Wake-Up Call: South Asians Stand in Solidarity with Hotel Workers

"Workers rights zindabad, unfair wages murdabad!" Attendees of the South Asian "Student" Association's annual conference, held over the Martin Luther King weekend, were awoken to chants of protest as young South Asians from around the country stood in solidarity with boycotting hotel workers at the Wilshire Grand Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. For over nine months, union workers at the Wilshire Grand, the venue for this year's SASA conference, and eight other Los Angeles hotels have orchestrated a large and highly organized boycott of these five-star hotels in protest of inhumane workloads, inadequate health insurance, sub-standard living wages, and discrimination against African-Americans job applicants. In the tradition of this highly celebrated Civil Rights holiday, we stood as one and demanded to be heard.

Boycotting California workers have been able to sustain their organized agitation for over nine months in a political climate where the successful but unforgotten attack on Affirmative Action and the series of anti-immigrant propositions have, in effect, silenced the debate on social justice issues impacting immigrants and other communities of color. The situation has been further exacerbated by the political ascendancy of newly elected Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, despite claiming to empathize with immigrant issues, has supported a host of initiatives harming immigrant communities such as Proposition 187. The fact that Schwarzenegger is an immigrant himself is not lost on the masses who have been negatively impacted by these measures. Despite their soon-to-be Governor-elect having been an accused sex offender and admitted steroid abuser, Californians from the Bay Area to San Diego, inexplicably went to the polls in droves to vote him into office. And whom do the media pundits blame for the Terminator's arrival to ultimate political status in California? The youth.

So, what does this have to do with a South Asian youth conference held in Los Angeles? It speaks volumes.

The Context

Dialogues around race, gender, sexuality, and class have been set on the backburner to usher in new rhetoric that effectively shut the door on any talk of discrimination and prejudice through the advent of postmodernism and legislative propositions employed into intellectual and artistic circuits. Further instantiated by the fact that the Bush Administration's conservative radicalism seems to lie somewhere within all of our circuits, the University of California system, disregarding the consequential avalanche of Proposition 209, continues to abandon its responsibility to foster learning through diversity, by choosing to overlook rigorous recruitment and retention initiatives for students and faculty of color. Such inaction has played a crucial role in leading to a largely materialistic and uninflected generation of youth that, rather than being critical thinkers, have instead become too comfortable to think.

Case in point: the annual SASA conference and subsequent action. The plan to take action began in September 2004 when members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (UNITE! HERE) Local 11 approached the SASA leadership and the UCLA Indian Student Union host committee to inform them about the ongoing boycott, and to request that the organizers choose a different venue for the conference as a show of solidarity with the workers' cause.

In response, the SASA leadership refused to even acknowledge the labor dispute. Ironically, SASA's motto for this year's conference was, "Lights, Camera, Action!", an obvious attempt to fit into the Tinseltown and Hollywood glitz that resonates throughout Los Angeles. But the stance taken by SASA against the boycotting workers could not have been more out of tune with the mainstream of Hollywood organizations. Key members of the Hollywood community, including the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the Teamsters Local 399, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), and the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians/CWA, /CWA, are supporters of the boycotting workers.

However, HERE's call for support was met with apathy by the SASA leadership. Finding no relevance between the goals of the Conference and the workers' call for equitable workplace rights, a SASA board member callously wrote on the SASA website message board,"[w]e got an email today from people supporting the unions saying that in this post 9-11 world, South Asians (i.e. people who look brown/[A]rab) should support fellow immigrants who are being persecuted, and that we should switch hotels. Call us elitest or whatever, this is not about human rights or racism- it's about MONEY!"

The messenger makes one good point in his/her statement—it certainly is about money. However, what the messenger fails to recognize is that South Asians should support, and have the means to support, a cause that is necessary to uplift the human race, not just themselves financially.

As is the case with most political disputes, the situation at the Wilshire Grand was, in fact, about money. Borrowing from the rhetoric of President George W. Bush, Starwood hotels has used post-9/11 terrorist paranoia as an excuse to slash workers wages and benefits, arguing that the tourism and hotel industry has not recovered since the tragedies. As a result, the union workers have not been able to secure a fair contract and this five-year-old hotel conglomerate has witnessed a significant rise in its stock price (Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. stock price on September 21, 2001 was $17.75 and on February 7, 2005, the stock reached $61.55) in addition to its annual profit margins increase (a reported 2001 Gross Profits of $1.6 billion and a reported 2004 Gross Profits of $2.2 billion). However, this increased cash flow has not filtered down to the workers as their salaries have remained stagnant, and their benefits have continued to be less than adequate. Bush's rhetoric is being borrowed by the Starwood Corporation for the same purpose: more greed and profits for the hotel conglomerate at the expense of the people.

It seemed that this year's conference would take place without even an acknowledgment by SASA. But a group of South Asian community members did step up. Due to the apathetic response by the SASA corporate leadership, members of South Asians for Change and Youth Solidarity Summer, along with UNITE! HERE Local 11, began contacting speakers to ask them to resign from speaking at SASA's conference. Only then did SASA begin to acknowledge a labor situation would exist at the time of their conference. This national bond of concerned desis were able to convince notable speakers such as Mira Kamdar, Ravi Kapoor, Chitra Ganesh, and Parminder Nagra to resign their participation as a show of solidarity with the workers and their cause. It was at this time when SASA finally acknowledged the requests of moving the location of the conference.

However, with less than a month to go, SASA's leadership claimed that there was not enough time to change the venue for such a large conference. Fair enough, but the most disturbing fact was SASA's refusal to inform and educate their attendees and speakers of the current labor situation at the Wilshire Grand, and, as requested by HERE, let the attendees decide for themselves whether or not to stay as guests at the boycotted hotel.

The Strategy

The South Asian community wanted to support the worker's struggle by helping to inform the conference attendees about the issues facing the boycotting workers. Our strategy was three-fold: to educate, to organize, and to agitate.

On the first night, coalition members of the South Asian community distributed fliers outside of the hotel, while discussing the situation of the hotel workers boycott on a one-on-one basis with conference goers. We found this to be quite effective as we were able to talk to our fellow first generation South Asian Americans. Although some were apprehensive and plain apathetic, others recognized the issue, showed concern, and drew parallels in their own lives.

For instance, one young desi hotel owner from Los Angeles agreed that the hotel workers wages of $8.00 per hour with no lunch break was exploitatively low. The conference attendee mentioned that he employs his own hotel workers with much higher wages as well as valid lunch and rest breaks. It seemed completely intuitive to him that his employees earn livable wages and have fair working conditions. Why is this not clear for the Starwood corporation? Another conference attendee from Detroit tearfully recalled his own experience of being raised by a single mother, who, similar to the boycotting hotel workers, earned low wages and was forced to work numerous other jobs in order to make ends meet and keep her family healthy and safe.

We recognized the need to talk to the conference attendees at our own levels, rather than attacking them with an onslaught of screams ringing "workers rights, zindabad, unfair wages, murdabad!" (which was yet to come), as it might act as a deterrent to the main issue that was at hand: having the youth understand the basis of the race, immigrant, gender, and class conflict and discrimination and how it impacts them. The youth were able to constructively weigh the issues for themselves; it was just a matter of offering awareness around labor rights, something that the conference organizers consciously neglected to do in the first place.

Throughout the second day, hotel workers were out in full effect from early morning until evening, chanting calls for protest in loudspeakers, which was accompanied by signs, banners, and the banging of pots and pans. The highlight of the second day was when hundreds of members of the Service and Employees International Union (SEIU) Locals came to the Wilshire Grand in support of the hotel worker's efforts. If the conference attendees did not previously know that this was a serious matter, they understood it at that moment.

The third and final day proved to be the true highlight of the weekend as an unconventional Saturday morning wake up call greeted tenants of the Wilshire Grand at 6AM. Additional labor unions members attended this action, including the United Teachers Los Angeles, United Farm Workers, Asian Pacific American Labor Association (APALA), AFL-CIO, and SEIUs. Hotel receptionists were busy answering angry phone calls from hotel guests, as protestors' cries could be heard all the way up to the 11th floor. The sunrise reflecting off our metallic pots and pans was breathtaking. This period of protests went from 6AM to 1PM and ended in a rally with remarks given by California State Assembly member, Judy Chu, who offered high praises to the workers in running and leading such a fierce campaign.

The Breakdown

The situation at the Wilshire Grand, with South Asians (SASA) pitted against other communities of color, is yet another example of the century long history of immigrant communities facing off against each other in the struggle for social justice. These conflicts are a part of America's proud past and continue to be contrarian symbols in its otherwise homogeneous culture.

Even though there is not a large number of South Asian hotel union members in Los Angeles, it is important to recognize that the workers' struggles offer stark parallels to the struggles of desi laborers across the world. Whether that is a taxi driver in New York, a restaurant worker in London, or a garment worker in Bangladesh, we should not forget about the corresponding struggles of our brothers and sisters, as they fight for humane working conditions and fair living wages. These fair living standards are not only denied by multinational corporations, but also by South Asian factory owners themselves. Despite what others try hard to make us forget, everyone needs be held accountable when people's rights and livelihoods are infringed upon.

Contrary to what has been continually reported by mainstream media, it is important to note and acknowledge that the days of only affluent South Asian doctors and engineers in America has never really been the case. This is further exasperated by mainstream media's efforts to: (1) group our race into an easy, identifiable role within mainstream society; and (2) pit our community against other minority groups. Do we not remember the LA Uprisings of 1992, where the media took every opportunity to show clips of Korean shopkeepers brawling with African American residents while the real culprits remained safely secured in their Beverly Hills mansions?

Amongst the South Asian community, issues of labor and workers rights are not separate from concerns of workers in the Los Angeles immigrant community. South Asians, referenced by the mainstream media as the model of all model minorities, are in fact a highly diverse group in ethnicity, nationality, and class.

South Asians can and should be proud of our success to overcome the heavy punches that are blown at us by those darn -isms that cannot, and will not, stop etching away at our dignities. However, we cannot simply just be proud. We, of course, must remind ourselves, that as a community, we descend from a region that is consistently hit by earthquakes, religious fundamentalism, tsunamis, the IMF, poverty, AIDS, Coca-Cola, sweatshops—you name it. Also, we currently reside in a region that is providing the ammunition for the (non-natural) hits to keep coming, not only in South Asia, but in virtually every region in the world. Supporting causes that stop these punches rather than simply feeling a false sense of comfort is the very means necessary to improve not only our lives, but all lives.

When one thinks about the basic issues SASA has promised to address next year, labor rights and general social responsibility, it is difficult not to become quite concerned that these basic struggles are so foreign to a substantial percentage of young Americans, let alone young South Asians. The elitism and apathy displayed by SASA is quite disconcerting and, even through the action during MLK weekend, it reminded us all that many elite desi youth take their affluent lifestyles as a basis of entitlement rather than as a path of opportunity that it should be. Yet education will always continue, and the fight will always remain: in struggle, solidarity, and purpose.

Another outcome of the organizing efforts was the exposure of the corporate hijack of the South Asian Students Association. By following a tip left by a previous SASA student organizer, we found that a new goal for the conference has been taking its course for the last few years. In working collaboratively with UCLA administrators, we found that the conference was financially responsible and liable by one man who has corporatized the rights of the not-for-profit student conference. This man (not youth) took it upon himself to re-issue the conference from a student-run non-profit generating organization to a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC). By claiming the guise of a student conference, he has been able to rake thousands of dollars by making youth pay exorbitant fees to attend the conference and its corresponding parties and events.

The usual goal of a student-run conference, to explore and expand identity and community awareness at a low cost, where students of all income levels can attend, has been substituted instead with the goal of squeezing money out of youth and enabling a culture of alcohol-induced violence leaving South Asian conference attendees, club owners, and local police squads showing up to clubs in riot gear, angry and disgruntled by the end of the weekend. These particular issues of profiteering and violence must be recognized for future universities and communities who host the conference in years to come. The conference must be placed back solely into the hands of the students.

The Conclusion

The actions by the nationwide desi community continue to be recognized for the impact that has been made on all parties involved in the struggle for worker's rights and educating the South Asian youth. Grace Regullano, our main representative with the HERE stated, "The support we received from the South Asian community members was incredible. They contacted speakers who otherwise would not have been informed about the dispute. Their presence on the picket line was invaluable, as it showed the workers that, although some of the South Asian community was crossing the boycott line, a significant portion of the community understood and supported the workers' struggle for respect and justice. The outcome of these efforts culminated in our shared efforts to create one of our most successful mini-campaign strategies since our battle began months ago."

This article was written in February 2005. Due to the continued work of UNITE HERE Local 11 and the Los Angeles Hotel Employees Council, there continues to be great progress. In June 2005, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, LA's first Latino mayor, announced that an agreement has been reached. For more information, please refer to the following article: http://www.unitehere.org/frontpagedetail.asp?ID=75.

Comments

Thank you for writing about this. It adds a lot of depth and detail to the emails going around on various desi left listservs. How has the coalition built around this campaign followed up after the SASA conference?

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