Airport hotels ordered to pay a ‘living wage’

Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles City Council voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to require hotels near Los Angeles International Airport to pay their workers wages and benefits equal to $10.64 per hour -- the first time that the city has demanded such a “living wage” from businesses that have no direct financial relationship with the government.

In voting 11 to 3 for the measure, council members gave organized labor a victory and demonstrated anew that Los Angeles -- long known for the power of business interests and the weakness of its labor unions -- has become a place where the concerns of workers have the upper hand.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 17, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 17, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Living wage: A photo caption in Thursday’s Section A with an article about the Los Angeles City Council’s vote on a “living wage” measure for workers at hotels near Los Angeles International Airport said an unidentified man in the foreground was a hotel worker; he was a member of the audience.

Living wage laws have been adopted in more than 120 cities to ensure that employees of companies contracting with the government receive pay that will keep them out of poverty. But only half a dozen cities -- among them union-friendly places such as Berkeley, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. -- have applied such laws to private employers with no financial relationship with the city government. To date, such laws have withstood legal challenges.


“This is a very stark and significant moment for all of us,” said City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes the airport-area hotels and who actively supported the ordinance.

Business leaders said the change would hurt the city’s image with investors and ultimately its economy. While the ordinance is limited to hotel workers near LAX, the labor movement in Los Angeles and nationwide has targeted other service industries such as restaurants and retail for union organizing.

Council members said that because the hotels benefit from their proximity to a public facility -- the airport -- the city has a strong interest in ensuring the rights of workers. But business leaders, who fear similar reasoning could apply to businesses near the port and other public entities, say they will ask voters to overturn the new ordinance.

“You’d be naive to believe that this starts and stops with 12 hotels,” said Gary Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. “If you really care” about business, “why would you tell business that Big Brother is looking over their shoulder?”

After the vote, about 100 hotel workers who filled most of the seats in the council chamber began a rhythmic clap familiar in the city’s union halls and chanted “Si se puede” (“Yes, we can.”)

“It’s about time there’s a City Council that stands for the workers and not for the bigger companies,” said Lorena Lopez, a union organizer who works with the airport-area hotel employees.


Wednesday’s vote advances the ordinance but does not make it law. A vote to do that is scheduled next week, but both labor and business leaders said they consider final approval a formality. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has said he would sign the measure.

The new law will thrust the city government into the battle to organize airport-area hotel workers, one of the highest-profile and contentious fights in the country. As part of a nationwide organizing effort, Unite Here, the union that represents hotel workers, has spent more than a year organizing approximately 3,500 low-wage workers at a dozen hotels near LAX, the largest group of nonunion workers that Unite Here is trying to organize.

The union has demanded that the hotels recognize it as the bargaining representative of the workers based on union cards signed by hotel employees. The hotels have aggressively fought that effort, and demanded that workers submit to secret balloting.

The ordinance dovetails with the union’s strategy of putting public pressure on the hotels to recognize the union and begin bargaining. The ordinance’s sponsor, Councilwoman Janice Hahn, has participated in union actions outside the hotels, and two council members were among about 300 people arrested in September as part of a civil disobedience action designed to spotlight working conditions at the hotels.

UCLA professor Ruth Milkman, author of “L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the Labor Movement,” said of the council vote: “The fact that it’s so closely tied to a organizing campaign is new in L.A.”

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at UC Santa Barbara, called the vote “a tribute to the power of the immigrant-based Los Angeles labor movement.”

Faced with fierce opposition from the business community, some council members supported the measure but tried to downplay its effect. A motion passed unanimously to emphasize that the ordinance is strictly limited to airport-area hotels. And supporters, including Hahn, also maintained that the vote was an attempt to help working people and not boost the union.

But language in the measure in effect urges the hotels to recognize the union and engage in collective bargaining with members. The ordinance offers a choice: The hotels must pay a city-mandated living wage of $10.64 -- unless they reach a collectively bargained agreement with their employees. It is unclear how many workers would benefit from the law, or how much it would cost the hotels.

Labor officials estimated that 40% to 60% of the workers at the hotels make less than the “living wage,” but representatives of the hotels say that some of those workers, with tips, already exceed that standard. Gerry F. Miller, the city’s chief legislative analyst, said his office examined wage data from labor and the hotels but there was not enough information to reach independent conclusions.

Business groups said they plan to gather signatures in a bid to put the matter before voters. If they succeed, the law could not take effect until there is a public vote on a referendum, which would not occur before May.

Once the mayor signs the measure, opponents would have 30 days to gather the signatures of 49,308 voters.

Hotel operators complained that the city was selectively targeting their strip and hinted at a legal challenge funded by a broad coalition of businesses if the referendum is unsuccessful.

“The business organizations in Los Angeles are very upset about this and very concerned,” said Arnie Berghoff, a hotel lobbyist. “Why in the world is this city telling private businesses on private property how to do business?”

Councilmen Bernard C. Parks, Greig Smith and Dennis Zine voted against the living wage ordinance. Parks alone voted against two related ordinances, one that would provide job protections to hotel workers during ownership changes and another that would guarantee to workers the service charges collected during hotel banquets.

Parks aggressively questioned James Elmendorf, senior policy analyst at the labor-affiliated Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, and George Kieffer, a prominent lawyer who has been hired by the hotels to fight it.

Kieffer told the council that hotels were being singled out without any rational basis. “You might as well adapt the living wage for the entire city,” he said in frustration, a statement that was applauded by some hotel workers.