By KENNETH SCHRUPP | THE CENTER SQUARE
In March 2024, California primary voters will decide whether or not they wish to require hotels to shelter unhoused individuals in vacant rooms. It is a plan that could be adopted by the Anchorage Assembly, which is moving its homeless plans in that direction.
The ballot measure by Unite Here Local 11, a regional hospitality union becoming a major political powerhouse in Southern California and Arizona, has critics wondering why the union would push forward a measure they argue would only put union members in harm’s way.
The answer, critics say, is power over the hotels as they bargain for higher wages in response to skyrocketing cost of living and being able to reassure their members that they can drive sufficient action on homelessness and the availability of affordable housing — without regard to fallout for the city’s residents and its still-recovering tourism industry.
Under the measure, hotels must report vacant rooms to the City of Los Angeles Housing Department by 2 pm each day. The department would then refer unhoused individuals to those hotels, paying a “fair market rate” for lodging them. Notably, hotels would not be required to hold these vacant rooms for program participants, and hotels would be unable to refuse to accept such vouchers or put in rules specifically for voucher holders. Additionally, the measure would require “market demand for the project, and the project’s impact on affordable housing, transit, social services, employees, and local businesses” to be considered in land use permits for hotel developments with 100 or more rooms, and require hotel development projects with 15 or more rooms to replace demolished or converted housing with an equivalent amount of affordable housing at or near the project site.
Unite Here 11 represents over 32,000 members in the hospitality industry employed in hotels, restaurants, airports, sports arenas, and convention centers across Southern California and Arizona. The union is currently involved in a two-month-old, citywide strike, which the union said in a news release is motivated by the high cost of living — especially housing. Due to an enduring housing shortage and little new construction, a Los Angeles Times analysis of U.S. Census data found the county maintains the highest rate of overcrowding in the United States, more than New York City.
In a statement published by Local 11, Jovani Ramirez – a cook who works at both the Beverly Hilton and Fairmont Century Plaza and commutes from Santa Clarita – said, “I am going on strike because I work two full-time jobs to provide for my four children. I need free family healthcare because my youngest son is autistic. It is morally wrong that I work 16 hours a day in our most prosperous industry but cannot afford to live in Los Angeles.”
However, the bargaining group of hotels negotiating with the union contends the organization has refused to talk since July 18. Bargaining group spokesperson Keith Grossman said the hotels offered an immediate $2 per hour wage increase, a total $6.25 per hour wage increase, and a $1.50 per hour healthcare benefits increase he says is “consistent with agreements between other Unite Here locals and in several other major cities,” and that the refusal “raises legitimate concerns about why Local 11 continues to rely on disruptive tactics that harm our communities and damage the interests of union hotel employees throughout the Los Angeles region.”
Through its membership, the union easily gathered the 126,000 signatures required for the ballot measure. While the Los Angeles City Council could have voted to approve the measure outright to make it law today, it instead unanimously opted to send the measure to voters.
“It shows they aren’t thrilled about it as an idea but they don’t want to be the ones to say no to the union, so they threw it to the public as a ballot measure,” Center for Union Facts Communications Director Charlyce Bozzello told The Center Square. “Hotels could become akin to homeless shelters. That’s bad for paying guests, that’s bad for the tourism industry in Los Angeles, and it’s really, really bad for hotel employees.”
CUF is the primary organization opposing the ballot measure and has initiated a media blitz to counter it, launching a television and social media advertising campaign in Los Angeles and a website, HomelessHotels.com, cataloging episodes of violence and abuse against hotel workers through California’s ongoing, statewide Project Roomkey program to place homeless individuals in hotels.
The 501(c)3 organization notes how LA Grand workers were exposed to violence, destruction, illness and bodily fluids including feces, urine and blood on a regular basis. A homeless individual threatened staff in a Little Tokyo hotel with a knife before being shot and killed by the police in the lobby. It says 49 Project Roomkey participants have died while in the program, including eight deaths at one Los Angeles hotel.
CUF filed a complaint against Los Angeles City Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez for co-sponsoring a motion to raise the minimum wage for tourism industry employees in the city to $30 by 2028 after being paid $68,618 by the union in 2021, $19,101 in 2022 as a lead organizer. In their complaint, the CUF notes the union-backed minimum wage proposal includes waivers for hotels that participate in a “bonafide collective bargaining agreement,” a tool former Unite Here Local 11 President Tom Walsh told the Los Angeles Times would cause non-union hotels to be less resistant to unionization.
“Local 11 does have a history of pushing controversial or unpopular policies then making sure if a hotel allows their staff to unionize or signs a neutrality agreement, they can get a carveout from that policy,” said Bozello. “That’s going to add a lot of dues-paying members for them.”
Polling from the American Hotel and Lodging Association, which represents all of the hotels in the United States, conducted by Public Opinion strategies with a sample size of 500 Los Angeles voters found that while 98% of voters say homelessness is a crisis in the city, 86% say the city should not prioritize housing people experiencing homelessness in hotels, 81% say such a policy would unfairly burden hotel staff, and 59% say they would be less likely to visit a city and stay in a hotel there if they knew the city would require all hotels to lodge homeless individuals next to regular guests.
“Who’s going to book a room in the city of Los Angeles? People have choices. No one is going to choose to stay in a hotel under those circumstances,” said Chip Rogers, President and CEO of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, in an interview with The Center Square.
Nonetheless, Rogers acknowledges that the language around the measure is “all about solving homelessness and housing affordability” and that voters would “actually have to read all the language to see the part about paying guests next to homeless in hotels.”
While the union acknowledged The Center Square’s request for an interview, an interview could not be secured by the time of publication.