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Pasadena "Puttin' on the Ritz"  
Theatric Hotel Discrimination Lawsuit in Pasadena
by Wayne Lusvardi 9/18/07

he song "Puttin' on the Ritz' was composed by Irving Berlin in 1929 and made popular in the musical film by the same name. The title derives from the slang expression "puttin' on the ritz," meaning to dress very fashionably.
Local politicians, unions, and the newspaper media have all put a fashionable spin on a recent anti-discrimination lawsuit in the City of Pasadena filed against the posh Ritz-Carlton Hotel by Local 11 of the IBEW Union on behalf of minority workers, where the owner, the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association (LACERA) wants to sell the hotel to reap a windfall to prop up its pension and health care liabilities.

Guest Contributor
Wayne Lusvardi

Wayne Lusvardi worked for 20 years for the Metro Water District of So. Cal. and is an independent real estate appraiser in Pasadena. The views expressed are his own. Wayne receives e-mail at waynelbox-blogger@yahoo.comand blogs at http://www.pasadenapundit.com

The Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association (LACERA) owns the 394-room, 23-acre Ritz-Carlton Hotel historic property that it bought in 1994 for an under-market price of $42.5 million. Reportedly, the property could be sold for as much as $180 million if it were converted to luxury condominiums. The County retirement fund purportedly wants to sell the property to reap a $100 million windfall from the speculative sale of the property. It is estimated that unfunded liabilities on public pensions in California are from $200 to $300 billion (see "Reform Public Pensions," Contra Costa Times, Sept. 13, here.).
The prospect of LACERA reaping a gain of more than $100 million on a sale by converting the property to condominiums has threatened the jobs of over 400 employees, many of whom are minorities.  
Below are the are the minor and frivolous discrimination complaints which form the basis of the discrimination lawsuit excerpted from the L.A. Times.

Angelina Aranibar, who makes $11.45 an hour, said she complained for more than a month about broken wheels on her housekeeping cart. Management refused to fix it, claiming it didn't have the parts, she said. One day, the cart toppled over on her, injuring tendons in her shoulder, she said. She required surgery, has been forced to go on disability at reduced pay and doesn't have enough money to cover rent, she said.

The day of the accident, Aranibar said, management called the engineering department to fix the cart and asked her to finish cleaning her rooms before it sent her to a doctor.
Alonso contends she was denied a job transfer to the call center from housekeeping because of her ethnicity. "They told me I don't speak good English and that I had to go back to school," said Alonso, who speaks English fluently but with a Spanish accent.

Cooks, including Raymund Astrero and Paul Miranda, said managers made derogatory comments on their ethnic background and said they overheard one supervisor refer to a new chef, who is black, with a racial epithet.

Workers in several departments reported being unable to take breaks because of a rising workload. They said supervisors forced workers to punch out for breaks even if they were working through them.

Cook John Amaro, 26, said it was routine for one worker to collect timecards and punch everyone out for a break at the same time, set a timer for 30 minutes, then punch everyone back in."They would tell us, 'You need to take breaks,' " said Amaro, the other plaintiff in the suit filed Thursday. "But if we don't finish, we're going to get in trouble. . . . They either disregard our complaints or threaten us to be quiet or lose our jobs. We've all experienced the same intimidation, the same disregard for our concerns."

The timing of the discrimination lawsuit appears to be a retaliation against the L.A. County Employee Retirement Association's interest in selling the hotel to reap a windfall at the expense of the hotel's employees.     

As sociologist Peter L. Berger has said: "the first wisdom is this - things are not what they seem."  The so-called anti-discrimination lawsuit against the Ritz Carlton Hotel has many layers of meaning. 
The discovery of each layer is unlikely to be revealed by the superficial newspaper media which only thrives on sensationalism. Or by two-faced politicians who want to be seen as protecting minority jobs on one-hand but are pro-union on the other hand. Or by other politicians who want to be seen as protecting the upscale home values surrounding the hotel despite that there isn't a snowball's chance in hell of ever re-zoning the property for condos. 
The mayor and every City councilperson is expected to be dead-set against any re-zoning of the hotel for condos as such an action would result in a loss of 400 jobs, especially to minorities; would eliminate a lucrative bed tax to the City; would negatively affect upscale home values surrounding the hotel; and would a result in the loss of a much-needed hotel for the current expansion of the City convention center.  In short, any notion of converting the Ritz-Carlton Hotel to condos is dead on arrival.  But that hasn't stopped the hotel workers union, politicians, preservationists, and activists from capitalizing on this situation.   

Converting the hotel to condominiums would hypothetically trigger the City of Pasadena's newly proposed Inclusionary Housing Condo Conversion ordinance which would require any property converted to condominiums to set aside 15% of the units for low income housing.  This could result in bringing perhaps 50 units or more of low income housing into an historic residential neighborhood near the posh Huntington Museum, the nearby upscale City of San Marino, and Cal-Tech. 
The last time something like this happened in Pasadena was in the 1970's when a Federal court ordered mandatory school busing which resulted in massive white flight and ruined neighborhood schools and changed the City's demographics so that today about one-third of the population are Hispanic and Black.  The City's public school system still languishes as underperforming and about 45% of school age children attend private schools.      
This is to say nothing of the disastrous policy of locating low income families in an upscale neighborhood far from discount grocery stores, bus stops, light rail commuter stations, and important local social institutions such as churches.     
As the media drama of this lawsuit unfolds the responses will be almost predictable.
There will be those in the Knowledge Class who will be outraged at the "greed" of developers and who will find in the Ritz-Carlton lawsuit proof positive of their worldview.  Their predictable letters to the mainstream local newspaper, the Pasadena Star news, will be found in upcoming weeks.  
Don't expect any newspaper headlines such as "Union Displaces 400 Minorities from Hotel Jobs." That is just too much cognitive dissonance to handle in an all-liberal and pro-union city.

And in coming weeks we will hear staff reporters and letter writers at the hard-Leftist Pasadena Weekly newspaper write that this discrimination lawsuit confirms Karl Marx's Labor Theory of Value that the value of the entire hotel business accrues to labor, not management. Or we will hear that if the money was not being spent on the Iraq War this dispute would never have happened. Like the California Energy Crisis of 2001, no one will mention that this is a problem created by government which pretends to now be the champion of protecting the little guy and wealthy homeowner against the evils of capitalism.  

Pasadena's affordable housing activists, however, will be predictably silent about advocating the Inclusionary Housing law for the condo conversion of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, so as not to offend the wealthy home-voter political base which wants all low-income housing dumped downtown (NIMBY).  

Libertarians, resurgent with the rise of Ron Paul as an anti-war candidate, may even decide to register their opinion on this matter: any interference with a pure market transaction between the parties involved is un-Constitutional. However, the anarchistic libertarians won't mention the potential disastrous effects of re-zoning the property for a pure commercial transaction. Ironically, Presidential Candidate Ron Paul just visited the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for a fund raiser, but none of the local newspapers apparently covered it.  Labor, not liberty, is an issue in this town.

Those who are interested in this issue only if they can become preservation activists for the cause to protect their estate homes around the hotel or to gather petition signatures for a City-wide ballot initiative, are also bound to face gnawing realities about the absurdity of the lawsuit.

We are also likely to hear from the social action committees of fashionably snobby downtown liberal churches about the evils of condo development and capitalism and God's preferential option for the poor workers.    

Those who believe that our legal system is the champion for the powerless laborer will only further conceal the economic interests involved. The conflict between ownership and labor over whether the property should be sold to convert to condos should be a pure re-zoning issue, not a labor dispute. But this lawsuit case will go on for who knows how long because it is high theater with symbolic political capital for the labor vote.  Because it is a civil rights lawsuit, the hotel worker's union will likely at least win legal costs against the deep-pockets of the hotel. In a loser-pays legal system, such a lawsuit would be unlikely to be filed.  

Those hotel employees who may willingly go along with frivolous and/or manufactured discrimination complaints to preserve their jobs must have some doubts about the Janus-faced roles they are being asked to play on the stage of the political theater.

Like marionettes, some hotel workers and managers seem all-too-willing to play a victim of discrimination to protect their jobs, which they have little chance of losing in reality. That
hotel workers are caught up in a system and in a political party which wants them to take on disingenuous media roles that degrade their human dignity and integrity is sad. 

Pasadena City Councilwoman Jacque Robinson (related to baseball great Jackie Robinson), an attractive 28-year old Black woman labor attorney, has oddly become the fashion model and and media spokesperson for the hotel employees union; despite her possible political conflicts of interest presiding on local zoning issues. How Councilwoman Robinson will play both sides of the street as being pro-labor, but not anti-union, will be an interesting show to watch in upcoming months.  That is perhaps why the demon of capitalism and development will have to be brought into the picture to provide a convenient scapegoat.
Despite the implausibility of converting the hotel to condos, the local hotel workers union has already lifted up a trial proposal for a city-wide ballot initiative to stop the condo conversion even though no such application for re-zoning has been filed as yet (see: "Hotel's Future Could Go to Voters," Pasadena Star News, Sept. 12, 2007 - here.).   
The message in all this is that government and unions are there to protect you, the little guy and even the wealthy estate homeowner, against all kinds of threats, even imaginary ones that they fomented themselves to galvanize their political base.  Even if you play along with their political games, the marketability of your home values surrounding the hotel will be potentially impacted for a year or more while they create public hysteria over an imaginary threat to jobs and the neighborhood.

Ironically, the same people claiming to protect your jobs and homes are the ones temporarily stigmatizing your neighborhood or symbolically threatening your job and turning you into a frivolous lawsuit scofflaw.    
In politically fashionable Pasadena, it is high time to "put on Ritz." 

Read more here. CRO

copyright 2007 Wayne Lusvardi




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