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December, 1997


Santa Monica Hotel Workers Deserve Their Fair Share Treatement

by Michael Feinstein & Beth Leder-Pack

The Argonaut, Marina del Rey, CA

December 13, 1997

Health is something we all want - as individuals, community and planet. On a fundamental level, health is a function of how well we can sustain ourselves. Hence, the term ‘sustainability’ has come to refer to healthy practices on all levels, from the individual to the planetary.

In addition, because we are part of a planetary ecology, we know that health on one level is also interconnected to health on others. This suggests that for us to have a truly healthy community, we must all share fairly in the work and benefits of being a part of that community.

Santa Monica is currently one of California’s hottest tourist destinations. According to the city’s Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), visitor spending hit an estimated $600-700 million in ‘97, up from $523 million in ‘94. Revenues from the city’s hotel "bed" tax are also rising, now up to $13 million annually. All of this helps fund a broad array of Santa Monica community services and capital improvements.

But are local low-wage hotel workers sharing in this success? Or are local tourist dollars arising from the needless exploitation of the weakest on the hotel industry food chain - the table bussers, dish washers, laundry workers, housekeepers and janitors?

Santa Monica’s Housing Element and Sustainable City Program both call for linking jobs and housing in two intimately related ways - promoting housing affordable for income earners on all levels, and promoting jobs that pay well enough for people to live near where they work. These two goals are widely considered to be good economic, environmental and social policy.

But most local hotel workers cannot afford to live in the community they serve. According a study conducted by Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism, at Santa Monica’s five non-union luxury hotels, housekeepers start out at an average of less than $12,500 per year, far less than the Federal poverty level of $15,600 per year for a family of four. Some local hotels workers commute up to two hours each way every day from the poorest areas of Los Angeles County.

Why are workers being squeezed like this? According to PFK industry consultants, quoted recently in the Los Angeles Business Journal, Santa Monica’s luxury hotels have an 82.7% occupancy rate in 1997, better than almost anywhere else in the country. Many rooms rent for between $200 to $500 per night.

The question is not ‘whether there is any margin for the workers’, but ‘why aren’t they getting their fair share?’ According to the federal government’s Bureau of Labor, union workers are paid about 20 percent more than non-union workers, and their benefit packages are typically worth two to four times as much. The Bureau also found this advantage is greater for workers with little formal education and training and for women, blacks and Latino workers. Eighty-five percent of union workers have health insurance, compared to 57% of non-union workers.

In Santa Monica, only one hotel is presently unionized, the ITT-Sheraton Miramar. The starting wage for a housekeeper is $7.36/hour. At Shutters on the Beach, it’s $6.73/hour. At the Miramar, workers have full family health benefits at no cost. At Shutters, they pay an extra $150 per month.

In cities with a large percentage of unionized hotel workers, unionization brings up the standards of workers in all hotels. In downtown Los Angeles, with 50% of the hotel industry unionized, the starting wage for a union housekeeper is $7.85/hour. In San Francisco, with 83% unionized, its $11.59/hour. Non-union workers also benefit, because the unions’ wages give them leverage in their own hotels.

Beyond these individual advantages, the overall disparity of power between hotel owners, who are often large national or multi-national corporations, and individual low-wage workers, is what makes unions so necessary.

Now is the time for Santa Monicans to focus on this issue. Record income is coming into the city from hotels. Two additional luxury hotels are scheduled to open by 2000. Plans are underway to build a new Visitors Center and significantly increase funding for the CVB. (This may be tied to an increase in the hotel bed tax, which would have to be put on the ballot for a public vote in 1998.)

At the same time, local apartments rents are rising, propelled by a state vacancy decontrol/recontrol law. Affordable housing is growing scarcer. Workers have longer, costlier and more polluting commutes. Public transportation, walking, biking and skating is less likely. This all tears at the community’s fabric. Santa Monicans must ask ourselves:

* Is it in keeping with our values for our hotel industry not to pay living wages?

* Are we subsidizing undesirable hotel industry behavior with publicfunds via the Convention & Visitors Bureau, whose successful marketing brings in the visitors that fill the hotels? What can we do about this without harming the CVB?

* Do we want our increased parks, police services or other community benefits, that are paid for in part by tourist tax dollars, to flow from the sweat equity of low-wage hotel workers?

Santa Monicans tend to believe in the congruency between means and ends Last year, the City Council passed a policy not to do business with companies that were exploiting people in Burma. We need to be sure we are incorporating these same values at home, including by honoring all those who work in our community. Paying workers a living wage moves us closer to environmental and economic sustainability. Besides, its only fair.

** Michael Feinstein is a Santa Monica City Councilmember and an organizer for the Green Party. Beth Leder-Pack is Vice-President of the Santa Monica Democratic Club. Both are active members of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights.


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