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Pact Allows Workers at Santa Monica Hotel to Unionize

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Times Staff Writer

Two and a half years after the national hotel workers union launched an aggressive organizing campaign on the Santa Monica beachfront, its first major target has agreed to lay down arms and allow workers to sign union cards.

The so-called neutrality pact announced Thursday by Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel was a watershed for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, whose organizers used street theater and pressure from community and political allies in the face of strong opposition from the hotel.

“It shows that it can be done and ought to be done,” said Kurt Peterson, organizing director for HERE Local 11, who said the union already is talking to workers at the nearby Doubletree and Sheraton Four-Points hotels.

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“I hope the rest of the hotels in Santa Monica see there’s a road to fight and there’s a road to work out a process that’s fair.... We’re going to end up there anyway, so why bother fighting?”

John Thacker, general manager at Loews for the past year, said he and the hotel’s New York-based ownership group “concluded that it would be in everybody’s best interest to get some of this animosity behind us and expedite the process of making a decision.”

The hotel, which has struggled with low occupancy rates for a year and a half because of slumping tourism, lost some group bookings because of the union campaign, Thacker said.

In a memo to employees, Thacker and Peterson said, “the hotel and the union have agreed to end our previous adversarial relationship and replace it with one of mutual respect.”

The hotel agreed to “adopt a neutral and positive position” on unionization and give organizers access to the employee cafeteria, while the union promised “to end all marching, picketing and demonstrations directed at the hotel.”

Employees will begin signing union cards in early January. If more than 50% of the hotel’s 200 nonmanagement workers sign cards, as is expected, the hotel will recognize the union and begin contract negotiations.

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In an unusual concession, the hotel also agreed to allow an arbitrator to set terms of a first contract if one is not reached within six months.

With funding from its national offices, the union local launched a high-profile campaign in May 2000 to organize the Santa Monica beach zone, which was mostly nonunion at the time. Since then, it has revived a dormant union at the Fairmont-Miramar and organized workers at the Viceroy hotel, formerly known as the Pacific Shores.

But Loews was the main target. The campaign took on political implications during the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles when a key Democratic fund-raising group moved out of the hotel to unionized quarters. Jonathan Tisch, chairman of the Loews hotel chain, was a friend and major contributor to Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.

“It’s a huge milestone,” Peterson said. “Now out of the nine major hotels, two are union and one seems to be headed that way.”

“I’m happy,” said hotel housekeeper Celia Talavera, an outspoken union advocate since the campaign began. Talavera, who earns $10 an hour, said she hoped a union contract would bring guaranteed employment and lower health insurance costs.

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