UNITE HERE is a union for hotel, restaurant, and hospitality workers. Hotel workers were historically represented by the Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE). From 2004-2010, HERE merged with the garment workers union UNITE to form UNITE HERE, then split off while retaining the name UNITE HERE. Southern California HERE locals #11 (Los Angeles), #814 (Santa Monica), #681 (Orange County) have merged into one local (#11). Currently, UNITE HERE local 11 represents workers in southern California and Arizona.
Supporters of the Raise L.A. coalition celebrate a vote of the Los Angeles city council in September 2014. Under the new law, large nonunion hotels in Los Angeles would raise their minimum wage to $15.37 by 2015. The campaign was part of a multi-year strategy led by LAANE and UNITE HERE Local 11 to establish a living wage across the hotel industry. Hotel industry representatives complained that high wages would lead to unemployment for workers. Worker advocates pointed to the large profits of corporate hotels and tax subsidies provide by the city as justification for the higher wage mandate. A representative of LAANE told the L.A. Times, “When employers are saying jobs are going to be lost, they’re really saying, ‘We want to continue to have high profits, so we’re going to fire people.'”
In September 2006, UNITE HERE Local 11 organized what was likely the largest act of civil disobedience in Los Angeles History. Union members, faith leaders, elected officials, and community allies joined in a large march to protest low wages at corporate hotels along Century Blvd outside of Los Angeles International Airport. The protest demonstrated the union’s ability to build a broad coalition in support of worker and immigrant right at a time when the union was negotiating with hotel employers over a new contract. Building on the themes of the spring 2006 immigrant rights marches, Century Blvd. marchers also evoked the civil rights movement. The slogan “I am a Human Being” echoed the famous message Memphis sanitation workers strikers of 1968, “I am a Man.” Over 300 demonstrators were arrested by Los Angeles Police and bused to Van Nuys for processing. Produced by UNITE-HERE Local 11, this film combines TV news footage, interviews, and street scenes to document the union’s mass action on Century Blvd.
For 14 months during 2004-2005, UNITE HERE Local 11 mounted an assertive campaign to win a contract with employers represented by the Los Angeles Hotel Employers Council. Building on the union’s rank-and-file strategy, hotel workers organized repeated delegations to articulate their demands to hotel management. The union also mobilized community allies and the labor movement in boycotts and public demonstrations. In addition to wage and benefit demands, the union called for a contract that would expire in the fall of 2006, bringing Los Angeles into alignment with other major cities in the U.S. and Canada. According to Local 11 secretary-treasurer Tom Walsh, “having common contract expirations gives us the opportunity to speak to the same companies that operate all across the country at the same time as other unions are negotiating.” An agreement between the union and employers was brokered by mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa shortly before employers were set to lock out 2,500 workers. This short film produced for Local 11 features interviews with union members and leaders as well as scenes from delegations and demonstrations during 2004-05.
Rocio Sáenz recalls the spirit of solidarity among unions in the early 1990s
I come from Mexico City, and I had a union there. Even though, looking back at the unions in Mexico, they were often very corrupt, at the time I thought it was better than nothing. When I came to the U.S., I did a lot of different jobs. I was a domestic worker, I was a salesperson in a store, and stuff like that. But I wanted to be in a unionized workplace, and so I was trying to get a job through a local union. I didn’t know that there was such a thing as being an organizer, but I was making posters and banners for he ILGWU. A few months later, I met someone in Local 11 of HERE and they hired me. Even then, for a few months, I didn’t do organizing. I didn’t even know what it was. But then I got very involved.
I saw a different way to organize [in HERE]. To bring the trust back from the members, and to show that this was a different union. In any organizing drive, you have to show the workers that, yes, you can make a difference. Little victories that you have to deliver, in order to say there is a change. It has to be very, very specific and concrete. And you have to see things as industry-wide. When I was with HERE I remember organizing my first hotel, reorganizing it for the first time in then years. That was in Manhattan Beach, close to the airport. We did it through elections. Well we organized 300 workers, and that was not going to make a big difference for the industry. You have to look at the whole industry, instead of one single work site. You have to do it in a market competitive way. If you’re going to organize, it has to be like all of downtown L.A. has got to go union. It has to be a long-term plan It takes a lot of effort, a lot of persistence, and a lot of resources.
“You’ve got to keep the heat on in different ways, and you’ve got to be very unpredictable
In 1999, UNITE HERE leader Maria Elena Durazo led workers, clergy, and activists in a fast to protest the failure of the University of Southern California (USC) to negotiate with their workers. In an editorial printed in the Los Angeles Times, Durazo compared the fast to those of United Farm Worker leader Cesar Chavez. “How could I ask others to work harder in the labor movement, to take even greater risks for their children and their co-workers, unless I was willing to fast side by side with them?” she wrote in explanation of the fast.