On January 10, the LA Times reported that the hotel and restaurant workers’ union, UNITE HERE Local 11, has filed environmental objections in recent years to real estate projects in Southern California. That is true. However, rather than recognizing the impacts development has on the air quality, transport, and housing in the low-income communities union members live in, the article insinuates that UNITE HERE’s work is part of a union conspiracy seeking to extort developers. By leaving out the stories of hospitality workers and the challenges working people face in Southern California’s environment, the article turns the world upside down and makes housekeepers, dishwashers and bussers who advocate for a better environment the criminals, while making wealthy developers who cheat our environmental process the victims.
Southern California is experiencing an unprecedented explosion of development, especially of hotels, event centers, and luxury hospitality. The Times has reported the enormity of this wave in several articles. “Downtown Los Angeles hasn't seen this much construction since the 1920s.” Many of the development projects receive public subsidies, and those subsidies often benefit luxury hospitality development over the housing, parks and transit construction that low-wage workers need. These needs are not served by the current direction of the development wave and in many cases this wave is exacerbating environmental problems for working people.
Low-wage immigrant and African-American hospitality workers of Southern California live among the nation's worst environmental justice hot spots, as was reported by this publication in 2015. The Times twice reported on the impact of air pollution on immigrant and African American children, and photographed children playing at a Long Beach school near an oil refinery, freeway, railroad line and seaport. “Children born and raised near inner-city pollution sources can wind up with reduced white matter in their brains and greater developmental and behavioral problems, a study suggests.”
UNITE HERE’s members and their families live in these neighborhoods and attend these schools because they cannot afford to live in the areas with better air quality. Those workers that have managed to keep their homes in centers of hotel development like Hollywood and Santa Monica are finding the wave of gentrification harder to resist as cranes, construction noise, short term rentals and luxury condominiums pop up all around them.
We have a responsibility to make sure this massive wave of development improves the environment for working people instead of adding to the problem. California courts have ruled that unions and their members have standing to make environmental claims.
Hotels should have transit plans for workers and customers. They should build trees into the design of the building, they should integrate affordable housing, they should be sensitive to the nearby neighbors, and they should use water-saving machinery. Development subsidies like zoning changes and height limit waivers should be offered more to affordable housing projects than for luxury hotels.
UNITE HERE Local 11 advocates for design, mitigation, and community benefit provisions that improve housing, transport, and the environment in our communities. The Union mobilizes its members to attend hearings and to speak up in favor of projects that serve their needs of to oppose ones that are threats to housing, that force workers into longer commutes through worsening traffic, or that damage the environment we live in.
There is nothing new or nefarious about Unions advocating for environmental protections. UNITE HERE Local 11 has roots in the movement of the United Farm Workers Union of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, who led multiple efforts to ban pesticides used on grapes and strawberries and called for testing grapes in stores to see if they were contaminated with poisonous residues.
Environmentalists stood with workers in creating OSHA, the first agency dedicated to worker health and safety on the job. The UAW and Steelworkers sponsored the first Earth Day in 1970 and supported some of the first environmental laws including the National Environmental Policy Act, the inspiration for the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Today, the blue collar-green alliance in Los Angeles is strong. Unions and the environmental movement have fought for cleaner trucks and sustainable jobs at the Ports of Los Angeles. UNITE HERE has stood with Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental organizations to support progressive zoning in Los Angeles and Santa Monica that will create new housing, including affordable housing near transit. These are efforts that should be celebrated, and expanded.
Ada Briceno, Co President of UNITE HERE Local 11 and Member of the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Environment Justice Community Partnership Advisory Council
Allen Hernandez, Executive Director, Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ)
Caroline Farrell, Executive Director, Center on Race, Poverty and Environment (CRPE)
Antonio Diaz, Executive Director, People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights (PODER)
David Pettit, Senior Attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)