The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

LAX Hotel Workers Hungry for Living Wage

by Jessica Hoffmann

As Los Angeles airport hotels fight a law ordering them to pay enough to barely raise a family on, some workers are staging a hunger strike to gain public sympathy and realize the promise of a better wage.

Los Angeles; Dec. 12, 2006 – Yazmin Ortiz, who works as a parking cashier at the Hilton near Los Angeles International Airport, spent her weekend time off without food, sleeping outside on the concrete in front of the Westin Hotel on Century Boulevard, a busy, hotel-lined corridor that leads to one of the world’s largest airports.

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Ortiz said she and fourteen other non-union hotel workers are participating in a water-only fast "so the community sees that we really need a living wage."

"I’m part of this so my kids can say, ‘Thanks, Mom. Thanks to you and the living wage, we have a decent life,’" she told The NewStandard.

The workers, who are employed in a variety of service positions in several hotels near the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), have been on hunger strike since December 6 to garner public support for their struggle for better wages and working conditions.

Area hotels are attempting to overturn living-wage ordinances passed last month by the city council. Their first step is to gather the signatures of almost 50,000 voters so that they can put the ordinances on a ballot for a public referendum before the living-wage ordinance takes effect on December 30.

Today, Ortiz says, she works full-time for $9.30 an hour. Each month, she pays $20 to park her car at work, and approximately $200 for health insurance for herself, her two children, and her husband. He works in construction, with no health benefits. The Ortizes share a home in impoverished South LA with Yazmin’s sister and her children.

According to the Los Angeles Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit, public-benefit research organization, the approximately 3,500 hourly wage workers in the LAX area make below-average wages compared with county hotel workers as a whole.

Noting that private hotels along Century Boulevard benefit from their proximity to the public airport, city officials in November approved a living-wage ordinance specifically for Century Corridor hotel workers that mandates employers pay at least $9.39 an hour with benefits or $10.64 an hour without benefits.

The city also approved an ordinance requiring LAX-area hotels to pass service charges along to workers. Hotels are currently allowed to charge customers 15 to 20 percent gratuity charges on large banquets and are under no obligation to pass the proceeds on to the servers. The new ordinances are scheduled to take effect December 30.

To gain community support for the threatened living-wage ordinances, and in memory of a hotel housekeeper who died in September at age 36 from an aneurysm, hotel workers decided to engage in a seven-day fast outside the Westin and Hilton hotels on Century Boulevard. These are the largest of more than a dozen hotels targeted by workers seeking a living wage.

Representatives from the Hilton and Westin hotel chains did not return calls for comment.

Regla Soto, a participant in the fast who works as a housekeeper at the Westin, told TNS in Spanish, "We are here to show the companies we’re willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that we have a living wage." After 20 years at the Westin, Soto says she makes $10.60 an hour and has arthritis in her hands. Out of her wages, she pays $80 a month for health insurance for herself and her husband.

Many of the fasting workers are Catholics who see their fast as a spiritual as well as a political tactic. They say they plan to end their hunger strike on December 12, the day of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the most important days in the Mexican Catholic calendar.

"It gives us time to think," Ortiz told TNS. "A lot of people fast for religious reasons or before any battle… My friends ask, ‘Why are you fighting? Why don’t you look for another job?’ Running away is not the answer. What happens when you go to another job and you find the same treatment? Now we’re organizing, we’re ready to continue."

The hunger strike is the latest in a series of efforts by hotel workers in Los Angeles and nationwide to gain better wages and working conditions.

On September 28, thousands of workers and members of local labor, faith and community organizations participated in a march down Century Boulevard to demand an end to exploitative treatment of immigrant workers in the area’s hotels. Police arrested several hundred people that day for engaging in one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in Los Angeles history.

The march was organized by Unite Here, a union that has been working with hotel workers across the United States, and the We Are America Coalition, one of the primary organizers of last spring’s massive immigrant-rights marches.

The living-wage fast is a worker-initiated effort to raise awareness about local ordinances, but participants and labor organizers see it as part of a national struggle.

"Many years ago, it made sense to [organize] separately because employers were local or regional owners," said Tom Walsh of Unite Here Local 11 in Los Angeles. "But now, more and more, we’re dealing with national and international companies and big chains, so it makes sense to work nationally and internationally."

Walsh hopes the fast will "send a message to the public exposing what many people don’t see or think about – the people who provide the service when you stay in a hotel, the people who welcome guests… they are living and working under these conditions."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Jessica Hoffmann is a contributing journalist.

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