Union's Fast-Track Organizing Process Successful at Hotel in Santa Monica

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Using a fast-track technique that is giving labor an organizing edge, workers at a Santa Monica hotel have joined a union just by signing pledge cards.

The so-called card check process used at Pacific Shores Hotel, and announced with fanfare by labor leaders Wednesday evening, bypassed the lengthy federal election process that union organizers say is stacked against them.

Unions lose about half of National Labor Relations Board elections, while unionization rates are higher than 80% when employers agree to recognize pledge cards.

Although the win covers fewer than 100 employees, it is significant for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, which last year launched a costly campaign to organize hotels in Santa Monica and downtown Los Angeles. Pacific Shores is the first victory in that campaign, and the first hotel in Santa Monica to become unionized in more than 50 years.

"We're holding this out as an example, and hope that other hotels will follow," said Kurt Peterson, organizing director for HERE Local 814. "We hope they'll see that it's not only the right thing to do morally, it also is the smart thing to do."

The pledge card method has always been allowed under federal law, if employers agree, but unions have just recently begun to use it aggressively. Three unions--representing janitors, communications workers and hotel workers--have been particularly successful.

"It is absolutely growing. Every union is looking at card check now," said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a sociologist at Cornell University who studies labor issues. The traditional NLRB process often leads to a lengthy fight between workers who want to unionize and employers determined to keep out the union, Bronfenbrenner said.

In the card check process, an employer usually pledges to remain neutral during the campaign, and union organizers have weeks or months to gather signatures.

Few employers agree to such a pledge without pressure. Some unions, during contract negotiations, insist that employers use the card process to unionize nonunion parts of the company, or for future employees in the event of mergers or expansions. Both issues were a major sticking point in the strike by Communications Workers of America against Verizon in the spring.

Negotiators in the Justice for Janitors campaign routinely insist that janitorial contractors who employ their members recognize the card check agreements in other cities or counties. For example, as a result of the janitorial contract signed in Los Angeles in the spring, the service workers union has already signed 2,000 new janitors in Orange County.

"In our industry, it's become the standard," said Stephen Lerner, who directs the janitors campaign for the Service Employees International Union. "I think there's a sense among employers that the union's going to ultimately win anyway, so spending time and money to drag it out isn't in their interest."

The liberal Santa Monica City Council played an important role at Pacific Shores. The hotel sits on city property and was recently purchased by Los Angeles-based Elkor Hospitality Group, which plans major renovations. As part of its new lease with the city, Elkor agreed to guarantee "labor peace" and shortly thereafter, signed a card check agreement with the union, according to Councilman Paul Rosenstein. Hotel operators did not return calls.

The card check approach for hotels was honed 14 years ago in Las Vegas after a divisive citywide strike and has since become the standard for new hotels in that city as well as in New York, San Francisco, Boston and San Jose.

"I would guess we probably have more than 50 card check agreements in effect now for hotels in the development process in a number of important cities," said John Wilhelm, HERE president. Los Angeles is not among those hot spots, although HERE organizers hope that is about to change.

"Los Angeles has staked a good part of its future on the hospitality and tourism industry," Wilhelm said. "Historically, it has not had a reputation of being particularly outstanding in the area of customer service. But I think there is beginning to be a recognition that there is a lesson to be learned from Las Vegas, San Francisco and Boston, that the low-wage, no-benefit, high-turnover route maybe isn't fine in terms of customer relations or communities."

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