Long Beach voters may have the opportunity to vote for the #MeToo movement at the ballot box in November. Unite HERE Local 11, a union that represents hotel workers, joined with women’s rights advocates in collecting signatures for a proposed measure that would equip housekeepers with a “panic button” should they encounter sexual harassment and assault on the job. The union filed nearly 50,000 signatures from registered voters with Long Beach city clerk’s office yesterday.
If qualified, the ballot measure will ask voters to approve the panic buttons for housekeepers that work at hotels with 50 or more rooms. In announcing the next step of its campaign, the union pointed to a sister study in Chicago that found nearly half of housekeeper respondents there reporting experiences of indecent exposure from guests. But the threats of harassment don’t solely come from guests. In February 2016, two Renaissance Long Beach Hotel workers filed a lawsuit and obtained a temporary restraining order against a supervisor for alleged sexual harassment, including groping one of the woman’s buttocks.
The case settled last year; the women no longer work at the Renaissance, but the supervisor continues to be employed there.
The ballot measure campaign follows a failed bid to pass similar protections through Long Beach city council in September. The emotional council meeting ended with a 5-4 vote to reject drafting an ordinance equipping housekeepers at all Long Beach hotels with panic buttons. The proposal, like the current ballot initiative, also included mandated overtime pay for hotel workers who cleaned more than 4,000 square feet of floor space within a day’s shift. Councilman Al Austin proved to be the deciding swing vote. Amid loud boos the council opted, instead, to move forward with a resolution supporting workplace safety in the hospitality industry bereft of any enforceable policies to back it up.
“Even if half the City Council didn’t care about sexual harassment in the hotel industry, we thought the residents of Long Beach would,” Andrew Cohen, Unite HERE Local 11 spokesman, told the Weekly. “The signatures show we were right, and while we knew the industry was going to resist it, women had come forward and their stories were out there. We felt it was time to act.”
Much has changed since the September council meeting in regards to the national discussion of sexual harassment and assault. The vote came on the eve of the #MeToo movement that gained tremendous momentum in October following rape accusations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. The movement’s “silence breakers” from all quarters claimed TIME magazine’s Person of the Year 2017 cover, a profile that included Long Beach Westin housekeeper Juana Melara. “Men have exposed themselves to me, put their hands on me, [and] asked me to perform sexual acts on them countless times,” she said during a #MeToo action in Laguna Beach this year. “Once I had to lock myself into a room after a man forced his way in when I was cleaning and exposed himself.”
The Long Beach Hospitality Alliance responded to news of the submitted signatures for the ballot initiative by calling on the city clerk to invalidate them all. “The blatant falsehoods that UNITE HERE’s signature collectors are peddling demonstrate that they know that voters would not support their initiative if they used the facts,” said Jeremy Harris, senior vice president of the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce, in a press release. “We call on the city clerk and city prosecutor to fully investigate this violation of state law, and invalidate the signatures collected using false and misleading information.”
At issue is a photo Harris claims shows a canvasser with a sign stating 80 percent of housekeepers in Long Beach have been assaulted in collecting signatures. The union has seen the photo, didn’t authorize the homemade sign and doesn’t merit its statistical claim. “We don’t know the man in the picture, but he is not part of our union although he might be a paid canvasser hired to help gather signatures,” says Cohen. “To call for the 46,000 signatures from residents who care about this issue to be invalidated is a pathetic attempt from the hotel industry to save money instead of keeping their employees safe.”