January 24, 2019

Protest for Labor Rights

For the past four years, the predominantly Latino hospitality and housing employees at the University of Southern California have been fighting for a written guarantee of job security. Now, union leaders representing the workers have turned to Jewish leaders to support what they consider a call for justice.

The labor dispute began in June 1995, when the contract between USC and Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union expired. Since then, USC has refused to renew a contract under terms that would preclude the possibility of hiring subcontractors, which union leaders see as a threat to the 360 workers’ job security. A rolling hunger strike on behalf of the workers, now termed “The Fast for Justice” began in May when Local 11 President Maria Elena Durazo fasted for 11 days. The fast has since been picked up by Los Angeles religious and political leaders.

In response to the protests, Phil Chiaramonte, Associate Vice President of Auxiliary Services, said that USC has no intention of replacing union workers with subcontractors, but would like to reserve the right to hire subcontractors should the university need to meet unexpected economic and market changes.

“We have indicated more than once that we have no current plans to subcontract those positions,” he said.

In fact, the university, the largest private employer in Los Angeles, has implemented programs to ensure job comfort and stability. Computer, math and ESL courses have been created for the staff. USC arranges for summer job placement for its employees at Universal Studios during the park’s peak season, as work diminishes at USC during the summer. Longtime employees have sent their children to USC on remitted tuition, a benefit the workers cherish for the opportunity it gives their family for higher education.

Many USC hospitality and housing workers agree that they have been treated well. That is why Alex Rivera, one of the more vocal union members, is all the more concerned that he and his fellow workers may lose their jobs.

Rivera, head waiter to USC President Steven Sample and waiter supervisor, has worked at USC for 32 years. He distrusts university officials when they say they will honor their jobs in the event that they hire subcontractors. He cites an episode two years ago when janitorial workers lost their jobs to subcontractors even after university officials claimed that would not occur.

At one of the university restaurants, employees on the job were quick to echo Rivera’s concerns. It was a slow day, but Miriam Siegler was reluctant to speak when managers were around. She says many workers are too intimidated to protest. Some who demonstrated at last year’s commencement were temporarily suspended which, according to officials, was justified since they did not report their absence from work.

“It’s hard when you’re poor and you have to fight with people who are really powerful,” Siegler said.

Jewish leaders who have been known to support labor causes in the past have joined with the union to bring more power to the side of the workers. Jewish support peaked last week on July 22, Tisha B’av afternoon, when about 150 Jewish leaders and Latinos united in front of the historic Breed Street Shul located in the heart of Boyle Heights to support the USC workers in their struggle for job security.

The gathering coincided with Tisha B’Av, to mark the continuation of the Fast for Justice and to commemorate the similar struggles of Jews and Latinos.

At the event, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel, Rabbi Aaron Kriegel of Temple Ner Maraav, Rabbi Marvin Gross of the Jewish Labor Committee and West Hollywood Councilman Paul Koretz pledged their commitment to the workers’ cause. Many of these same leaders were active in pressuring the management of the Summit Hotel Rodeo Drive to settle a labor dispute with employees last year.

Irv Hershenbaum of United Farm Workers, Los Angeles Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, Eric Gordon of the Workman’s Circle and Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami, spoke of their natural sympathy with members of the Latino community. Their parents and grandparents were also hard-working immigrants, many of whom settled in East Los Angeles, in search of a better life for themselves and their families, they said.

“The Jewish community has a long and proud history of being active in the labor movement and having an investment in Boyle Heights where many of the lowest-paid, least secure workers at USC live and raise families today,” said Scott Svonkin, a Koretz aide and Jewish activist who helped coordinate the event.

Jewish outcry comes at a time when USC enjoys improved Jewish relations. In the past decade, USC has reached out to Jewish alumni and increased it’s number of Jewish faculty to approximately one third.

In a statement forwarded to the Journal, USC trustee Kenneth Leventhal accused union leaders of manipulating public opinion to gain strength at the bargaining table. “As a Jew and as a USC trustee, it saddens me and sickens me to see the union attempt to link a sacred Jewish fast day with this dispute,” Leventhal said.

“We, the members of the Jewish community, give notice to President Sample that we have waited long enough,” said Kriegel, who is participating in a boycott call to Jewish donors to halt donations to USC until an agreement is reached.

Meanwhile, negotiators are working to resolve the issue. Possible solutions include consulting with the union before the university subcontracts or ensuring the right of the university to subcontract on condition that current workers are given first preference.