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Clergy to Loews: We're Real and We Mean Business

By Teresa Rochester

Yes we are the real thing.

That was the message more than a dozen insulted members of the clergy attempted to deliver to Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel management Tuesday afternoon in the latest chapter in the ongoing battle to unionize the hotel. The protest marked the first labor action since a business-backed living wage initiative was defeated at the polls in November.

Clergy members were angered by a recent memo Loews management sent to its employees that warned that the union is using a person dressed as a priest to gain entrance to employee's homes "so that the union can give employees its sales pitch."

Outraged religious leaders, who were joined by workers and union organizers, demanded a public retraction of the memo and a public apology. Several clergy members had received written apologies.

"What outrages me is their letter sows seeds of doubt in the workers' minds," said Fr. Mike Walsh of St. Vincent Church in Los Angeles. "They don't mind apologizing to me, but they won't [apologize] to the workers."

The clergy members, who came from a number of different faiths, had also demanded a meeting with the hotel's general manager Patricia Claremont.

But Claremont did not comply. Instead she sent a message via the hotel's director of marketing that she would meet the religious leaders independently but not as a group.

"Loews knew we were coming and they send someone who cannot speak for the hotel," said Sandi Richards, pastor of the Church in Ocean Park, which served as a focal point for the tenant's rights movement 20 years ago and the recent living wage. "This is an insult.... We are refusing your apology without a public retraction. Your apology is not accepted without a public retraction."

The clergy also demanded a card check election, which would force union management to remain neutral and cannot be appealed by either side.

What type of election the hotel should hold has been a major sticking point between Loews management and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 814.

Don Don Foreman, the hotel's director of marketing, told the gathered demonstrators that the hotel would hold a secret ballot election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. Union organizers balk at that form of election because the results can be appealed.

Richards and Fr. Michael Gutierrez, pastor of St. Anne's Catholic Church, handed Ferman a letter signed by 40 religious leaders. The letter said the clergy "will not be intimidated by the management's accusations that we are not real religious leaders.

"We know who we are, and we trust that you do too," the letter continued. "If we come to visit you, we won't be there to convince you of anything; we will be there to pastorally support you in overcoming any fear or confusion that might stop you from working for God's justice in all arenas of your life, including your workplace."

Tuesday's protestors included clergy from Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian and Jewish faiths. Before meeting with Ferman, the religious leaders stationed themselves at employee exits handing out copies of their letter denouncing the memo.

The Loews memo, given to employees on Dec. 8, was written following the visit of a local priest to the home of two Loews' employees. The memo states "the person dressed as a priest might tell you that the church is in favor of the union. Don't believe it."

The memo uses the example of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles' attempt several years ago to bust cemetery workers' efforts to unionize. In letters to Claremont, several clergy pointed out that Cardinal Roger Mahoney publicly apologized for the incident.

Kurt Petersen, head organizer with HERE Local 814, said the only way workers in Santa Monica would receive the dignity and just wages they deserved would be through the unionization of every hotel in the city.

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