This past week, thousands of hotel workers in dozens of hotels in Los Angeles and Orange County, represented by Unite Here Local 11, walked off the job. The strike, which 96 percent of members voted to authorize, comes after many large hotel contracts expired and the vast majority of owners refused to meet union demands. These include adequate pay raises to reflect California’s soaring housing costs, as well as shoring up pension and health care benefits. They also include requests to hire sufficient numbers of new workers to lower daily workloads to manageable levels for existing housekeepers and other staff, since, despite their having reaped billions of dollars in federal assistance during the Covid pandemic, and despite profit levels in 2023 reaching pre-pandemic heights again, hotels are still making workers do more with less.
All told, staffs at 21 hotels went on strike last week and 12 more have gone out this week. The core demand they have made is a $5 per hour pay increase in 2023—on a starting wage between $20 and $25 per hour—followed by an additional $3 in 2024 and another $3 in 2025. That sounds like a lot, but in Los Angeles—where the average monthly rent for an apartment is more than $2,700—$31 an hour, for a 40-hour work week, might just barely allow a family to get by. In fact, to enjoy a modicum of economic stability, families would need to earn far more; researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have calculated that for a single parent raising two children in California, the living wage needs to be $56 per hour.
To date, only one hotel, the Westin Bonaventure, in the heart of Downtown LA, has come to an agreement with its workers, reaching a new contract on June 30. The others—including, most distressingly, the Hyatt Regency at LAX, which is run by Aimbridge Hospitality using funds provided by the Southwest Carpenters’ Union pension trust—have not offered deals to their workers. For Unite Here Local 11 copresident Kurt Petersen, the situation at the Hyatt is particularly disturbing. “As a labor leader, it is repugnant to me that the Southwest Carpenters pension fund would trust Aimbridge Hospitality not only with union carpenters’ hard-fought savings, but also with our members’ livelihoods,” Petersen says. “Aimbridge should pay the workers at the Hyatt Regency LAX a living wage.”
Earlier this week, I spoke to one of those workers, Local 11 member Yesenia Reyes, who is currently on strike. The 45-year-old, originally from El Salvador, has Temporary Protected Status, which gives her the right to work and live legally in the country owing to the dangerously unstable environment in her home country. Reyes has six children, ranging in age from 10 to 28.
All but the oldest of Yesenia’s children still live at home, but she almost never sees them. To make ends meet, the hotel housekeeper holds down two jobs. She works at the Hyatt Regency, LAX, from 8 am to 4 pm, and then at the Sheraton Gateway from 5 pm to 1 in the morning. At the first of these jobs, she earns $21.15 per hour; at the second, $19.17. She gets home at about 2 am, wakes up again at 6 am, and is out the door soon after. She never takes her younger children to school or to their sports events, instead delegating those tasks to her 27-year-old daughter, but her low hourly wages leave her no alternative. “Practically, I don’t catch my children awake,” she says. “I leave the house when they’re sleeping and come back when they’re sleeping. It’s a great sacrifice. Even though my daughters help me with this, it’s not the same as the attention and the love that only a mother can provide. This leaves a mark in one’s soul. I’d like to be there more often for them, but I can’t.”
Yesenia Reyes tells me how corrosive the job is, how hard and fast the cleaners have to work given the hotels’ refusal to hire enough staff to more reasonably spread the workload. “We get hurt a lot,” she says. “This job is tough. We deserve to be treated with dignity. The cost of living keeps going up, but our wages stay the same.” Reyes lives in an apartment in the small, mainly Hispanic community of Bell, southeast of Downtown LA. She pays, she says, just over $1,700 for her apartment. This summer, her landlord has been trying to evict her and her neighbors, offering each household a few thousand dollars to relocate, money that won’t go far in California’s overheated housing market. She can’t even begin to think about what would happen if he follows through and forces her family out. To rent a comparably sized apartment in a more affluent neighborhood would, she estimates, cost at least $4,000 a month—a prohibitive amount for a worker earning roughly $20 per hour, even if she is working 16 hours a day, and even if she has assistance in paying the bills from her older children.
“What can I tell you? If our employer gave us the wage we were asking for, that would make it easier to find a decent apartment.”
The strike by hotel workers is the largest labor action in the industry in years. It comes at a time when many other unions—from the Writers’ Guild in Los Angeles to UPS workers nationally—are either already on strike or gearing up for action. In 2022, the number of major strikes increased by 50 percent over 2021; in 2023, the wave of labor action has continued. LA’s hotel workers are now on the front lines of America’s workplace battles. These are fights for basic workplace dignity and basic housing security in an era in which far too many workers, in high cost of living states such as California, can no longer afford to live in the cities where they work.