Looming strike poses challenge for Mayor Karen Bass at homeless housing hotel

Thousands of Southern California hotel workers are poised to go on strike if a deal isn’t reached by midnight Friday, threatening to upend the region’s tourism industry.

In a city where hotels have played a central role in the push to address homelessness, the looming strike by Unite Here Local 11 could also pose new challenges for Mayor Karen Bass — and her push to get people off the streets.

A strike would disrupt operations at the L.A. Grand, the downtown hotel that has provided about 480 rooms for the city’s unhoused population since the outbreak of COVID-19.

In recent months, the 13-story hotel has been critical to the mayor’s Inside Safe initiative, which seeks to dismantle homeless encampments and bring people indoors. The hotel is by far the largest facility used by Inside Safe, taking in unhoused residents from downtown, Echo Park, the Fairfax district and other areas.

At the same time, the L.A. Grand is one of 62 Southern California hotels where contracts will expire on Friday, and it appears to be the only hotel on the list currently providing homeless housing.

Asked about the fate of the L.A. Grand, Bass said Wednesday that she and her team are already in communication with the union, which represents 41 workers at the L.A. Grand, and has up to 15,000 workers across L.A. and Orange counties who are preparing to strike.

“We actually are talking to Unite Here,” she said. “We have a great relationship with them, and I believe we will resolve the matter.”

The city pays $154 per night per room at the L.A. Grand, a sum that covers not just the rooms, but also food and housekeeping services. Unite Here Local 11 represents the cooks, dishwashers and housekeepers who clean rooms and provide three meals a day to the hotel’s clients. Those workers are employed by the hotel, not the city.

“We have an extremely vulnerable population who relies on us for food and sustenance,” said Kevin Murray, president and chief executive officer of the Weingart Center Assn., the nonprofit that provides case management services at the L.A. Grand.

Murray said his nonprofit is respectful of the union and its members’ need for a livable wage. “But the clients need to be fed,” he said.

Murray said he hoped the union would also understand the L.A. Grand’s unique situation and not disrupt their ability to bring in food.

The L.A. Grand, which is owned by a Chinese real estate company, has been operating as temporary homeless housing since 2021, when it was leased by the city as part of the Project Roomkey program. When that program ended, Bass extended the city’s lease with the hotel for an additional year, keeping it open until Jan. 31, 2024.

Unite Here Local 11 co-President Kurt Petersen said that while the union believed in and supported Project Roomkey, “a program meant to help the unhoused defeats its purpose when the workers who staff it are paid wages so low that they are at risk of becoming homeless themselves.”

He argued that the hotel’s workers had been fighting for months for a living wage, fair workload and safe work environment while being ignored by the hotel. The impending strike and disruption it will cause to the program “could have easily been avoided if the workers’ needs were taken into account,” Petersen said.

Shen Zhen New World I, the Chinese company that owns the L.A. Grand, said in a written statement that it had tried negotiating with the union by offering similar agreements it had made with workers at another hotel that it owns but was ultimately rejected.

They hoped that workers at the L.A. Grand would not make it more difficult for the unhoused people staying at the hotel.

“If the union pursues a work stoppage at the L.A. Grand Hotel, we have contingency plans in place to be able to continue serving the homeless residents,” the statement read.

The company did not disclose those plans and provided no further comment.

The idea of bringing in temporary workers — which some hotels may be contemplating — is much more politically fraught at the L.A. Grand.

Los Angeles is, generally speaking, a staunchly pro-union town and organized labor is deeply embedded in the city’s political power structure. Unite Here in particular wields tremendous influence at Los Angeles City Hall, having steered hundreds of thousands of dollars to several candidates last year. Politicians and nonprofits, even if they don’t directly control any action the hotel takes, would be loath to bring in employees viewed as “scabs.”

“More than 350 formerly unhoused people who live in the Grand Hotel, the majority of whom are from Skid Row, will be impacted by this possible strike,” said Bass spokesperson Zach Seidl. The mayor “urges all sides to come together and find a resolution that protects vulnerable residents during a homelessness crisis,” Seidl said.

Hotel workers say the work at the L.A. Grand has been difficult since it became a homeless housing facility, presenting challenges that differ from tourism work.

Ana Pineda, a longtime housekeeping room attendant at the L.A. Grand, said some of the building’s unhoused residents have yelled at housekeepers, telling them they did not want them to enter their rooms. Workers at the hotel also have been frequently exposed to illness and bodily fluids, she said.

“We’d enter a room and the beds were stained with feces, urine — sometimes both — or blood,” she said, adding: “We’d try to let the nurses know because you weren’t sure if they were sick or not.”

Security guards, nurses and others at the hotel have reported a number of incidents over the past two years — some violent, others involving destruction of property, according to emails obtained by The Times through a public records request.

Last summer, a worker with the Salvation Army — which was overseeing operations inside the hotel at the time — reported that a resident had destroyed furniture inside his room and barricaded himself inside, prompting a police response. Weeks later, another resident threatened a security guard with a gun. Months after that, a resident threatened to “knock out” a security guard for asking for his room number,” according to correspondence obtained by The Times.

Despite the difficulties, Pineda said she and other Local 11 members were proud of the work they were able to do at the L.A. Grand.

“They’re human after all. We’re human too. … We wanted them to come back to enjoy a clean room, enjoy the scent of a clean room,” Pineda said.

Since the hotel now houses long-term residents, room cleanings have fallen to twice a week. It’s unclear what will happen if the union does go on strike.

“It’s one of those between a rock and a hard place that’s difficult for the workers and difficult for the city,” said Madeline Janis, co-executive director of Jobs to Move America and former director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a politically influential labor-affiliated nonprofit.

Janis, who worked at Local 11 briefly early in her career and expressed deep support for the union’s workers, described the potential strike as a “conundrum” for the city, saying it would require crossing a picket line if temporary workers were brought in by the hotel’s management.

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