Ongoing attempts to negotiate a new contract for hotel workers across Southern California have led to protests throughout the region, some of which have escalated into acts of violence—including at Long Beach’s own Hotel Maya.

While police reports and witness accounts have confirmed that chaos disrupted a private wedding ceremony at the hotel earlier this month, the details of who instigated the mayhem have been less clear, leaving a void that both the union and the hotel operator have sought to fill with their own versions of events.

This became all the more evident over the last week, when the chairman of Hotel Maya’s operator, Ensemble Investments, issued a letter to the city’s elected leaders in which he chastised them for their support of the union’s call for a boycott of the hotel. The union itself, meanwhile, published a previously-unreleased video Tuesday that appeared to contradict the hotel operator’s claims.

The back-and-forth, taken together, offers perhaps the most public view yet of one of the most contentious labor disputes in Long Beach in recent memory.

Warring narratives

At the heart of the dispute is a protest that was held at the Hotel Maya earlier this month as part of a larger series of demonstrations Unite Here Local 11 has held throughout the region to call for higher pay and better working conditions for hotel workers. The Aug. 5 rally at the Long Beach hotel, however, devolved into a brawl, interrupting a wedding and leaving four people with minor injuries.

The week after that incident, Unite Here Local 11 held another rally at Hotel Maya to denounce what they characterized as violence that hotel operators—including at the Maya—have inflicted upon workers during their recent protests.

Councilmembers Megan Kerr, Suely Saro, Roberto Uranga and Mary Zendejas, as well as at least one representative from Mayor Rex Richardson’s office, attended that follow-up rally on Aug. 11 in support of Unite Here Local 11, where they could be seen chanting “boycott Maya” alongside workers and union reps.

The mayor and councilmembers all declined or did not respond to requests for comment.

Seventh District Councilmember Roberto Uranga speaks in support of workers as they rally outside the Hotel Maya, calling for a boycott, on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

At the time, however, there was little video evidence to support the account that hotel staff was involved in instigating the mayhem on Aug. 5. Incomplete video footage of the incident appeared to show picketers intentionally breaking down a fence, while a hotel guest struck the picketers.

A police report and the bride’s own witness account corroborated those details, and in an Aug. 18 letter addressed to Mayor Rex Richardson and the Long Beach City Council that was obtained by the Business Journal, Kam Babaoff—Ensemble’s chairman—accused officials of backing Unite Here Local 11’s calls for a boycott “without any investigation” of the incident.

But Babaoff’s own version of the story was called into question Tuesday, when Unite Here 11 released a video showing another view of what unfolded.

The chaos appears to have begun with a temporary fence that was erected across a public coastal path near the hotel that was intended to keep picketers away from a private wedding ceremony.

In his letter, Babaoff acknowledged installing the fence for just that reason—to protect the serenity of the wedding without interfering with the protest.

Babaoff also noted that the hotel called the Long Beach Police Department to talk with striking workers ahead of the ceremony. He said officers asked picketers to not interrupt the wedding, to which they agreed—a fact confirmed by the department.

While Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11, didn’t dispute those facts, he noted that it is not the police department’s job to act as intermediaries on behalf of the hotel.

Meanwhile, Babaoff says that when the wedding was set to begin, striking workers immediately began targeting the event with noise and attempted to push through the fence—a story that was backed up by the bride’s own account earlier this month.

In the newly released video, however, protesters can be seen marching near the fence, chanting and using noisemakers, but not attempting to force their way through. Instead, hotel security and wedding guests can be seen moving one section of the fence even farther away from the ceremony area.

When they attempted to move two other sections of fencing, striking workers refused to move out of their pre-designated area. They can then be seen using the fence to physically force picketers back, who then attempt to stand their ground.

Ultimately, a man—allegedly not affiliated with the hotel or wedding party—ran into the fray, striking a Maya employee in the head. The worker, identified as Carlos Cheverri Canalés, had to “seek medical care since the attack,” according to the union.

Police were called back and a report was taken, but the attacker had already fled and, to date, no arrest has been made in the ongoing investigation, according to the LBPD.

While the video released Tuesday tells a contrary story to many of the details Babaoff outlined in his letter to city officials, including that “the demonstrators broke the parameters which they had set for their demonstration and in doing so delayed by 90 minutes — and nearly ruined — the wedding ceremony of a private party,” a spokesperson for Ensemble stood by Babaoff’s version of events.

“[Babaoff’s] statement is accurate,” spokesperson Cameron Andrews said in an email Tuesday. “No one seen pushing the fence is a Hotel Maya manager or employee.”

The hotel declined to clarify if security on the scene are employees or contractors.

Moving forward

For the union’s part, the recent demonstrations at Hotel Maya appear to have had their desired effect.

Babaoff wrote in his Aug. 18 letter that the boycott of the hotel has resulted in the cancellation of “several” meetings and events, though he declined to provide an exact number or description of these events. The cancellations, he said, have caused the hotel to cut back on employee hours, which is “taking money directly [out] of the pockets of the employees.”

While Babaoff framed this outcome as contradicting elected officials’ and union goals, Petersen said these types of disruptions are precisely the point of picketing any business—and a loss of wages is expected.

“Strikes are the ultimate sacrifice by workers,” Petersen said. “Many of them live paycheck to paycheck, so for them to decide to go without a paycheck is an incredible sacrifice because they believe they deserve to be paid a wage that will enable them to live in Long Beach.”

Babaoff, meanwhile, claims the hotel is ready to negotiate the new contract.

He said management reached out to the union ahead of the June 30 contract expiration to begin direct negotiations outside of the broader ones taking place throughout the region. He said the hotel reached out to the union at least three times but was told they would not negotiate until the larger negotiation concluded.

Babaoff and the hotel declined to disclose these communications or the dates on which they were sent.

Once again, Petersen pushed back on this claim. He said the union submitted a contract proposal to all of the region’s unionized hotels on April 20, but that it has not received a single counter-proposal from Maya, unlike other hotels.

Babaoff and the hotel management declined to confirm or deny Petersen’s account.

Petersen, though, said the union is still ready to negotiate.

“They’ve had the proposal for four months,” he said. “If they wanted to, they could have. We’re waiting for them.”