwest who may have been barred from active union membership by language barriers.

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Opportunity Has Arisen

“For Hispanics, the decision creates an opportunity for greater participation in organized labor,” said Arturo Morales, attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which filed the suit on behalf of the union’s Spanish-speaking members.

“A greater proportion of the Hispanic community is in the working class and working in industries where unions are active. A greater voice in organized labor will mean a greater chance for Hispanics to affect the conditions in their workplaces,” Morales said.

Attorneys for the Asian Law Caucus, which filed briefs in support of the hotel workers’ union, said the decision is also likely to provide new impetus to accommodate the languages of the growing number of Asians in the work force--workers who may speak a variety of languages other than English.

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For the hotel workers’ union, the translation debate grew out of years of unrest between the union’s long-entrenched Anglo leadership and its growing Latino membership--a situation that culminated last month with a takeover by the parent international union.

While the former union leadership provided translation services for crucial membership meetings in which contracts or officer nominations were discussed, regular monthly business meetings, usually attended by only 50 to 75 members, were conducted in English only.

Union members attending the meetings twice voted against hiring Spanish translators. Some argued that minority members should simply learn English, or hire their own translators. Others said it would disrupt meetings to have to repeat all discussion for Spanish-speaking members, who frequently did not attend routine business meetings anyway.

Not Reason Enough

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But Anderson, joined by Judge William C. Canby Jr., rejected those arguments. “While translation may extend the time necessary to complete the business addressed at a given meeting, lack of expediency is not a sufficient justification,” the court ruled.

“Similarly, that the monthly meetings are not always well attended by the union members is also an insufficient justification for not translating. Lack of attendance by Spanish-speaking members may be the result of failure to provide translation, since union members cannot be expected to consistently attend and take part in meetings in which they are unable to understand the discussion.”

Judge Jerome Farris dissented from the majority, arguing that federal labor law guarantees for equal participation and voting privileges on the part of all union members do not mean unions must go to the expense of hiring translators.

“I would conclude that the burden placed upon the exercise of democratic rights of all members by the practical requirements of simultaneous translation would threaten the ability of the union to continue as an institution,” Farris wrote.

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“The non-English-speaking members of the union are not precluded from taking English courses and providing their own simultaneous translator in the interim.”

Lawyers for a variety of other major Southland labor organizations expressed doubts that the decision would have a wide immediate impact, primarily because many unions with substantial minority membership are already providing translation services--primarily through election of bilingual union leadership.

“My guess is, it isn’t going to change unions’ practice much at all, because when unions are functioning properly, they are democratic institutions which conduct their business in a democratic fashion, including recognizing the right of people to know what’s going on,” said attorney Anthony R. Segall, who represents the Southern California District Council of Laborers and a number of local affiliates.

“Where you have a substantial membership that speaks Spanish, it’s in the best interests of the union to have proper translators there, because that’s the best way to effectively conduct business,” said Leo Geffner, lawyer for the Service Employees International union.

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The hotel union’s own present leadership, since taken under trusteeship by the parent union last month, has already taken steps to improve minority participation by appointing new Latino union officers and providing a wide range of bilingual services, though monthly meetings have been temporarily suspended as a result of the takeover.


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