Capitalism Mark Kreidler Worker's Rights

Los Angeles Hotel Workers Turn Up Media Pressure Amid Boycott Efforts

When one conference declined to cancel, a union walkout helped drive other concessions.
Workers on strike. Photo form Flickr by J Hofker.

By Mark Kreidler / Capital&Main

The vast majority of calls to boycott businesses in the midst of contract disputes don’t work, labor experts say — at least not if the end goal is to generate the kinds of financial losses that would pressure a company to negotiate more seriously.

But labor organizations continue to go the boycott route. That’s because there is more than one kind of pressure that a boycott call can generate, as we saw this week in the ongoing Los Angeles hotel workers’ strike.

The stage was set with the American Political Science Association convening its annual four-day conference in the downtown area. On Wednesday, as the APSA meetings began, thousands of members of UNITE HERE Local 11, which represents some 15,000 hotel workers in and around L.A., began walking out of hotel properties across the area.

The action came days after the union called for a boycott of future conventions and events at roughly 60 properties “until the hotel industry pays a living wage and puts an end to violence against its striking members,” a reference to reports of protesters being physically accosted by hotel security. The union is seeking an immediate $5 an hour raise, and a total $11 an hour increase over a three-year contract. (Disclosure: UNITE HERE is a financial supporter of Capital & Main.)

Several groups have already canceled or relocated events scheduled at the hotels being struck, among them the Democratic Governors Association, the Japanese American Citizens League and the Council of State Governments West. The APSA event, meanwhile, has fractured the association, with hundreds refusing to attend after the association declined to postpone or move the conference.

Those cancellations will have some economic impact on the hotels involved, but generally not at the levels that would provoke real movement in a negotiation. “The vast majority of boycotts fail,” labor expert Maurice Schweitzer said earlier this year, speaking of such actions in general. “They fail because you need people to have a sustained and coordinated response.”

On the other hand, asking a group like the APSA to stand up for fair labor negotiations on Labor Day weekend presses different buttons. It brings an otherwise academic exercise for most onlookers — who should get what in a contract negotiation — into a more specific relief. And the APSA’s tortured response to UNITE HERE’s request generated its own news coverage, which for the union is essentially earned media. It’s one way to fight the industry giants.

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“The hotels are complicated,” said Peter Dreier, a professor at Occidental College and the author of several books on urban policy and labor history. “They’re mostly global and national corporations, but they’re also franchised at the same time. For example, Marriott owns a lot of its properties, but not all of them.”

Still, the brand is the brand. And the fact that the JW Marriott in downtown Los Angeles was one of the primary hotels for the APSA’s schedule of events produced its own ripple effect, with the association eventually moving those events to the city’s nearby convention center, which is not part of the hotel workers’ job action.

Therein lies one of the most powerful components of a boycott call: the pressure on very well-known brands once they’re the focus of the boycott. In the L.A. action, those include Marriott, Hilton, Sheraton and Hyatt, among many others. And brands don’t love getting tarred.

It’s not a new tactic, nor is its effectiveness a recent discovery. In 2017, Brayden King, then with the Institute for Policy Research, said his study of the topic had found that “the No. 1 predictor of what makes a boycott effective is how much media attention it creates, not how many people sign on to a petition or how many consumers it mobilizes.”

Unions have used boycotts through the decades, to varying effect. Perhaps the most famously successful of these was the boycott of grapes initiated by the United Farm Workers upon that union’s creation in the 1960s. Even so, Stephen Lerner, a longtime UFW organizer, recently said the tactic’s likelihood of success is dependent on specific — often local — conditions.

“Successful boycotts require a combination of workers organizing and taking action that is then supported by a broader public campaign,” Lerner said in a recent interview.

Dreier noted that UNITE HERE has worked for years to engender such support in Los Angeles, enlisting area politicians and celebrities (and people who are both) in its campaigns for fair wages and working conditions. This summer, the union has marched with and in support of the Writers Guild of America and the actors union SAG-AFTRA, thus using the power and notoriety of those groups to help amplify its own desire for fair contracts.

In many respects, Dreier said, the union is waging a public campaign because labor laws are so weak that only such negative publicity and calls for boycott might prompt the hotels to come to the table for meaningful talks.

“Some unions, like the hotel workers, have decided to just use political and public pressure to get a contract negotiated without the hammer of federal labor law,” said Dreier. “But it takes a very militant union with a lot of community support to get behind that.”

In a summer of strong labor solidarity, the hotel workers’ calls for boycott may well get a favorable reception. Ultimately, though, it isn’t all about persuading conventioneers to cancel. It’s also about who is getting called out — and why. That is a publicity battle, and it is increasingly one that unions have to win in order to succeed.

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Mark Kreidler

Mark Kreidler is a California-based writer and broadcaster, and the author of three books, including Four Days to Glory.

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