Here & Now

How a two-year organizing campaign helped destroy Anaheims hotel workers union

Photo by Jack GouldTwo years ago, Local 681 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees (HERE) had a lot going for it. A string of brand-new hotels in downtown Garden Grove, full of workers who wanted to join a union, a crew of dedicated organizers—everything but a contract.

But now the campaign is over. The union failed to organize a single worker from any of those hotels, and it recently, quietly called off its organizing drive. In the past few weeks, several union officials and organizers have lost their jobs at the union, forming the core of a reform movement unofficially called HERE & Now.

These disgruntled unionists are organizing a new campaign: the ouster of Ada Torres, the union's current president—a move they claim will bring "democracy" back to Local 681.

"We have several factions that have banded together for the first time around the cause of union democracy," said Local 681 reform activist Janine Licausi.

Licausi is no longer a member of Local 681 but has been a volunteer there for 18 years. She said she was personal friends with Torres, who two years ago invited her to help the union organize the Garden Grove hotels. Licausi was one of several union supporters who were arrested on Dec. 7, 2001, during a high-profile demonstration outside the nonunion Crowne Plaza Resort. "A lot of volunteers gave up a lot of free time to work on this project and—boom!—it's gone," she said. "It was just dumped. It was a big waste of time."

The campaign's high point arrived on Jan. 9, when union officials met with Garden Grove Mayor Bruce Broadwater and Councilman Mark Rosen. Both Broadwater and Rosen are nominally pro-union Democrats who have raked in thousands of dollars in political contributions from the hotels the unions were trying to organize (see "The King of Garden Grove," May 17). Despite their sensitive financial ties to the hotels in question, both agreed to sign a declaration calling on the hotel owners not to interfere with Local 681's effort to organize their employees into a union.

Within a month of that agreement, however, Local 681's campaign was all but over—with some of the union's most dedicated members now asserting that the worst enemy of the workers wasn't the hotel owners but the union's own leaders.

One reform movement leader is Luis Sanchez, an 18-year veteran of the union who lost his job as vice president on July 17. He now works room service at Disneyland's Grand Californian Hotel. Sanchez ran for vice president in June 2001 after Torres asked him to be her running mate. He says that Torres quickly made it clear that she was more concerned with firing union representatives who hadn't supported her campaign than in organizing Garden Grove's hotels.

Sanchez said many workers began complaining about the union's lack of democratic decision-making after Torres dropped the Garden Grove campaign this April—without a vote of the membership. (Torres failed to return phone calls by press time, but she has previously denied dropping the campaign.) For the past week, Sanchez has helped circulate a petition among Local 681's membership calling for Torres to resign; he said about 200 workers have already signed it.

"People were really mad about her dropping the campaign," he said. "I didn't want to say anything because I thought I'd get fired. But now I have been fired, and I can say this: it is unfair to organize workers and promise to get them a union and then to say, 'I'm sorry, but we don't have time for that anymore.'"

Another recently fired union reform leader is John Earl, a former researcher, organizer and assistant to the president of Local 681. He says he lost his job because of his outspoken criticism of his former boss, Torres.

"If you are being intimidated every day, it is miserable to go to work," he said. "It is like what we are fighting against in the hotels. I was fired for 'gross disloyalty.' That was the charge, but she didn't give me any specifics. The union is in the process of challenging that, but all she has to do is show the fliers I passed out."

Earl has since launched a vitriol-spewing website (home1.gte.net/res0nage/index.htm) that, among other things, accuses Torres of being a biological mutation of Evita Peron who runs Local 681 like a personal fiefdom.

"Union leaders are more responsible for the decline in organizing than almost anything else—including the hotel owners," he said. "They are much more concerned with their own power than democracy."

 
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