L.A. Labor Protest Draws 2,000, Hundreds Arrested

Pat McCaughan, Episcopal News Service, September 29, 2006

At least 2,000 demonstrators closed Century Boulevard near the Los Angeles International Airport during the Thursday, September 29, evening rush hour in protest of low wages for immigrant workers at nearby hotels.

Authorities arrested about 400 protestors, including clergy and state and local officials, who staged peaceful sit-ins after a short march to the Hilton Hotel at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and the nearby Westin Hotel.

After a 5 p.m. rally, a stream of families, students, clergy and workers poured into the streets near the airport, waving signs and banners reading “Soy Un Ser Hermano (I Am A Human Being)” and “Amnistia: Derechos Pienos para los Immigrantes (Amnesty: Full Rights for Immigrants).” The marchers alternately chanted: “Boycott Hilton,” “No Justice, No Peace” and “Si Se Puede” to the steady beat of drums.

The Rev. Canon Dick Gillett, among those arrested, said Thursday’s protest was meant to underscore “the rights of low-wage workers to organize, and hotel management’s refusal to recognize the dignity and rights of hotel workers.

“We are here to call attention to the unsafe and unfair working conditions of low-wage workers and the way they are treated when they try to exercise their rights. Their wages are not enough to keep a family of four at a decent level of income,” said Gillett, 75, who is minister for social justice for the Diocese of Los Angeles and a member of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, or CLUE, an organizer of the march.

The gathering included the blessing, breaking and sharing of bread by the Rev. Joe Frazier, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Torrance; the sounding of the ram’s horn and distribution of flowers to marchers. The multi-ethnic, multi-faith crowd of supporters lined the streets and cheered as police placed Gillett and others in plastic handcuffs and led them to waiting buses for the trip to jail.

“Those arrested will be taken to various facilities in the area, processed and released” within several hours, said Mary Grady, public information director for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). She said the peaceful protest was planned in advance in cooperation with several police agencies, including the LAPD and Inglewood and airport police.

“The bottom line is, we want to facilitate organizations’ or groups’ First Amendment Rights to demonstrate . . . as well as to get the area cleared away and operational as quickly as possible,” Grady said.

Some hotel workers watched and waved as the group marched past them. Jose Landino, a Westin Hotel banquet services employee, said he hoped the demonstration would help resolve labor issues. “We want respect, and higher wages,” he said.

Danny Feingold, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, an event organizer, said about 400 people were arrested altogether and called it a historic event for the city.

“This is an incredible turnout. Nothing like this has ever been done before in the Los Angeles area,” he said, referring to the sit-in and arrests, which were coordinated with the UNITE HERE union, which represents more than 450,000 manufacturing, retail and service workers throughout North America.

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He said that an annual income of $30,000 is considered a living wage but added that many hotel workers earn less. Hilton workers, for example, earn an average $8 per hour with minimal wage increases regardless of seniority, he said.

Feingold said Thursday’s rally and sit-ins will fuel continued activism.

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Local and state officials were among those arrested including state legislators Gil Cedillo (Democrat-Los Angeles), Richard Alarcon (Democrat-Sun Valley) and Judy Chu (Democrat-Monterey Park). L.A. City Council members Ed Reyes and Jose Huizar were also arrested.

Attempts to reach local Hilton Hotel owner David Hsu and Hilton corporate officials for comment were unsuccessful but some local businesses passed around a fact sheet refuting the union’s contention that workers are paid less than a living wage. The sheet claimed that the airport area hotels pay an average $9.21 per hour with benefits for room attendants, “several cents above a living wage.”

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The signs read, “No Terrorist Racism in Ventura County,” “Shame on You Borders” and “No Human Being is Illegal.” The shouts from the crowd of approximately 30 protestors outside of Borders Book Store in Thousand Oaks ranged from the boilerplate “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, the Minutemen have got to go” to an angry “Racists go home” to an even more creative “Down with the geriatric fascist.”

And what was all the commotion about?

Jim Gilchrist, founder of the highly controversial anti-illegal immigration group, the Minuteman Project, was about to make a book-signing appearance at the store. The Minutemen, considered by many to be vigilantes, have made headlines by organizing civilian patrols of the U.S.-Mexico border. Gilchrist’s new book, co-authored by Jerome Corsi, Minutemen: The Battle to Secure America’s Borders, is a first-hand account of the authors’ views on what they consider America’s lax immigration policies.

And while there were a handful of fans and readers inside waiting for their signed copy of the book, the crowd outside easily outnumbered them.

With police standing by in case anything got out of hand, John Osmond of the May Day Coalition for Students and Workers Justice explained that his organization had been keeping its eye on the Minutemen’s actions. “They are anti-immigrant … But really, what is going on is an assault on Latinos,” he explained. “They aren’t worried about undocumented workers from Canada, only immigrants from Mexico … It is something we need to speak out against.”

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