Magazine article The Christian Century


Magazine article The Christian Century


Article excerpt

ONE THURSDAY AFTERNOON this past October, along the main road to Los Angeles International Airport, members of the hotel workers union unrolled a banquet scene. Tables were put UP in front of the Hilton LAX, one of the airport hotels most hostile to unions, and workers from unionized hotels, dressed in tuxedos, set the tables with tablecloths and plastic champagne goblets. Meanwhile, other workers set up a picket line in front of the Hilton.

The symbolism of a banquet for hotel workers was not lost on Altagracia Perez, an Episcopal priest who is a member of a clergy and laity group that has long been supportive of the union. "As a priest and a mom, I love this celebration because it is about people gathered around a table, eating together and sharing a vision of justice."

As she led the crowd in an opening prayer, Perez sounded a slightly more defiant note: "Someday we will be inside having a banquet. We'll start the party out here and then, when the management catches up with reality, we'll move inside."

The struggle by the local branch of the union Unite Here to organize Hilton LAX workers has been long, and there is no end in sight. But the intent of this day's protest was to celebrate the community groups that have backed workers' efforts. The atmosphere was celebratory and hospitable. Three hotel workers invited me to sit at their table after I had been standing in the sun for several hours. Without asking me any questions, they made a place for me, ushered me to a seat and pushed a plate of spaghetti in front of me.

Jose Molina, a former worker at the Hilton, told the crowd how he lost his job because he tried to organize a union. He spoke in Spanish about the intimidation he had experienced, about his worries over how to support his family and about his desire to see working conditions improve. "People say, 'Why not just go find another job?'" he said. "But this isn't only about me."

Looking through the gate in front of the hotel entrance, Molina spotted his former manager and yelled out a greeting from the stage. The people at the tables turned to look, and for a moment the air was charged with defiance.

Tom Eggebeen, a Presbyterian minister who has worked on workers' rights issues for years, found the scene moving. "All people want is a shot at ordinary life," he said. "It is important for workers to know that someone is behind them, that someone cares."

Unite Here is famous for staging creative protests. It recently held a march called "The Day of the Dead Tired," in which hotel workers carried a "Quilt of Pain and Tears." The squares of the quilt represented various job-related hazards, from inhaling dangerous chemicals to suffering injuries that lead to back pain or miscarriages. In another union protest, housekeepers made beds in the streets.

Since the effort began four years ago to organize hotel workers on Century Boulevard and in the airport area, one of its key allies has been Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), the organization that brought Perez and Eggebeen to the protest. Well into its second decade of existence, CLUE has become adept at mixing symbolic gestures and politics and at lending moral and spiritual authority to the workers' movement. In 2001, CLUE supported unions in a Holy Week/Passover march in Santa Monica. The marchers went from hotel to hotel: at hotels where workers had won the right to organize along with obtaining higher pay and benefits, they left milk and honey; on the steps of those hotels still resisting the unions, the marchers left bitter herbs.

Women are playing increasingly prominent roles in labor movements, especially in the hotel industry, where more than hall of the workers are women. In CLUE and in the hotel workers' union, one can see women making connections between the various tables in their lives: the kitchen table, the communion or Shabbat table, the banquet table and the negotiating table. …

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