The UNITE HERE Local 11 Oral History Project documents the transformation of internal union culture, and the experiences and perspectives of union activists from a variety of workplaces. Long-time organizer and former Local 11 and LAANE organizer Vivian Rothstein led the project with the assistance of current Local 11 staff member Danielle Wilson, and Toby Higbie at UCLA. The UCLA Institute for Research on Labor & Employment (IRLE), Labor Center, Department of History, and the Library Department of Special Collections supported the project. All the interviews are freely accessible online: https://calisphere.org/collections/27173/ . Interviewee biographies reflect their work at the time of the interview (c. 2016-19).
Ada Briceño came to the United States from Nicaragua when she was six years old. She began working in the hotel industry in Orange County, California, as a teenager and joined HERE Local 681. She challenged the established leadership of the union through her energetic organizing and engagement with rank-and-file union members and was eventually elected the first female Latinx president of the local.
Lori Condinus has worked for twenty years as a private branch exchange operator at the Anaheim Hilton Towers Hotel. She played a leadership role in HERE Local 681 and in its transition to an activist organizing culture. Lori helped develop the union’s diversity program and mentors African Americans who want to enter the industry. She is a member of UNITE HERE Local 11’s executive board.
María Elena Durazo
María Elena Durazo is one of eleven children born to a family of farmworkers in California’s San Joaquin Valley. She became politicized as a student at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, and began working in the labor movement during the 1980s as an organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) in Los Angeles. She went on the challenge the established leadership of HERE Local 11, which was dominated by mostly White bartenders and actively excluded the growing Latinx immigrant workforce of hotel employees. With the support of the International, María Elena was elected president of Local 11 in the early 1990s. She later became the head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the national vice president for civil rights and immigration reform for UNITE HERE. In 2018 she was elected to the California State Senate to represent the 24th District, which encompasses much of Central and East Los Angeles.
Edith Garcia is originally from Oaxaca, México, and came to the United States when she was twenty-five years old. She worked at Loew’s Hotel in Santa Monica and was a key leader in the campaign to win union representation with HERE Local 11. She was also active in the Santa Monica Living Wage and Minimum Wage campaigns. She has one daughter, who was raised on the picket lines.
Soledad Garcia was born and raised in Oaxaca, México. She came to the United States in the late 1990s and got a job as a housekeeper in Beverly Hills. She later became a room attendant at the Viceroy Hotel, a nonunion hotel in Santa Monica. She was a leader in the campaign to unionize her workplace and went on to work as an organizer with UNITE HERE Local 11. She has become a mentor for other organizers in the union.
Michael Kelly was born in Grafton, Wisconsin. He served in the United States Navy for twenty years. After his service, he married and moved to Southern California, where he began working as a vendor at the Staples Center. He was eventually hired as a bartender at the Staples Center and the Stub Hub Center and has worked in that capacity for nine years. He has been a shop steward with UNITE HERE Local 11 for seven years.
Karl Lechow, the former national organizing director of HERE, was born in New York in 1946 to a union family. He went to Earlham College with John Wilhelm—who would later become president of UNITE HERE International—and initially joined John in organizing food service workers at Yale University. Karl is one of the architects of UNITE HERE’s worker-leader committees, who run organizing campaigns, develop strategies, and make decisions about how their union should move forward.
Martin Lopez is originally from Guanajuato, México, and first began working in the hotel industry while living there. After moving to the United States in the late 1980s, he was hired as a busser at the Inn at the Park Hotel in Orange County. He became a member of Local 681, where he has helped encourage Latinx participation and a more activist approach within the union. He is now on the staff and executive board of UNITE HERE Local 11.
Lorena Lopez-Masoumi was born in Oaxaca, México. She came to the United States as a teenager and attended high school and some college in Los Angeles. She was hired as a retail worker at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and became active in Local 814 during the Los Angeles Living Wage campaign. Lorena was later hired by the union and is currently a director for Local 11, where she trains other organizers and helps develop the union’s strategy. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.
Marlene Mendoza was born and raised in El Salvador. She came to the United States in 1985 when she was eighteen years old. In 1990, she was hired as a cocktail server at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), where she got involved with HERE Local 814 during a fight to save her job and the benefits that she relied on to provide health care for her disabled son. She has been a food service worker for over twenty-five years and has helped organize the union in various ways during that time. At the time of the interview, she was serving on the executive board of UNITE HERE Local 11.
Susan Minato was born and raised in New Jersey, where her parents resettled after being interned during the roundup of Japanese Americans during World War II. She went to law school and practiced law for several years before she was hired at UNITE HERE Local 11 as an organizer. She joined the staff early in the local’s transition to an activist organizing culture and oversaw shop stewards’ leadership training for many years. She is currently executive vice president and staff director for the union.
Kurt Petersen was born and raised in Chicago, attended the University of Notre Dame, and went to law school at Yale University. After working on a farmworker organizing campaign in Washington State in 1995, Kurt took a job as an organizer with HERE Local 814. He helped lead the Miramar-Sheraton Hotel campaign in Santa Monica from 1995 to 2000, building a worker and community movement for living wages and fair treatment for hotel workers. Today he works as the director of nonunion organizing for UNITE HERE Local 11, where he continues to promote the use of comprehensive campaigns.
Noel Rodriguez was born and raised in Los Angeles. He first experienced the labor movement at a young age through his father’s job as a lawyer for the United Farm Workers (UFW) in the Coachella Valley in Southern California. Noel sought to follow in his parents’ footsteps and devote his life to social change. After some periods of indecision, he found his calling as an organizer with UNITE HERE Local 11, where he has worked on hotel, food service, and casino organizing and is currently organizing director for the union.
Manuel Román grew up in Los Angeles and was raised by Mexican immigrants. Manuel’s father helped organize the cardboard factory where he worked and has been a Teamster for over forty years. A Chicanx studies major in college, Manuel participated in a summer organizer training through the AFL-CIO and went on to work for the United Farm Workers (UFW). He was then hired by HERE Local 814 and has since helped organize numerous campaigns. He is currently a lead organizer and an executive vice president for UNITE HERE Local 11.
Vivian Rothstein was born in New York City in 1945. Her parents fled Nazi Germany during the 1930s, and many of their relatives died in the Holocaust. In the early 1960s, Vivian moved to Southern California with her mother and attended the University of California, Berkeley, where she got involved in civil rights organizing. In 1965 she participated in Freedom Summer, registering African Americans to vote in Mississippi. She went on to do community organizing in Chicago and Los Angeles. She worked with HERE Local 11 in the mid-1990s during the Santa Monica Living Wage campaign and has since helped on many campaigns in Los Angeles and around the country.
Ignacio Ruiz is an executive board member for UNITE HERE Local 11. For over forty years, he worked at the Century Plaza Hotel as a banquet server and as a chief shop steward in his union. Originally from the state of Michoacán in México, where he worked as a farm laborer from a young age, Ignacio came to the United States in 1968 and worked his way up from his original position as a dishwasher. He is an active member of the negotiations committee at the Century Plaza Hotel.
Jennifer Skurnik was born in New York City. She attended Yale University, where she was introduced to the feminist movement and labor organizing on campus. She moved to Los Angeles in 1985 to work with HERE Local 11 and since then, has led numerous organizing campaigns across Los Angeles and Orange County. As staff director for the union, she played a key role in training rank-and-file members to be leaders in their workplaces and their communities. At the time of the interview, she was vice president of the UNITE HERE International.
Derek Smith grew up in Los Angeles. He worked for many years as an accountant in the film industry and during that time, began volunteering with the Santa Monica Living Wage campaign. Through that work, he eventually became an organizer with HERE Local 11 and went on to help organize numerous campaigns. At the time of this interview, Derek was working as a political director for UNITE HERE Local 11.
Marta Santamaría was born and raised in El Salvador and came to the United States in 1977. After living and working in North Carolina for a time, she took a job in the kitchen at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Marta, her husband, and her mostly Salvadorian colleagues turned the hotel into one of the most active union hotels in the city. She eventually was hired by Local 11 and, at the time of the interview, was serving as an organizing director with the union, advising on organizing campaigns in Los Angeles and other cities.
Glynndana Shevlin has worked for the Disney Hotel for many years and was an active member of HERE Local 681 (now merged with UNITE HERE Local 11). She helped change Local 681’s leadership by electing Ada Briceño as president and by taking a strong role in organizing for better contracts and reaching out to nonunion workers. Glynndana is currently a member of Local 11’s executive board.
Regla Soto has worked for over thirty years as a hotel room attendant. Originally from Cuba, she immigrated to the United States in 1980. She first began working in a hotel in Minneapolis before moving to Los Angeles in 1982, where she found work at the Westin Hotel near the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). She became a leader in the campaign to unionize her hotel and is now a chief shop steward. She is married, has raised three children, and lives in Lennox, California.
Celia Talavera was born in Michoacán, México. She married and had children there before coming to the United States with her family in 1988 and settling in Los Angeles. She has worked several jobs in the hospitality industry. Since 1999 she has worked at Loew’s Hotel in Santa Monica and between 2000 and 2005, she helped lead the union organizing campaign there. Celia has four children; three have graduated from college and, at the time of the interview, the fourth was in middle school.
Beatriz Silva Topete
Beatriz Silva Topete served in the United States military as a young woman, raised three children, and, after becoming active in local politics, was recruited by Miguel Contreras to work with UNITE HERE Local 11. She has worked on the union’s political program, with community and clergy outreach, and on worker organizing campaigns. At the time of the interview, she was working as a director for the union in Orange County, where she helped organize the Disney campaign.
Tom Walsh was born in Washington, DC. He was first recruited to work for the HERE International by Vincent Cerebella in 1987. Tom was eventually assigned to organize the Century Boulevard area of Los Angeles and to revitalize HERE Local 814, which was in decline. Tom became trustee of the local and was elected president in 1995, ousting the old-guard leadership. At the time of this interview, Tom was president of UNITE HERE Local 11.
John Wilhelm was born in Northern Virginia. His career with the labor movement began in the 1960s when he was an undergraduate at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He participated in the food service workers’ labor struggle and went on to work for HERE, the union that represented the workers. From Connecticut, he went to Las Vegas, Nevada, where he helped lead the organizing drive that unionized sixty thousand hospitality workers. Until 2014, John served as president of UNITE HERE International, representing hotel, food service, airport, and gaming workers across North America.
Donald Wilson is a retired chef and former chief shop steward who worked at the Century Plaza Hotel for many years. Concerned about the decline of African American representation in the hospitality industry over the past three decades, he has been active in working to bring more African Americans into the industry through UNITE HERE Local 11’s diversity program and the Hospitality Training Academy. Currently, Donald serves on the executive board of Local 11.
Emma Worthington was born in Los Angeles. In 1974 she began working in a restaurant at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and has since worked a number of different jobs there. She became a shop steward with HERE Local 814 and later a staff member, and has participated in numerous campaigns around Los Angeles and Long Beach. At the time of the interview, Emma was handling grievances on the UNITE HERE Local 11 Member Representative Team and serving on the executive board.
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