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L.A. labor protest draws 2,000, hundreds arrested

By Pat McCaughan

ENS photo by Pat McCaughan
Protesters in a rally for immigrant  workers in Los Angeles carry signs reading "I Am A Human Being."    (ENS photo by Pat McCaughan)

ENS photo by Pat McCaughan
More than 2,000 participaints marched near Los Angeles Airport  to protest low wages for immigrant workers at nearby hotels.   (ENS photo by Pat McCaughan)

ENS photo by Pat McCaughan
The Rev. Dick Gillett in a protest for immigrant  workers in Los Angeles.   (ENS photo by Pat McCaughan)

[Episcopal News Service]  At least 2,000 demonstrators closed Century Boulevard near the Los Angeles International Airport during the Thursday, September 29, evening rush hour in protest of low wages for immigrant workers at nearby hotels.

Authorities arrested about 400 protestors, including clergy and state and local officials, who staged peaceful sit-ins after a short march to the Hilton Hotel at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and the nearby Westin Hotel.

After a 5 p.m. rally, a stream of families, students, clergy and workers poured into the streets near the airport, waving signs and banners reading "Soy Un Ser Hermano (I Am A Human Being)" and "Amnistia: Derechos Pienos para los Immigrantes (Amnesty: Full Rights for Immigrants)." The marchers alternately chanted: "Boycott Hilton," "No Justice, No Peace" and "Si Se Puede" to the steady beat of drums.

The Rev. Canon Dick Gillett, among those arrested, said Thursday's protest was meant to underscore "the rights of low-wage workers to organize, and hotel management's refusal to recognize the dignity and rights of hotel workers.

"We are here to call attention to the unsafe and unfair working conditions of low-wage workers and the way they are treated when they try to exercise their rights. Their wages are not enough to keep a family of four at a decent level of income," said Gillett, 75, who is minister for social justice for the Diocese of Los Angeles and a member of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, or CLUE, an organizer of the march.

The gathering included the blessing, breaking and sharing of bread by the Rev. Joe Frazier, rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Torrance; the sounding of the ram's horn and distribution of flowers to marchers. The multi-ethnic, multi-faith crowd of supporters lined the streets and cheered as police placed Gillett and others in plastic handcuffs and led them to waiting buses for the trip to jail.

"Those arrested will be taken to various facilities in the area, processed and released" within several hours, said Mary Grady, public information director for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). She said the peaceful protest was planned in advance in cooperation with several police agencies, including the LAPD and Inglewood and airport police.

"The bottom line is, we want to facilitate organizations' or groups' First Amendment Rights to demonstrate … as well as to get the area cleared away and operational as quickly as possible," Grady said.

Some hotel workers watched and waved as the group marched past them. Jose Landino, a Westin Hotel banquet services employee, said he hoped the demonstration would help resolve labor issues. "We want respect, and higher wages," he said.

Danny Feingold, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, an event organizer, said about 400 people were arrested altogether and called it a historic event for the city.

"This is an incredible turnout. Nothing like this has ever been done before in the Los Angeles area," he said, referring to the sit-in and arrests, which were coordinated with the UNITE HERE union, which represents more than 450,000 manufacturing, retail and service workers throughout North America.

The demonstration is part of an ongoing national economic justice push by the union and others to unionize 13 large hotels near the LAX airport, including the Hilton and Westin. Activists say they have targeted the hotels because they offer poor, if any, benefits and have attempted to intimidate union organizers.

In May, the Hilton fired a key labor organizer and suspended 70 others without pay when they asked for an explanation for the firing. Those workers were reinstated after public officials interceded on their behalf, according to Gillett.

He said that an annual income of $30,000 is considered a living wage but added that many hotel workers earn less. Hilton workers, for example, earn an average $8 per hour with minimal wage increases regardless of seniority, he said.

Feingold said Thursday's rally and sit-ins will fuel continued activism.

"It's a testimony to how deeply people feel about this injustice," he said. He did not speculate about how the protest would affect hotel business or workers, many of whom were afraid to join the march for fear of repercussion.

Local and state officials were among those arrested including state legislators Gil Cedillo (Democrat-Los Angeles), Richard Alarcon (Democrat-Sun Valley) and Judy Chu (Democrat-Monterey Park). L.A. City Council members Ed Reyes and Jose Huizar were also arrested.

Attempts to reach local Hilton Hotel owner David Hsu and Hilton corporate officials for comment were unsuccessful but some local businesses passed around a fact sheet refuting the union's contention that workers are paid less than a living wage. The sheet claimed that the airport area hotels pay an average $9.21 per hour with benefits for room attendants, "several cents above a living wage."

The Jubilee Ministry Gathering drew national attention when, in August, the Rev. Canon Carmen B. Guerrero, the Episcopal Church's national jubilee officer, changed venues to support low-wage workers. After a site visit to the Hilton LAX and unsuccessful attempts to talk to management about mistreatment of workers, she moved the conference.

"I wasn't trying to make a statement; I just wanted to organize the conference, but we had to do the right thing," Guerrero told conference participants on September 14.

The Rev. Liz Munoz, associate priest at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Hollywood, said she will continue to demonstrate in support of workers. "These are the people of my congregation," she said. "This is my family. We are all related through the call of God and the Holy Spirit. This is what we are meant to do."