‘You Are an Inspiration,’ Sanders Tells Hotel Workers

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks to a crowd of unionized hotel workers and allies in downtown Los Angeles on April 5, 2024.,Bryan Giardinelli/Hello@BreatheNewWinds.com

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders joined hospitality workers in downtown Los Angeles on Friday as they picketed outside one of the dozens of hotels that have yet to reach a contract deal with UNITE HERE Local 11, whose membership is demanding better pay, benefits, and job protections in one of the nation's most expensive cities.

"You are an inspiration, because of your courage, to millions of working people throughout this country," Sanders (I-Vt.) told the crowd of workers gathered outside Hotel Figueroa. "You are working hard, you are what keeps these hotels going. You deserve decent wages, you deserve decent benefits, you deserve decent healthcare, you deserve decent schedules, you deserve decent pensions."

Since last summer, thousands of workers at more than 50 hotels in southern California have taken part in rolling strikes that have yielded record contract agreements—including significant wage increases and other victories—at 34 hotels.

Many of the hotels that have yet to meet workers' demands, including Hotel Figueroa, are owned by private equity firms.

Sanders called out one of those firms—the investment behemoth Blackstone—by name on Friday, noting that the company CEO's annual compensation is far larger than the combined wage increases that striking hotel workers are demanding.

"Working people are sick and tired of getting ripped off while corporate America enjoys record-breaking profits," said Sanders. "We are living in a country today where, for the last 50 years, the wages of working people, in terms of inflation, have gone nowhere—actually declined."

"You are part of a growing movement in this country of workers joining unions, of organized unions standing up and demanding decent contracts. That's what's going on all over America," the senator continued. "The message of today is we are sick and tired of the greed of corporate America... This union deserves a decent contract."

(Photo: Bryan Giardinelli/Hello@BreatheNewWinds.com)

Friday's rally at Hotel Figueroa, which is owned by the private equity firm BentallGreenOak, came weeks after the hotel's former food and beverage operator shut down operations as its nonunion employees attempted to organize. More than 100 workers lost their jobs as a result.

Maria Ibarra, a cook who was laid off, filed a class-action lawsuit earlier this week alleging that Hotel Figueroa's ownership "violated a city ordinance meant to protect workers' jobs when there are changes in management by failing to retain them when the new operator took over."

"We service workers are not disposable," said Ibarra. "We're not something to be tossed aside when we're no longer convenient. I am filing this lawsuit to make sure our rights are respected."

The hotel workers' strike actions over the past eight months have been described asthe largest of their kind in U.S. history, and they've persisted even in the face of physical violence. In January, an unknown assailant used an apparent air rifle to shoot workers with metal ball bearings, leading some workers to wear bulletproof vests and helmets on the picket lines.

"My co-workers and I have been fighting for a just contract for months," Noelia Gonzalez, a room attendant at Hotel Figueroa, said during Friday's rally. "On many occasions during our pickets, we've been attacked. I'm very frustrated that my coworkers experienced violence while fighting for their rights and their benefits. I'm frustrated that the company left us vulnerable to violent attack."

"The hotel and company would not exist without our hard work and effort," she added. "That's why we deserve what we're fighting for."

Ada Briceño, co-president of UNITE HERE Local 11, said Friday that the "corporate greed" on display in the hotel sector "isn't just a threat to workers—it's harming our democracy."

"The same way the ultrawealthy concentrate their money to buy hotels, they also concentrate their money to influence our political system," said Briceño. "But I'm here to tell you that all the collective action, what we're doing here in this street and streets across southern California and hotel workers standing up is worth more than all the private equity money in the world."

In an interview with Common Dreams ahead of Friday's rally, Sanders said the hotel employees' tireless push for just contracts underscores that workers are increasingly "standing up to corporate greed and are prepared to fight." Last year, the number of U.S. workers involved in major work stoppages jumped 280%, a surge fueled by nurses, actors, autoworkers, and others.

"It's really quite extraordinary. And if you and I were chatting 10 years ago, I don't think we would've anticipated this," said Sanders. "The absurdity of so few having so much and so many having so little and workers having to struggle is I think bringing forth a real strong reaction about the working class of this country."

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