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Union Trying to Organize Hilton at LAX Seeks Boycott Over Tactics

Times Staff Writer

A hotel workers’ union is calling today for a boycott of the Hilton Los Angeles Airport, the latest salvo in a contentious year of labor disputes at hotels across the country.

Contracts have expired at hotels in several major cities, with workers in San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago, Honolulu and Monterey, Calif., authorizing union negotiators to call a strike. In Los Angeles, a contract covering more than 5,000 workers at 25 hotels expires in November.

Separately, members of Unite Here Local 11 have been aggressively organizing at the Hilton LAX. Last week, the union filed an unfair labor practices charge accusing hotel managers of disciplining and harassing pro-union employees, which hotel management vehemently denied.

The hotel -- the second-largest in the county with 1,234 rooms -- is one of 13 airport-area hotels that aren’t unionized. The union will hold a news conference today at the Hilton LAX, urging people not to eat, meet or sleep at the hotel until it ends the “harassment and intimidation” of workers. A similar boycott began in April at the Glendale Hilton, which is owned by a different Hilton franchisee.

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Two groups, the California Teachers Assn. and the Jubilee Ministry of the National Episcopal Church, have already canceled events at the Hilton LAX.

The teachers’ union holds quarterly weekend conferences at the Hilton LAX that draw 800 people each and bring in about $1 million a year. The union will meet instead in October at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown L.A.

“As soon as the Hilton solves this dispute with their employees, we are ready to return,” said board member Bonnie Shatun, a second-grade teacher in Burbank. “Our teachers believe that everyone has the right to organize. For employees to be denied that right is something that is a very serious problem for us.”

When the teachers met at the Hilton LAX in June, Shatun said, they witnessed harassment firsthand.

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In one case, a worker who spoke at the teachers’ conference received a letter of reprimand. In another, some workers were barred from entering the hotel to speak to the teachers and actor Jimmy Smits, who was at the meeting. Smits later met with the workers outside the hotel, Shatun said.

The church group pulled its upcoming conference, losing several thousand dollars in deposits, said the Rev. Dick Gillett, minister of social justice for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. Gillett, also speaking on behalf of the national organization, said the church recently passed a resolution at its convention to contract solely with union hotels or those that pay local prevailing wages.

“We couldn’t imagine that we would be holding a meeting there in the midst of bad worker treatment and a boycott,” said Gillett, adding that the Sept. 14-17 conference had been moved to the Wilshire Grand Hotel.

Ana Mendez, an on-call banquet worker, said her shifts had been cut dramatically since she became a union organizer. She used to work 16 to 24 hours a week.

“Now, I work once a week or sometimes I have no shifts during the week,” Mendez said. “And it’s busy. They call agency workers, but they don’t use their on-call people. They’re retaliating.”

The Glendale Hilton and Hilton LAX aren’t owned by Hilton Hotels Corp. Hilton referred questions to the hotels.

Hilton LAX General Manager Grant Coonley, who has denied harassing workers, said: “It’s unfortunate, but the cost is to the employees. The less business I have is the less hours they can work or the less tips that they can receive.”

Although he acknowledged that the teachers’ union represented a “sizable account,” Coonley didn’t believe the boycott would have a lasting effect. “It’s just theatrics, another one of their tactics.”

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LA Inc., the city’s convention and visitors bureau, said continued labor unrest at airport hotels could be damaging and expensive.

And across town, the Glendale Hilton has lost more than $200,000 in business that was booked, then canceled, union officials said. Hotel managers didn’t return a call for comment.

Last summer, other Los Angeles area hotels suffered $13 million in losses during an eight-month boycott, according to the union. In San Francisco, a long-running boycott has cost the tourism industry $60 million.

“The Hilton LAX is a critical element in the city’s ability to woo large group business,” said Michael Collins, LA Inc.'s, executive vice president.

Besides booked business that is withdrawn, other organizations may choose to avoid the hotel -- or Los Angeles -- altogether, Collins said. “Nobody really likes to book group business at a time when there is a labor dispute.”


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