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Exclusive Beach Club Fires Housekeepers and Dishwashers

By Jorge Casuso

When more than two dozen housekeepers, dishwashers and locker room attendants left the exclusive Jonathan Club on Santa Monica Beach Sunday, their replacements already were walking in the door. A few hours earlier, the workers - who make between $6 and $7.50-an-hour - had been told they no longer had jobs.

"I was working and they called me in and told me they had hired a company," said Aurelio Gurerra, who washed dishes at the 75-year-old club. "I asked why they didn't give me notice. I'm 59. It will be hard to find work."

On Monday, the general manager of the Jonathan Club called the abrupt action "strictly business," adding that the work would be contracted out. "We've decided to outsource some of our departments," said Paul Astbury, whose office is in the club's main branch in downtown Los Angeles. "It was strictly a business decision."

Organizers for Santa Monicans Allied for a Living Wage (SMART), however, charged that the firings were meant to send a message to workers who supported a living wage proposal being studied by the Santa Monica City Council. Ten of the 30 workers who lost their jobs have publicly testified in favor of SMART's unprecedented proposal, which would require businesses along the city's coast with more than 50 employees to pay their workers at least $10.69 an hour.

"They've been active and outspoken and public about their participation with the living wage," said Amber Meshack, an organizer for SMART, a group of labor activists and community leaders who crafted the proposed ordinance the council is studying. "It's more a power play than purely economic. They're sending a message to the workers so they'll be intimidated into not fighting for better wages."

"This is a clear case of retaliation against living wage supporters," said Stephanie Monroe, an organizer for SMART. "Basically they fired our entire committee. It's certainly not going to save them money. They have to pay their contractors between $10 and $15-an-hour for sure."

SMART organizers said that around Halloween last year, the club had told workers not to get involved in organizing efforts. They gave some workers one-dollar raises and some benefits. Management also started checking the immigration status of workers who had been there for years, organizers said.

"They gave them some incremental things and now they took it all away," Meshack said. "We didn't expect them to take away whole departments. Usually they pick one or two leaders."

Hotel management declined to comment on the allegations. "Normally we don't make statements to the press," Astbury said.

The firings come three days after a group of hotel and restaurant owners calling itself Santa Monicans for a Living Wage filed a ballot initiative with the city. The measure closely mirrors the Los Angeles County Living Wage law, which applies only to businesses that receive municipal contracts or subsidies.

The proposed charter amendment - which would require companies to pay their workers $8.32-an-hour with benefits and $9.46 without -- also would erase any action the City Council takes, requiring that all living wage measure be placed before the voters.

SMART organizers -- who argue that the measure would not cover hotels and restaurants -- vowed to continue fighting for a living wage that covers the city's lucrative tourism industry. Sunday's abrupt action only strengthens their resolve, they said.

"The community is definitely going to do something about this," said SMART organizer Veronica Carrizales. "We'll definitely be involved in actions (protesting the firings). We want their jobs returned. We'll do actions until they get their jobs back."

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