The history of L.A.’s hotel workers union (UNITE HERE Local 11) is a great turnaround story. In the 1970s the union was in decline. Activists fought for years to make the union more welcoming to its immigrant and Spanish-speaking membership, but the entrenched leadership group held on to power. In 1989, reformers finally took control when Maria Elena Durazo became the first Latina to lead a major Los Angeles union. Under Durazo, the union transformed into an organizing powerhouse.
In the wake of the 1992 L.A. civil unrest, Durazo and her allies founded the Tourism Industry Development Council in an effort to promote progressive solutions that could counter the power of employers and real estate developers. Later renamed the L.A. Alliance for a New Economy, LAANE), this nonprofit research and advocacy organization became an important strategic partner for Local 11 and the regional labor movement.
Scholars and labor observers see a number of key themes in the story of UNITE HERE Local 11. The fight for internal control of the union in the 1970s and 1980s between Anglo leadership and Latinx members is an early example of a wider political process in Southern California. Once in power, the new leadership worked for years to focus internal union culture on member-to-member organizing. Local 11’s campaigns at USC, the L.A. Convention Center, and the New Otani Hotel, among others displayed a new assertiveness, as well as the use of strategic corporate research and creative media strategies to augment workers’ power in the workplace. Finally, like other unions since the late 20th century, Local 11 was forced to work beyond the bounds of traditional collective bargaining, leveraging the union’s local political clout to level the playing field with multinational corporate employers.