Daily Press Staff Writer
The Chamber of Commerce is pushing back against two recent decisions by the City Council, accusing elected officials of bolstering the hotel worker’s union, Unite Here Local 11, at the expense of the local business community.
For the first time in recent memory, the Chamber is circulating a petition to influence city policy, asking the Council to reject a proposal to require a Labor Peace Agreement (LPA) in leases at City-owned property at the Santa Monica Airport, the Pier and downtown.
In October, the City Council asked staff to explore requiring LPAs that contain a no-strike pledge.
The measure would be similar to a requirement by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District that food service providers have an LPA with any labor organization seeking to represent hospitality workers at schools.
City staff will come back to the Council with more information in the coming months.
The discussion of LPAs came just six months after the Council passed a controversial exemption to the noise ordinance that allows loud protests on public property.
Critics say the change to City policy was a direct result of union demonstrations on Ocean Avenue outside the Shore Hotel.
Opponents of the Council’s recommendation point to the current situation at the Spitfire Grill, which is already required to negotiate an LPA as a lease condition.
In the midst of stalled negotiations, Unite Here protesters brought a bullhorn during the lunch hour, chasing away customers and costing the owner about $4,000 in business, according to testimony at the Oct. 24 City Council meeting.
When the restaurant’s owner and several customers called police to complain about the noise, officers told them there was nothing they could do.
While Unite Here does not currently represent any workers at independent restaurants in Santa Monica, union research analyst Danielle Wilson told the Daily Press, “there is a national conversation about unions in the food industry that we are involved in.”
The LPA requirement would affect about two-dozen restaurants in the City, including Perry’s Beach Cafe and Rentals, the Albright, and Caffe Bellagio among others. Business owners say requiring the LPA gives the union the upper hand in negotiations.
“There’s a lot of frustration on the part of the business community where it feels like the LPA and the noise ordinance changes weren’t being advanced because Santa Monica residents were asking for it,” said Carl Hansen, Director of Economic Affairs for the Chamber.
“One hundred percent of the public testimony was opposed to this. It feels like an inappropriate policy move for this community.”
Councilmember Kevin McKeown made the motion for City staff to explore the LPA requirement at the October meeting. In 2014, Unite Here spent $31,686 in support of his reelection.
“This is not about forcing workers to become union workers,” McKeown said of the motion. “This is not about ending sidewalk dining and it’s not about not appreciating our small businesses, either.”
McKeown said the requirement would stop the city from losing revenue during work stoppages. Last year, the city made $4.5 million from leasing space to food service providers.
However, a staff report presented to City Council could not find an example of a strike hurting city revenue. Even at the Spitfire Grill, the profit losses caused by the picketing did not impact the restaurant owner’s ability to pay his rent.
“What are we trying to solve here?” asked Councilman Terry O’Day who voted against the motion and voiced his support for keeping the status quo. Councilmember Pam O’Conner also voted against the motion.
O’Day, Mayor-pro tempore Gleam Davis, Councilman Tony Vazquez and Mayor Ted Winterer each received $10,401 in total support (including donations to independent expenditure committees) from Unite Here in 2012 and $340 in 2016, according to campaign disclosure statements.
While they are required to disclose donations to candidates and issues, it is difficult to quantify the impact of Unite Here member individual donations and volunteer efforts on each candidate’s ground game in recent elections.
Unite Here did not publicly endorse the motion but sent the Daily Press a statement:
“We offered the Chamber of Commerce an opportunity to have a leader who is trusted by the business community mediate a conversation with restaurant owners on City land about labor peace, and they declined the offer. We do not feel that the petition being circulated accurately represents our efforts to be sensitive to the concerns of restaurants.”
While an LPA does not necessarily require a business to unionize, union representatives reached out to at least one server at the Spitfire Grill during her boss’s stalled negotiations over the LPA.
“On October 10, two people from Unite Here arrived on my doorstep,” waitress Nicole Olsen said, explaining her husband answered the door.
“They told him it concerned my job at Spitfire Grill. They claimed it was about my union.”
Olsen told the Council she is happy with her employer and does not want to unionize.
“So-called Labor Peace won’t do a thing except getting in the way of small businesses who are the heart of this community,” Olsen said.
While picketing has not rocked Santa Monica restaurants besides the Spitfire Grill, Councilmember Davis said she supported the motion because of the potential.
“I think whether we like it or not we have to do something,” Davis said. “I think if we were to start to see informational picketing at the Promenade or at the beaches, I think we would all realize that we needed to take action then and that may well be coming.”