Labor Protest Targets Airport-Area Hotels

Times Staff Writer

About 300 people protesting the treatment of immigrant workers by hotels near Los Angeles International Airport were arrested Thursday night during two coordinated sit-ins in the middle of Century Boulevard east of the airport.

The arrests, which were planned in recent weeks with the cooperation of the Los Angeles Police Department, came after a short march of more than 2,000 people that closed Century Boulevard for three hours.

One group of about 170 people who had agreed in advance to be arrested sat down in front of the Hilton Los Angeles Airport just before 6 p.m. A smaller group sat down in front of the Westin Hotel to the east. In each spot, hundreds of marchers stood on the sidewalk, cheered, and chanted slogans such as “Si Se Puede,” “Boycott Hilton” and “No Justice, No Peace” along with the protesters in the street.

Those arrested had agreed in writing to be detained, and they offered no resistance as they were placed in plastic handcuffs and loaded onto buses for the ride to jail. Many were smiling as they were taken away.

Police, noting the number of arrests, called the event the largest civil disobedience in Los Angeles in a generation and one of the largest in the city’s history. The protest saw more arrests than any labor action in 60 years.


“I am happy, as happy as I’ve ever been,” said Daniel Briones, a cook at the Glendale Hilton, as he sat in the middle of the street and prepared to be arrested for the first time in his life. “I’m doing this for my colleagues in the hotels down here.”

Hotel workers from the Century Boulevard corridor marched but did not take part in the sit-ins because of fears that they could be fired for being arrested in front of hotels where they work. They spoke about low wages. Housekeepers in area hotels make less than $11 an hour, and waiters in hotel restaurants make minimum wage plus tips.

The protest was part of a long-standing drive by Unite Here, which represents hotel workers, to unionize workers at 13 hotels in the Century corridor.

Among the arrested were several clergy members, college students bused in for the occasion, immigrant activists, leaders of many of the region’s largest unions, three state legislators -- Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley) and Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) -- and two city councilmen -- Ed Reyes and Jose Huizar.

Airport and hotel officials said the protest had a negligible effect. Harold Johnson, an LAX spokesman, said no flights were delayed and authorities had rerouted traffic so passengers could enter the airport.

A spokesman for Westin said the hotel received no complaints from customers. The LAX Hilton’s statement criticized the union for the protest, adding that the hotel was proud of its treatment of workers.

It was a boisterous but peaceful scene, with an only-in-Los-Angeles flavor. Hundreds of marchers recorded the event with video and digital cameras; about two dozen people identified themselves as documentary filmmakers.

And in typical L.A. fashion, not everyone who pledged to come showed up; 400 people had pledged to be arrested.

Some travelers trying to reach the airport abandoned their cabs and walked with their suitcases up Century Boulevard.

Juan Samanigo, a flower importer from Ecuador, missed his flight to Miami, the first leg of a trip back home to Quito, because he could not return his rental car. He planned to catch a red-eye and return home a day late.

“Why don’t they protest in the hotel or the hotel garage instead of in the street where it affects travelers?” he asked.

Ian Steven, 43, a British management consultant who lives in San Francisco, also missed his flight while trying to return a car. He expressed frustration with both sides. He had to buy a ticket on a new flight and said he would send the bill to the union. “And Hilton and Westin, I’m going to avoid them as a result.”