Red Carpet at the Picket Line

Red Carpet at the Picket Line

As Hollywood’s aristocracy convened for the Oscars, laid-off hotel workers were protesting to get their jobs back.

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While the Oscars were underway last Sunday, former workers at the Chateau Marmont, the fabled Hollywood hotel, were picketing their onetime place of employment. At the start of the pandemic, the hotel summarily dismissed, without severance pay, more than 200 employees, many of whom had worked there, as room cleaners, as bellhops, as valets in the parking lot, for decades.

The Marmont, owned by André Balazs, is the stuff of legend: It’s where John Belushi died of a fatal drug overdose, where Helmut Newton fatally crashed his car, and where numerous celebrities have gone to binge and to party, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z, who have hosted their Oscars afterparties at the hotel.

Wits have joked that the Chateau Marmont is where Hollywood celebrities go to recover from rehab. These days, however, the celebrities are boycotting the property. Aaron Sorkin recently withdrew from an agreement to film parts of his upcoming biopic about Lucille Ball there. Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen, and other A-listers have also supported the boycott; some have joined the protests.

On one level this is a quintessentially LA story, the stuff of insider gossip in The Hollywood Reporter. It’s about a decadent but seedy hotel, the West Coast’s version of the Hotel Chelsea, and the struggles that workers experience trying to navigate all the unpleasant, sometimes harassing, behavior—of inebriated and high customers, and of hotel owners—with dignity and calm. Prior to the Covid lockdown, organizers with Local 11 of UNITE HERE! had been working to unionize the hotel. In an attempt to deal with worker complaints about harassment, they worked to secure for room cleaners and other employees basic protections such as panic buttons, in case they were assaulted or harassed inside a guest’s room.

On another level, though, it speaks to an issue of transcendent national importance: workers’ rights to safety and to security of employment, both in the pandemic era and beyond.

Cast out of work in mid-March of 2020, the former Marmont employees found themselves without health insurance by April. In response to their pleas for assistance, Balazs’s company set up a GoFundMe that ended up raising a few hundred dollars for each employee but failed to ensure that the workers would be able to keep their health insurance. Nor did it publicly agree that, when operations eventually resumed again at pre-pandemic levels, it would bring employees back to work with the same levels of seniority and the benefits they had before they were laid off.

When Los Angeles passed an ordinance a few months ago mandating that employers give priority to their previous employees upon reopening, Marmont’s management tried to circumvent the new requirement by converting the hotel into a private club, so that it could hire new workers—presumably at lower rates of recompense.

Earlier this month, California’s Governor Newsom signed a statewide law, SB 93, that replicates many of the strong worker protections of the LA ordinance. And yet the workers at the Chateau Marmont (which received nearly $2 million in PPP loans during the pandemic) have still not been rehired. So, throughout the run-up to the Oscars, workers at Hollywood’s most fabled hotel hosted mock Oscars, complete with red carpets, on the picket line, to highlight the absurd inequities the Marmont embodies. During the ceremony, the protesters gave out mock Oscars to workers for their decades of service at the hotel.

“The fight is for the incumbent workers to return to work,” says Kurt Peterson, copresident of Local 11 of UNITE HERE! “The company needs to follow the law.” Of the boycott, Peterson says, “That hotel lives for Hollywood. Hollywood is the oxygen for that hotel. And Hollywood’s leaving that hotel.”

The protest comes at a moment when the conversation about workers’ rights is picking up steam nationally. This week, President Biden signed an executive order establishing a $15-per-hour minimum wage for all federal contract workers. He has also firmly put himself on the side of workers, at Amazon and elsewhere, seeking to unionize in order to get fairer deals on wages and on benefits. In his speech to Congress this Wednesday evening, breathtaking in its radical aspirations, Biden repeatedly emphasized policy goals—from universal pre-K through to expanded access to affordable health care, from 12 weeks of paid family leave to a jobs plan that he argued would create millions of jobs—pitched to resonate with working-class voters. He policies were, he argued, a “blue-collar blueprint to build America.… The middle class built the country, and unions built the middle class.”

Back at the Marmont, ex-employee Alejandro Roldan was on the picket line over the Oscars weekend. Roldan used to earn $16 an hour at the hotel, but was infected with Covid early in the pandemic and spent his meager life savings on paying for his own insurance and out-of-pocket medical bills after the company cut his insurance off. “I want a better future for my coworkers and myself,” he explained. “On the last day I worked, they called me into the office and said they weren’t going to count on me anymore, because of the pandemic. They took away the insurance, everything, from the employees. We’d like to come back to the hotel with respect and dignity.”

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