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Union, Hotels Avert Strike, Lockout

Times Staff Writer

In a deal brokered by Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa, hotel operators and union leaders tentatively agreed on a new contract Saturday, narrowly averting a lockout of union workers at seven major Los Angeles hotels.

The agreement to end a 14-month dispute between Unite Here Local 11 and the Los Angeles Hotel Employer’s Council was signed at 4:55 a.m., five minutes before 2,500 union workers were to be locked out of their jobs in retaliation for a strike called Thursday against one of the council’s hotels.

Villaraigosa, in his first major effort at managing the city he will head beginning July 1, was credited by both sides for bringing the long-standing dispute to a close.

“It would have been horrible for Los Angeles’ economy and its image,” Villaraigosa said of the lockout.

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The strike by 120 workers against the Hyatt hotel on the Sunset Strip, known as the “rock and roll hotel” because of its music industry clientele, was over allegations of unfair labor practices. Other hotels involved in the contract talks are the Westin Century Plaza, Sheraton Universal, Regent Beverly Wilshire, Westin Bonaventure, Millennium Biltmore and Wilshire Grand.

The proposed contract would expire Nov. 30, 2006, a key victory for union leaders who have insisted that their pact should expire about the same time as union contracts with hotel operators in other major cities.

The union has been calling on union-friendly groups to boycott the Los Angeles hotels since the previous contract expired in June 2004.

If approved, the new pact would give hourly employees who do not receive tips a 65-cents-an-hour raise over the life of the contract, which is retroactive to the expiration of the old contract.

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Workers who are paid minimum wage plus tips will receive extra pay during their vacations, which will rise to double their regular hourly wage as of April 16, 2006.

The pact also requires employers to increase healthcare payments by 25 cents an hour to keep health insurance free to the employees, said Tom Walsh, Local 11 secretary-treasurer.

The agreement must be ratified by union workers and hotel management and is still subject to resolution of unfair labor claims each side has filed.

Spokesmen for both sides said they expected the labor claims to be settled and the new contract to be ratified early in the week.

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“The workers who have heard about it this morning are ecstatic,” Walsh said in a phone interview from union headquarters, with loud cheers ringing in the background. “They are happy that they are going to work with a contract and that the boycott is over, so that business that has been diverted to other cities for the last 14 months can come back to L.A.”

Brian Fitzgerald, president of the employer council and general manager of the Westin Bonaventure, said the hotel group “is pleased to have reached an accord with Local 11 that guarantees labor peace in L.A. through end of 2006. The agreement lays a very solid groundwork for reaching future labor contracts here in Los Angeles.”

The major stumbling block in negotiations was the union’s insistence that the contract expire in 2006. Hotel operators opposed that because they wanted a longer period between negotiations and because hotels’ contracts with unions in Toronto, New York, Boston, Chicago, Honolulu, Sacramento and Monterey also expire that year. Adding Los Angeles to the list would give the unions additional clout in negotiations.

“We are not seeking a national contract,” said Walsh, “but having common contract expirations gives us the opportunity to speak to the same companies that operate all across the country at the same time as other unions are negotiating.”

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Villaraigosa, a former union organizer and negotiator, was the mediator who brought the settlement about, Walsh said.

In the weeks since his election, Villaraigosa has been highly visible. After a series of fights at Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles that many students said were motivated by racial tensions between blacks and Latinos, the mayor-elect met with students and parents and called on the school board to make school safety a priority.

He also announced that he would exercise his right to become board chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority when he is sworn in as mayor on July 1, and he said he plans to use the post to tackle transit issues throughout Southern California.

Before he began his career in politics, Villaraigosa spent 15 years working for various labor unions, including Service Employees International Union Local 1000 and United Teachers Los Angeles. In addition to his professional ties to the labor movement, Villaraigosa was also a close friend of the late Miguel Contreras, head of the region’s most influential organized labor group, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

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Villaraigosa initially called together the two sides in the hotel dispute on Thursday. That meeting, at City Hall, lasted from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. Friday with neither side budging.

“One advantage of my years in labor is that I’ve done this a lot, and I know that oftentimes it’s the small things that prevent an agreement,” Villaraigosa said in a phone interview Saturday.

The Thursday night session involved Fitzgerald and union president Maria Elena Durazo, each talking to Villaraigosa separately and using him as go-between.

He called all seven of the hotel operators and the union’s entire negotiating staff back to City Hall at 10 p.m. Friday, determined, he said, to find grounds for mutual agreement.

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“We are entering the summer tourism season,” Villaraigosa said, “and to have a lockout at these seven hotels would have been an absolute disaster.” While the mayor-elect acted as mediator, Councilman Martin Ludlow, who is resigning his office to become head of the county labor federation, worked with the union representatives.

Villaraigosa shuttled back and forth between factions during Friday night’s seven-hour session while negotiators for each side stayed in separate rooms at City Hall, not meeting face to face until the tentative agreement was reached.

The breakthrough came, Villaraigosa said, when “both sides agreed that the lockout was not in the best interests of either side or of the city.”

Times staff writer Cara Mia DiMassa contributed to this report.

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