Column: On the picket line, a telling alliance between hotel workers and screenwriters

Members of Unite Here! Local 11 hotel workers union and members of the Writers Guild of America picket together
Members of Unite Here! Local 11 hotel workers union and members of the Writers Guild of America picket together outside the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica on Thursday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Oh, it was noisy Thursday afternoon outside the Fairmont Miramar in Santa Monica, as more than 200 protesters marched near the entrance.

Most were members of Unite Here Local 11, the union that represents more than 30,000 hospitality workers across Southern California and Arizona. Since July, thousands have participated in rolling strikes across Orange and Los Angeles counties, seeking contracts that would increase their pay and health benefits and address the ever-escalating cost of living in Southern California.

Fairmont Miramar workers banged on pots and buckets and drums of the snare and bass variety. They twirled wooden ratchets and batted plastic hand clappers emblazoned with the Unite Here logo. Organizers on bullhorns spread out about every 50 feet of the picket line to scream out chants that everyone returned even louder.


The loudest message, though, came in the form of who else appeared: about 50 members of the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA.

The two Hollywood unions are also on strike — the Writers Guild since May, SAG-AFTRA as of Friday. Hollywood creatives showing up to support hotel workers seems like an odd pairing at best, or performative politics. The differences between the two groups were immediately evident at the Fairmont.

Most of the Unite Here members were Latino and spoke to one another in Spanish; most of the SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild members were not, and didn’t. Screenwriters and actors also want higher pay, except their wage scale is markedly different. The minimum amount for a television script and story that runs half an hour, for instance, is $28,403, along with a guaranteed salary if a writer is on staff. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles City Council is mulling a proposal to increase the minimum wage for hotel and airport workers to $25 an hour, which translates to $52,000 a year for a full-time employee.

Such differences didn’t matter at the Fairmont Miramar. The dozen or so people I talked to spoke of the same struggles, the same fears, seethed the same anger and vowed the same resistance against their bosses.


Writers Guild at Fairmont Miramar
Members of the Writers Guild of America picket outside the Fairmont Miramar in Santa Monica. They were joining an action organized by Unite Here Local 11, which represents the hotel’s workers.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“There’s a perception that we have little in common, but we’re both fighting for our future,” said playwright Sam Chanse. She wore a bright blue Writers Guild T-shirt and asked a Unite Here member for a picket sign. “Showing up in person is the best way to show force for each other.”


Fairmont Miramar housekeeper Lili Hernandez took a break from leading chants to greet Writers Guild members that showed up late. “You would never imagine they have the same struggles as us — they’re from the movies!” said the East Hollywood resident. “But it turns out we’re in the same boat. We need to make sure we don’t sink.”

Michigan native Brett Nichols has worked as a bellman at the Fairmont Miramar for nine years, which has paid the bills as he pursues his acting career. Seeing his two unions fighting side by side “is overwhelming in a positive way. It’s tremendous to see. There’s an awakening and awareness that’s growing.”

About half of the big strikes in the U.S. this year have taken place in California, with the most consequential centered in Los Angeles — now including the strike announced by SAG-AFTRA.

July 13, 2023

What happened at the Fairmont Miramar was the type of coalition-building across ethnic, class and geographic lines that politicians constantly preach but rarely achieve, and that Los Angeles only truly sees at Dodgers games. It’s one of those moments that can transform a region — if it continues.

“At this point, it’s the most universal story to strike, right?” said Writers Guild strike captain Jonterri Gadson. She admitted to being only vaguely familiar with Unite Here’s issues until recently, but “it clicked as soon as they showed up for us. It’s clicking for a lot of us.”

“The Simpsons” writer Cesar Mazariegos arrived with five of his colleagues. He was raised by a Teamster father and a mother who cleaned houses to “let me follow my silly little dreams.” Mazariegos vowed to march at more Unite Here rallies until their strike is settled, even if the Writers Guild’s strike finishes first.

“Am I going to just turn around and leave,” Mazariegos said, “when it’s all good for me? No, the billionaires are billion-ating, and we’re all here trying to squeeze it out.”

Members of Unite Here Local 11 and members of the Writers Guild of America picket together
Members of Unite Here Local 11 and members of the Writers Guild of America picket together outside the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The alliance between blue-collar service workers and their Hollywood white-collar cousins is the culmination of planning and outreach between union leaders that goes back years but really took off during the pandemic, according to Unite Here Co-President Kurt Petersen: “Hollywood and tourism — they’re the bulwark of Los Angeles, and our two industries got wiped out while our employers took advantage and want more.”

Petersen cast Unite Here and the Writers Guild as the canaries in the coal mine for the city’s health.

“People know that it’s extraordinarily hard to afford to live in this city for hotel workers,” he said. “But when it hits Hollywood people, that means we’re all in the fight for our lives.”

Ada Briceño, Susan Minato and Kurt Petersen are co-presidents of Unite Here Local 11. It’s believed to be the only such power-sharing arrangement in U.S. labor history.

July 7, 2023

One key early battle that solidified the partnership happened at the Chateau Marmont. The famed Sunset Strip hotel fired its staff in the early months of the pandemic and then announced it would become a members-only resort. Unite Here organized pickets in front of the Chateau Marmont for two years, including during an Oscars after-party hosted by Jay-Z and Beyoncé.

Eventually, both the Writers Guild and SAG-AFTRA asked members not to cross the picket line at Chateau Marmont. It’s now reopened to the public and staffed by Unite Here members.


“We would not have won Chateau Marmont without WGA and SAG-AFTRA,” Petersen said. “We owe them an enormous debt.”

The relationship goes back even further, said screenwriter Stephen Engel, an alum of classic sitcoms like “Mad About You” and “The Big Bang Theory.” He remembered how Unite Here and Service Employees International Union members walked alongside him and his colleagues during the last Hollywood writer’s strike, in 2007.

“You don’t forget gestures like that, and you realize who we really are,” Engel said while walking toward the Fairmont Miramar protest. “We type, they serve guests. We’re both workers, and we’re both equally screwed.”

Picket signs Fairmont Miramar
Picket signs representing the Writers Guild of America, IATSE, and Unite Here at a protest in front of the Fairmont Miramar in Santa Monica. The three unions have increasingly coordinated protests and strategies in recent years.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The crowd kept getting bigger and bigger as the sun began to set. Commuters joined the cacophony with their honks and screams. Really, the only people who stayed silent were the hotel’s suited security guards, whose stern faces said enough.

Nicole Miller stood and watched at one end of the picket line. She’s the president of an International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees chapter that represents workers at Universal Studios, where Unite Here also has members under a separate agreement. Her union has worked without a contract since January. Unite Here leaders told Miller about wins they were able to achieve at Dodger Stadium and elsewhere and convinced her to push harder — together.


“We have been vocal in the past, but it has reached a turning point,” Miller said, before pointing at the pins on her black polo shirt. One was a raised fist holding a wad of cash with the slogan “No More Poverty Wages.” Another was an illustration of two hands clasped together, reading “5,000 Strong.”

Both featured the logos of her IATSE local and Unite Here.

“The 5,000 figure is wrong,” Miller said. “We’re now at 6,000.”