Friday, March 30, 2007

Cesar Chavez

On March 31st, California honors the memory of Cesar Chavez. Chavez led the legendary grape boycott, winning union contracts for Californian farm workers for the first time ever after years of arduous and controversial struggle. His memory is invaluable to those who struggle for change today.

Last year, workers at the LAX Hilton faced numerous abuses. To lift their wages and win affordable health care, they spoke out at work. What happened next? According to charges filed by the NLRB this month, the hotel suspended 77 workers without pay for speaking up. The hotel also forbade workers from picking up their paychecks because they were wearing union T-shirts, and barred workers from accessing their cafeteria because they were going to meet about forming a union.


At the time, my colleagues and I sought to meet with the hotel to hear their side of the story. (My colleague Janice Hahn was exceptional in helping the workers get back to work.) We were, to put it mildly, rebuffed. I got as far as the hotel's driveway, and then left a message for the general manager. My colleagues and I continue to offer the resources of our offices to help resolve the situation.

Workers then took a giant step: they voted to declare a boycott on their own hotel. They knew this could mean reduced hours, wages and tips, but they saw economic pressure, in the mold of Cesar Chavez, as a strong, if risky, step. I joined dozens of local elected officials, religious leaders and community activists who, after hearing from these workers, support their actions and have decided to help them get the word out about their struggle.

How do we create a community with prosperity for all? How do we foster business investment and wide prosperity? This week, I went to Washington, D.C. with the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce to fight for the things that will let us create a good business environment. My colleagues and I will fight for transportation dollars to unclog our streets and housing dollars to make it possible for employees to live near where they work. We'll seek workforce development funds so workers can have careers, not just jobs. We'll cut red tape for new businesses, protect tax amnesties, protect industrial land, support catalytic developments, and continue to reach out to individual businesses that want to provide good jobs.

We've figured out a model in Los Angeles that's pro-business, pro-worker, and pro-community. You can see it in Hollywood, where our new W hotel will create mixed-income housing and living-wage jobs while revitalizing the area, and where we’ve won a state enterprise zone to help advance these efforts. You can see it in the community benefit agreements that have shaped the development of Staples Center, or our port, or the convention center hotel, or that are being hashed out for Grand Avenue. You can see it in the successful career ladder training programs we've advanced, and in the new businesses that continue to come to Los Angeles.

But when the model fails, sometimes you see conflict. An elected official must try to moderate conflict. If the contest is framed as "business" versus "labor", I reject that I have to pick a side: that's a false choice, and we know how to build a community on stronger principles than antagonism. But if workers like those at the LAX Hilton ask for my help, I remember the path of Cesar Chavez, and I am proud to walk with them.