Brenda Mendoza, a worker at the Ritz-Carlton Los Angeles, begins her daily commute at 3 a.m. To save gas, she carpools with family members, and they arrive back home around 9 p.m., at which point she’s lucky to catch three hours of sleep. Some days, she can sneak a nap during her 30-minute lunch break.
This extended journey was not always Brenda’s fate, as she once commuted only ten minutes to and from her union job as a uniform attendant. However, increasing rental costs have pushed her and her family so far from downtown LA that she now drives four hours roundtrip every day she works at the hotel, where the cheapest room would cost you more than $800 tonight.
Brenda’s commute is extreme, but it is not unique among the LA-based members of UNITE HERE Local 11, where I work as a staff attorney. Local 11 represents approximately 32,000 hotel and food-service workers across Southern California and Arizona. Too often, those who can afford to live anywhere near their workplaces live in walk-in closets, share cramped apartments among three generations, or use their living rooms as a bedroom for their five children. Those who get pushed out of LA spend four hours a day (or more) in bumper-to-bumper traffic or on multiple buses and trains—or, too tired to make that effort after a day of grueling work, they sleep in their cars between shifts.
The exorbitant cost of housing in LA is one of the main reasons that workers at more than 50 hotels across Los Angeles and Orange Counties have gone on strike since July 1. Among the strikers’ primary demands are significant raises to keep up with the cost of living. At the same time, these and other indignities of the LA housing market have stolen so much of our members’ precious time and money—time and money that the Union fought hard for, in contract after contract—that Local 11 has also worked to address the problem of housing directly.
Housing as a Union Issue
There are good reasons for unions to make housing a bargaining issue in any industry. First and most obviously, workers are often tenants, and tenants are often workers, so the two groups comprise largely the same people living under the overlapping subordination regimes of employment and the private housing market. Strategically, labor unions are well positioned to address the problem: they have the organizational structure, financial resources, and political power to be able to advance progressive reforms like rent control or other tenant protections that will benefit many of their members. Finally, from a pragmatic perspective, unions cannot win much for their members without addressing the high cost of housing, which diverts large percentages of any wage raises into profits for landlords—who are, increasingly, actually just other powerful corporations.
In fact, the corporations that own the units rented by workers are increasingly the same corporations that control their workplaces. They are often private equity firms, such as Blackstone, which, as the largest landlord in the country, has aggressively ramped up both rents and evictions since the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the more than fifty hotels where Local 11 members went on strike this summer, Local 11 estimates that about 40% are owned and/or operated by private equity firms, including Blackstone, Advent International, Starwood Capital, and others. As private equity invades industries across the economy, other unions share adversaries with tenants as well, whether they represent healthcare workers in long-term care facilities owned by private equity or public school teachers fighting the encroachment of private equity-backed charter schools. In 2022, for instance, striking UCLA grad workers made UCLA’s status as mega-landlord a core issue as they fought for raises to be able to live in LA—some of them unable to afford UCLA-owned housing with their UCLA wages. More recently, a group of Glendale tenants threatened with eviction discovered that the owner of their apartment building was none other than Stepan Kazaryan, the owner of the North Hollywood strip club where dancers successfully unionized and continue fighting for their first contract. The tenants joined the striking Star Garden dancers on the picket line this weekend, holding signs that said, “HE’S OUR COMMON ENEMY/ÉL ES NUESTRO ENIMIGO.” Because workers and tenants have common adversaries, combining efforts makes sense.
So what can labor unions do? Local 11, for its part, has tried to address the housing problem through both public policy and private CBA negotiations. Publicly, Local 11 has spearheaded or supported a number of ordinances intended to preserve the housing stock and fund tenant protections in LA. For instance, the Union advocated vigorously for the LA City Council to enact the Home-Sharing Ordinance to regulate Short-term Rentals (STRs)—such as Airbnb, a primary culprit in removing units from the long-term rental market and causing surrounding rents to rise further—which the Council did in 2018. And as enforcement of the Ordinance has proven difficult, with almost half of current STRs technically illegal under the City’s framework, the union helped form a joint-labor management cooperation committee and launched a coalition called Better Neighbors LA that work to improve enforcement efforts.
In 2022, Local 11 was also part of an “unprecedented coalition” of labor unions, tenant organizations, and other community groups who successfully enacted Measure ULA, which imposes taxes on real estate transfers of over $5 million and will use the resulting revenue to create the largest municipal housing program, on a per-person basis, in the country. Local 11 was one of several unions that collected thousands of signatures in support of the measure, which went into effect on April 1, 2023.
The Union has also been conscious of the specific impact of its own industry on housing. A form of temporary housing reserved for the wealthy, hotels often displace or convert existing housing in the course of their development. In late November, the LA City Council approved a law similar to a proposal the Union had pushed in order to target the phenomenon of hotels taking housing off the rental market. The new ordinance will aim to preserve the City’s housing stock by requiring hotel developers to replace any existing housing that they demolish or remove from the market in the course of their development. It would also give residents a say in hotel development more broadly, ensuring that the city considers a proposed development’s impact on issues like jobs and housing.
This year, the Union has also started trying to address housing privately, through the collective bargaining process. We proposed three contract provisions to the group of hotels that would address our members’ housing problems. First, we proposed that employers agree to endorse a version of the law that City Council recently passed. Second, the Union has proposed to expand the joint labor-management cooperation trust fund that has worked to improve enforcement of regulations on short-term rentals to protect rental housing stock. And third, and perhaps most creatively, we proposed a fee on hotel rooms that would contribute to a housing trust fund for members that would, among other potential uses, build affordable workforce housing near our members’ workplaces, provide emergency low-interest loans to members in danger of losing their own housing due to inability to pay rent, and provide other tenant services. Bargaining remains ongoing as of this writing.
Connecting Labor and Tenant Organizing
Making creative demands around housing is neither new nor unique to Local 11. Labor has a long history of supporting affordable housing for workers through creative combinations of public housing policy and housing-related demands in collective bargaining agreements. For example, in 1927, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America successfully helped fund the first housing cooperative in New York City – a move that the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) repeated in the 1950s, funding the Penn South Cooperative. In 1949, labor unions were instrumental in passing the federal Housing Act of 1949. In the 1980s, UNITE HERE Local 26 responded to dramatically increasing rents in Boston by fighting for and winning a housing trust fund in their contract, in which employers paid seven cents an hour into a fund used to meet members’ housing needs. Jane McAlevey, who has famously championed the concept of “whole worker organizing,” chronicled a successful multi-union effort in the 1990s to organize janitors, cabdrivers, city clerks, and nursing-home aides in Stamford, Connecticut around the issue of unaffordable housing—saving four public-housing projects from demolition, helping push new ordinances that mandated affordable housing, and meanwhile winning new unions and first contracts.
This connection between labor organizing and tenant organizing has been less common in recent decades, as organized labor has been increasingly cornered into defending its shrinking territory. But labor activity is on the upswing, with recent strikes showing that unions may be able to make creative and aggressive new demands for the first time in decades. Some of these demands can and should address the housing crisis.
After all, employers are well aware that they can count the cost of housing among the structural tools that deter union organizing, especially in expensive markets like LA. In the week before SAG-AFTRA joined WGA on the picket lines to jointly strike the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, an anonymous studio executive relayed the employer’s strategy to the public in plain terms: “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.”
WGA and SAG-AFTRA both defied this unfortunately realistic scheme, ending their strikes with groundbreaking contracts. But some undoubtedly lost housing along the way. As our union’s members know firsthand, the monthly imperative of rent or mortgage payments operates as a constant constriction on their ability not to work. With both the LA City Council and the LA County Board of Supervisors recently approving rent increases in 2024, workers will be more constricted still.
Putting creative housing demands on the bargaining table and engaging in public campaigns for tenant protections are essential first steps for all unions that can bargain on the offensive as they gain power. But because the marketization of housing operates as a direct threat to labor power, unions might also follow the lead of the most visionary labor and tenant unions and embrace a more radical stance for the long-term: that housing should be guaranteed for all.
Labor unions have often had the role of voicing radical visions about what does and does not belong in markets, even as they fight for their members’ survival pending systemic change: Local 11 and National Nurses United have called for universal health care, even as we press employers to pay into elaborate private health funds to meet our members’ medical needs in the meantime. Unions are well positioned to make other radical market-constitutive claims: that housing, like health care, does not belong in a consumer market. If workers were not beholden to paying rent every single month, how much longer could we strike? If housing were guaranteed for all, how much more could we win?
This post represents the personal views of the author and should not be attributed to her employer.