A demonstration held last Thursday that temporarily shut down part of Century Boulevard just west of Aviation Boulevard was not just another demand by labor unions on behalf of workers in area hotels. It was an example of the kind of convergence and coalition building that progressives like Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Assembly Speaker-elect Karen Bass talk about transforming Los Angeles.

The event featured calls from African American leaders like Assemblyman Curren Price and Inglewood/South Bay NAACP President Mitchell Williams to hire more African Americans in the hospitality industry.

At the same time, these officials called for improving the quality of the jobs in the Century corridor hotels.

African Americans used to be a major part of the hospitality workforce. According to statistics compiled by the labor union Unite Here, in 1970 blacks represented 10 percent of the workforce which was comparable to Latinos (nine percent native born and 12 percent foreign born). But by 1990 the figure had dropped to seven percent for blacks while the number for foreign-born Latino workers jumped to 43 percent; six percent for native-born Latinos and 13 percent for Asians, up from 1 percent in 1970.

Today the number of black workers is 5.5 percent, according Steven C. Pitts, of the Center for Labor Research and Education at U.C. Berkeley. The data was included in a report, “Job Quality and Black Workers,” he released in August 2007.

At the same time, African Americans represent 9.2 percent of the overall Los Angeles County workforce.

Practically speaking, that means that at a hotel with a staff of 200 for example there are only two black workers, said Donald Wilson, an organizer with Unite Here Local 11, which is one of the main labor proponents locally behind the effort to bring more African Americans into the industry.

The union is supported by a coalition of community organizations such as the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and African American leaders including Assemblyman Price, Inglewood Council Danny Tabor, Inglewood School Board Member Trina Williams and Rev. Altagracia Perez of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice.

What makes the push particularly significant, noted Wilson of Unite Here, is that the union membership, which is 70 percent Latino, has agreed that without diversity language included in agreements, there will be no new contract settlements. Since the hotel worker’s union launched the diversity initiative a year and a half ago, Wilson said 23 Los Angeles are hotels have signed on. Wilson said the first step in the process is for workers to get the right to unionize.

He said this process is currently in various phases at four of the Century Boulevard hotels–the Sheraton Gateway, the Radisson, the Four Points and the Westin.

The Los Angeles fight to bring more African Americans into the hospitality industry is part of a national drive with active campaigns happening in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.

At the same time, an attempt to upgrade the quality of the jobs is one step closer to reality thanks to a decision by the California Supreme Court, which last week voted to uphold a living wage ordinance passed by the Los Angeles City Council in February 2007. The law requires 12 hotels on Century Boulevard to pay their workers a living wage of $10.34 per hour without employer provided benefits and $9.39 for those with the health care.

Some hotel owners and their advocates challenged the city ordinance in court in February 2007, and after reversals for both sides, the state supreme court recently upheld the law.