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'Jubilee People' national conference moved to 'living wage' hotel

By Pat McCaughan
[Episcopal News Service]  The venue for a September 14-17 national Jubilee Ministry conference has been switched from a non-union compliant hotel in favor of one that offers workers a living wage.

The Rev. Canon Carmen B. Guerrero, the Episcopal Church's national jubilee officer, said she relocated the conference, which concerns peace and justice ministry in the church, after learning of the ongoing struggle of workers to unionize at the Hilton Hotel at Los Angeles International Airport.

"How could we possibly meet there, with our keynote speaker Michael Battle talking about the theology of justice? It would be antithetical to everything we say we believe in; to Jubilee Ministry," said Guerrero. "This is an opportunity for us to put our money where our mouth is.

"At the time we made the original agreement, I didn't realize that our good price was going to be on the backs of the workers," she said. "That's the crucial thing, that sometimes the bargains we get, whether hotels or clothes or cars or anything, these bargains come at the expense of others."

At issue is the right of workers to unionize as a way to secure adequate wages, benefits, and a safe working environment, said the Rev. Canon Dick Gillett, minister for social justice for the Diocese of Los Angeles and a member of CLUE, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, a Jubilee Center.

In June, labor, community and religious leaders picketed in protest of the Hilton's labor practices and in support of workers, resulting in the arrests of 40 people, including clergy, said Gillett, a priest for 46 years and also a conference speaker.

Moving the conference to another hotel, which is unionized, is "a courageous action by the church," especially after General Convention approved resolutions in support of both a living wage and the rights of workers to organize, he said.

Guerrero, alerted by Gillett and CLUE, said she visited the hotel and learned firsthand that workers feared for their jobs if they attempted to unionize or to protest low wages and long hours.

"I speak Spanish so I went around and talked to security and the housekeepers and the waitresses and waiters and I heard stories, over and over, of very little benefits, if any, and low wages," Guerrero said.

"One lady told me she had worked there for 20 years and altogether her raises have amounted to 55 cents per hour throughout that entire time. We can't excuse that. We had to do something and so we did it."

After unsuccessfully attempting to meet with hotel management, she moved the conference to the Wilshire Grand Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

"I want to personally thank you all, first of all, for being Jubilee People and secondly, for understanding that it is crucial for us to exemplify what we say we believe," she said in a letter, explaining the change to about 250 participants expected to attend from across the country.

Guerrero cited General Convention Resolutions 2006-D047 and 2006-C008, which supported a living wage and the rights of workers to unionize, respectively. D047 committed the church at "all levels to contract solely with union hotels in its meetings, or to obtain confirmation that local prevailing 'living wages' are paid…," she said.

Cost of economic justice

Gillett said the Hilton action is part of an effort to unionize 13 large hotels near the LAX airport and is also part of a national economic justice push by the UNITE HERE union, which represents more than 450,000 manufacturing, retail and service workers throughout North America.

"In May, there was strong worker support for a union; the Hilton fired one of the key organizers," Gillett said. When workers met with hotel management and asked for an explanation, 70 employees were suspended without pay. The workers were reinstated after local government and community officials interceded on their behalf.

"In the United States right now, 80 percent of all workers are in the service industry and the dismal fact of life is that the average hourly wage for hotel workers who don't have a union is about $8.17. If you're a food server, it's $8.08. It's pitiful, at these wages if people work full-time they end up $4,000 below the federal poverty line annually. It's a huge poverty problem," he said.

He said workers at the Hilton earn an average $8 per hour with minimal, if any, wage increases regardless of seniority. That compares to an average $11 hourly wage for unionized Los Angeles hotel workers. In New York City, the unionized hotel workers earn an average $19 per hour.

An annual $30,000 income for a family of four in the U.S. is considered a living wage, adequate to cover housing, medical, transportation and other expenses, he said. "That's different from a minimum wage," he added. "The federal minimum wage is still set at $5.15 an hour."

Living wage ordinances have been enacted locally and nationally, including as recently as August 9, when the Chicago City Council approved a $9.25 an hour wage, effective in 2007, an increase from the current $6.50 hourly minimum. Los Angeles was among the first cities to adopt a living wage law, in 1997. The measure, which covers 10,000 workers, requires companies doing business with the city to pay workers at least $9.08 per hour with health benefits, or $10.33 without.

Opponents say paying a living wage unfairly burdens employers and results in eventual employment and economic losses for entire communities -- a contention Gillett disputes.

"People oppose a living wage because they feel it's going to be too much of a burden on their operation and the classic threat has always been we'll have to dismiss employees. But studies done here and other places after the city of L.A. passed its ordinance, confirmed that the impact was minimal."

Guerrero estimated lost revenues to the Hilton as a result of the conference move at about $60,000 and added she hopes to have the initial conference deposit refunded.

Relocating to the Wilshire Grand Hotel, at 930 Wilshire Boulevard, may cost a little more for conference participants who forfeit early registration rates. "But it's going to be all right," she said. "It will cost us a little but the difference is minimal, compared to the issue at stake. This is what it costs when you really stand up for what you believe in, for economic justice."

Attempts to reach local Hilton Hotel owner David Hsu and Hilton corporate officials for comment were unsuccessful.

The Rev. Dr. Michael Battle, vice president, associate dean of academic studies and associate professor of theology at Virginia Theological Seminary, is a featured speaker, along with Bishop Suffragan Chet Talton of Los Angeles and many others. For more information, or to register for the conference, contact Rose Brunell at: 800.334.7626, ext. 6055.