LOS ANGELES – With a contract that expired April 15, about 4,000 Los Angeles-area hotel workers are gearing up for a struggle focusing on health care, wages and working conditions.

“We are not looking for a fight,” Maria Elena Durazo, president of the 15,000-member Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), told the Los Angeles Business Journal. “But we are going to be ready if employers want one.”

In October, the local set up a permanent strike fund for the first time in its history. Durazo knows about a fight. Last year she served as national president of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, which mobilized thousands of immigrants and their allies to fight for workplace rights and a path to citizenship for the nation’s millions of immigrant workers.

Durazo and other labor leaders shared their strategy for the contract negotiations with community members during a recent Santa Monica meeting called to further the fight for a “living wage” for all workers.

HERE is calling for common expiration dates on hotel contracts across the country. At present, the union’s contracts with hotels in Chicago, Boston, and New York all expire in 2006. With expiration dates lined up, the stage would be set for united collective bargaining and a national contract, giving the workers serious clout. Durazo stated, “We are dealing with multinational corporations, so we must act like a national power to bargain.”

The Los Angeles unions are strongly aware of the difficulties of local unions going up against national chains that can absorb local losses. This is what happened in the recent Southern California grocery strike, where workers were forced to accept two-tier health care benefits after the Safeway-led chains held out – even in the face of a very effective months-long strike and consumer boycott.

Hotel workers from the 13,000-member local spoke at the community meeting about heavy workloads, including impossible-to-meet quotas.

Armando Garcia, a banquet runner at the Westin Bonaventure, said he has too much work to even take his breaks. “I sometimes get 1,000 guests per day. I am on my feet from the minute I clock in until the minute I leave.” Garcia says he works two jobs to support his family. “When I get home, I am always tired,” he adds.

HERE housekeepers and dishwashers make about $11 an hour, cooks about $13 an hour, and tipped employees about $7 an hour, Durazo told the Journal. One of those housekeepers, Refugio Dado, who works at the Holiday Inn, was heartened to see the community support. “When you work in a hotel, sometimes you feel like people don’t see you. But we are real and we work very hard at our jobs. I don’t think we are asking for a lot – only what is just,” Dado explained.

Community and religious organizations planning to contract for hotel space for upcoming events can consult a 13-point bulletin issued by the union for ways to support the workers’ cause. Creative suggestions include “invite the hotel workers who are working that night at the hotel to come on to the stage to be acknowledged by the guests at your event,” have your keynote speaker explain the contract fight, or “if the contract has expired by the time you hold your event, ask your participants to hold a picket line before or at the end of the event.” Suggestion No. 13, as might be expected, reads, “If there is a picket line of workers at the hotel, we ask that you not cross it.”

Seventeen L.A.-area hotels are involved in the current negotiations. The Travel Industry Association predicts hotel industry profits growing by 15 percent to $15.8 billion in 2004.

The authors can be reached at pww@pww.org.