Cheers and chants of “se puede” filled the civic plaza outside the Long Beach City Council chambers Tuesday night following the council’s unanimous vote in favor of the city’s hotel workers, who had been asking for a $25 minimum wage measure to be placed on the ballot in March.

At the council’s direction, the city attorney will now draft the ballot measure outlining an industry-specific minimum wage increase, which will start at $23 and see hotel workers’ wages spike to $29.50 by the 2028 Olympics if they work at Long Beach hotels with 100 or more rooms.

The vote is a major victory for workers and the union that represents them. Unite Here Local 11 and its members across the region have been rallying all summer for higher wages amid contentious contract negotiations.

The ballot measure is an avenue for those union workers to circumvent collective bargaining with hotel operators. Long Beach’s 27 hotels employ about 2,500 people.

“This is crucial,” said Unite Here Co-President Ada Briceño, whose union represents over 32,000 hotel, restaurant, airport, convention center and sports arena employees in Southern California and Arizona. “I think it’s important to show that the council is standing with workers, that they believe wages should increase and that people should live where they work.”

Hotels in Long Beach with at least 100 rooms are already required to pay workers an hourly minimum of $17.55 because of an ordinance passed in 2012, but council members said annual consumer price index adjustments baked into that law haven’t kept pace with the cost of living.

Labor representatives, for their part, say an increase to $25—a 42.5% jump—would provide a living wage for workers amid the increasing profits hotels are bringing in. Hotel operators argued that a large initial jump in pay would be a shock to the system that could result in layoffs.

In July, the council requested a market study to determine the impacts of such a wage increase. The city, however, could not find a firm to turn around the report fast enough to meet the Oct. 24 deadline for adding a measure to the ballot, so it’s unclear what the economic impact could be.

During the meeting, hotel operators said it is irresponsible to move forward without a comprehensive study.

Natalie Gonzalez, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 1930, which includes thousands of city employees, shows support for hotel workers as they strive for an industry-specific minimum wage during the Long Beach City Council meeting Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Elsewhere, concerns about the potential ripple effects of the raises have also sparked pushback. In Anaheim, where Unite Here recently qualified a measure to increase wages for hotel, convention center and Angel Stadium workers to $25 per hour, the City Council in July voted to oppose a ballot measure, citing “potential impacts” to the city’s economy.

Long Beach council members, however, overwhelmingly supported a plan they described as a “balanced” and “middle of the road.” If approved by voters, the timeline for hotel worker pay raises will see an initial 31% jump to $23 per hour in 2024, followed by an annual 6.5% increase through 2028—making it the highest minimum wage in the country, according to the union.

The ballot measure also will include language to clarify that “service charges” added to customer bills must go directly to workers who provide the services. Passage of the measure also would give the council authority to enact changes to the ordinance without future voter input.

During public comment ahead of the vote, numerous unionized city employees who are members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 1930 commented on the fact that many city employees are not paid a living wage, which is a hurdle to filling vacant positions. Each employee ended their remarks by voicing their support for Unite Here.

Likely unintentionally, the union members’ sentiments regarding city salaries are in line with criticism of the council decision from the Hotel Association of Los Angeles.

“Why are Long Beach City Council Members introducing a new hotel minimum wage law and not taking care of their employees first?” Pete Hillan, spokesperson for the association said in a statement Tuesday. “The City of Long Beach doesn’t even pay its own employees a $30 minimum wage.”

Hillan noted the pay scale for Long Beach housing aides, which starts at $16.43 and goes up to $24.20, according to the city’s website.

“The City Council should advocate for all workers rather than spending taxpayer money to insert the city into the collective bargaining process,” Hillan concluded.

Leonard Meza, 10, whose mother, Yadira Aguilar, is a housekeeper at Hyatt Centric in Downtown, speaks before the City Council in favor of an item to increase hotel worker wages meeting Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Before the vote on Tuesday, city staff outlined some benefits and risks of putting the measure on the ballot. On the plus side, the increase would give workers a living wage, it could improve worker retention, it could improve morale and productivity and it could increase the city’s hotel tax revenue due to the fact that hotels will charge more for rooms to offset the pay increases.

Potential downsides include the possibility that fewer people will stay in hotels, which would decrease the city’s tax revenue, as well as the fact that employees could be laid off to offset the increase.

Numerous hotel operators during the meeting said that the pay increase would force them to raise prices, which would in fact have a negative impact on the city’s tourism sector—a sector that the city plans to grow in the future.

“We’re worried,” John Edmond said on behalf of the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce during public comment. “It’s ambitious. And by putting it on the ballot, it’s effectively an endorsement by the city.”

The council, for its part, was not shy in vocalizing its future support of the ballot measure.

“Yes, us putting this on the ballot does put a stamp of approval from the City Council,” 8th District Councilmember Al Austin said moments ahead of the vote. Austin added that he will be “happy to advocate” for the measure’s passage in March.

Following the vote, 6th District Councilmember Suely Saro exited the chamber to speak directly to Unite Here members who had congregated outside city hall.

“We’re not done, but I know we’re going to win this,” Saro told workers. “We’re going to make sure that this goes through. I stand with you to the very end, until we get it passed.”

The road to the ballot

Tuesday’s vote came after months of sometimes contentious labor demonstrations across the region.

Los Angeles-area hotel workers began sporadic strikes on July 4, demanding higher wages and better benefits. Workers at the Hotel Maya—one of only four unionized hotels in the city—joined the fray on Aug. 4, picketing in front of the high-end waterfront hotel.

Spurred on by violence on the picket line, Councilmembers Megan Kerr, Suely Saro, Roberto Uranga and Mary Zendejas as well as Mayor Rex Richardson have been seen rallying with hotel workers at the Maya in Downtown. The officials have even gone so far as joining the union and workers’ call for a boycott of the Long Beach hotel.

Those same officials have, combined, received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from various unions and union-supported political action committees, or PACs, including the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which includes Unite Here Local 11. It is likely that some or all of these elected officials will receive additional contributions in the future.

Unite Here Local 11 Co-President Ada Briceño urges the Long Beach City Council to send a hotel worker minimum wage increase to the March ballot during a meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Some of City Hall’s more vocal critics have drawn a direct line from campaign contributions to the council taking up the hospitality wage issue.

If the City Council did not take up this issue, it would fall to the union to spend time, energy and money to gather enough signatures—roughly 27,000, or 10% of voters in the city—to get the proposed wage hike onto the ballot. According to a report by Bloomberg, some organizations are paying volunteers upward of $20 per signature for such efforts.

But City Attorney Dawn McIntosh said she does not see any legal or political conflicts with the councilmembers’ recent actions. Even elected officials “have a Constitutional right to protest if they choose,” McIntosh said in an Aug. 21 email. When questioned on the topic again Monday, she said she stands by her previous statement.

City Council members “do not have any personal or professional benefit at stake that I am aware of which would trigger conflict restrictions,” McIntosh said about them voting to place the measure on the ballot.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto’s office has advised the city’s elected officials to avoid taking part in strikes and picket lines, according to an L.A. Times report. In a confidential memo reviewed by the Times, Feldstein Soto’s office said involvement in labor disputes could result in legal action against the city and that officials might have to recuse themselves from voting on related items.