IN A CITY pathologically resistant to its history and permanently enamored of its future, Don Wilson is trying to bridge the gap.
There are many gaps in the L.A. worldview, but this one’s bigger than most. Remember the massive immigrant rights movement? One of the issues it raised, however briefly, was the effect immigration had on black employment and whether there was anything to be done about it. This complicated issue was often reduced to a single question: Are they taking our jobs?
This is where Wilson comes in. Wilson has been a hotel chef for 31 years, 27 of them at the Century Plaza Hotel. Over those three decades, he has seen the workforce go from substantially African American to overwhelmingly Latino. Last year, he took a leave of absence to work on the diversity issue for his union, Unite Here. A couple of weeks ago, the work paid off when the union signed a new contract with the Beverly Hilton that encourages the hotel to employ more African Americans.
The ethnic-specific requirement is believed to be a first among union contracts, and one that Wilson and his union hope will fuel a larger effort to bring blacks back into the hospitality business. Hotel managers “just stopped hiring us,” said Wilson, 50, with characteristic bluntness. “We were locked out of the industry, especially the culinary arts. They went to an immigrant workforce that they figured had a docile mentality and that wouldn’t put up any resistance. But now we’re taking a stand.”
Though historic, the contract doesn’t go as far as setting hiring goals -- say, 10% of the workforce, or about the same as the percentage of African Americans in the city’s population. Instead, the contract sets up a committee made up of hotel, union and community representatives to monitor black outreach and recruitment efforts; it also calls for an ombudsman.
What’s most significant about the clause, however, is that it’s a confirmation of what even the most progressive people have long been loath to admit: Immigration is one of several factors that contribute to the ongoing crisis of black employment.
That doesn’t mean blacks and Latinos are sworn enemies, as the media tend to conclude. To the contrary, the fact that a Latino-dominated service-sector union is attempting to adjust numbers that are frankly imbalanced is evidence that it is concerned about economically challenged African Americans in South L.A. and elsewhere. Even if the concern is purely political, it’s the action that matters, particularly if it results in decent jobs for working-class blacks who have seen decent jobs in their communities evaporate over the last couple of decades.
One irony among several is that Unite Here is pushing to share the bounty of its union activism -- better wages, greater health coverage -- with African Americans who enjoyed those benefits until an influx of immigrants allowed hotels to cut loose workers they viewed as too expensive and, well, too activist. The same thing happened around the same time when downtown building owners decided to replace a chiefly black janitorial staff with a cheaper immigrant staff, which later fought to regain the benefits enjoyed by their black predecessors.
Wilson is not surprised that this issue has come full circle. “Blacks have a history of standing up for our rights,” he said. “I’ve seen immigrants regularly do the work of two and three people. We’re not going to do that. Nobody should do that. That’s not being lazy, that’s being tired. There’s a difference.”
Los Angeles County Federation of Labor leader Maria Elena Durazo says the plan is to get the black recruitment clause in all 25 of Unite Here’s contracts with local hotels, most of which expire at the end of next month. She says black leaders had been raising concerns about the dearth of black employees in hotel chains -- in management positions, not necessarily in service jobs. “It’s really important to set an example and show that immigrants are not opposed to African Americans,” she said. “We all believe in nondiscrimination. Now we have to get results.”
Wilson agrees. After years of displacement, he says, blacks now find themselves in a painful predicament. Like any good Angeleno, though, Wilson is focused on the future. He hopes his union will someday make good on a pledge to establish a culinary institute similar to one in Las Vegas. “But that’s long range,” he said brusquely. “First things first.”