Shutting Off Exploitation, One Hotel at a Time

Image by Marten Bjork.

They cannot live where they work, not on the salaries they’re paid by LA area hotels.

Leticia Ortega de Ceballos sleeps in her car during weekdays, enabling her to work two housekeeping jobs, one at the Loews Hollywood Hotel, the other at the Glendale Hilton. She lives 105 miles away, in California City, Kern County.

Jovani Ramirez, who lives in Santa Clarita, also works two jobs, starting at 6 a.m. as a cook at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, then taking another eight-hour shift at the Century Plaza Hotel. To support his family, he’ll sometimes take a third job as an Uber driver. As he explained to LA Times reporters, “my youngest son has Down syndrome. I want to spend more time with my family. I want to not have to work two jobs.”

Francisa Gutierrez drives an hour and a half from San Bernadino to work as a housekeeper at LA’s Intercontinental Hotel. As she explained to the same Times reporters, “the babysitter makes half of what I make in wages.” Ms. Gutierrez makes $22 an hour, with $1800 a month going to her rent and $200 for gas. (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development indicates that an hourly wage of $42.73 is needed to pay rent for a modest two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles County).

Despite these personal hardships, these workers have nevertheless helped to power a spectacular recovery of LA tourism since the onset of the Covid pandemic in 2020. Last year their labor as housekeepers, cooks, bartenders, servers, and maintenance staff underpinned a boom that brought 46.2 million visitors to Los Angeles, bringing in $29.1 billion in revenues and providing overall economic benefits to LA County (e.g. job growth, state and local taxes) worth $34.5 billion.

This year, however, the workers said, “enough.” With contracts with 61 hotels expiring on June 30, the workers’ union, UNITE HERE Local 11, presented hotel owners with demands for wage increases, improved working conditions, and enhanced health and pension benefits. When negotiations with hotel management met with no response, the workers voted on June 8 to authorize a strike, and on July 1, 15,000 workers began a series of rolling strikes that have targeted selected hotels over the past three months.

Thus far, two hotels, the Westin Bonaventure and the Biltmore Los Angeles, have reached tentative agreements with the workers. The strike to date has not yielded the kind of dramatic all-in-one results that, say, screenwriters achieved last month in their strike against entertainment companies, nor that LA education workers (e.g. bus drivers, custodians, special ed assistants) achieved in a three-day strike this past March. Moreover, hotel workers have had to endure aggressive responses to the strike, including assaults by hotel security guards and even by guests at several hotels.

Nevertheless, the workers have persevered, and the strike continues to move forward on a number of fronts. Though a boycott of hotels without contracts has had setbacks (e.g. the American Political Science Association refused to move or postpone its annual meeting over, ironically, Labor Day weekend), other organizations have honored the boycott by cancelling, rescheduling, or moving meetings: e.g. the Democratic Governors Association, the Japanese American Citizens League, and the Council of State Governments West. And media awareness of the strike and boycott is growing, as visitors are being encouraged to demand advance notification of picket lines, and to ask for refunds of last-minute cancellation penalties.

Most important, the two hotels that have already reached tentative agreements with their workers have set a standard that the other hotels can and must follow. The workers are demanding a $5/hr. immediate raise, followed by $3 raises each year for the next three years of a contract, for a total hourly increase of $11/hr. Such raises will mean substantial improvements in the quality of life for Leticia Ortega de Ceballos, Jovani Ramirez, and Francisa Gutierrez – and for their families.

But the agreements will mean more than that. In many ways, LA is a city built on illusion. Its entertainment industry generates vast wealth through the manufacture and worldwide distribution of illusion. The tourist industry, in turn, draws on such illusion as it lures visitors to Hollywood and to theme parks like Universal Studios.

But within this scene, one illusion has for too long cast a baleful influence – the illusion that the exploitation of people who make the city run can be rendered invisible. In the slow, difficult exertion of this strike, these hotel workers are therefore doing essential work: dispelling that illusion and helping, laboriously, to make this city face its own reality.

Andrew Moss is an emeritus professor from the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught a course, “War and Peace in Literature,” for 10 years.