A picture of German Martinez being tossed to the floor by security during a protest shone bright and larger than life behind him as he told the story of how it happened.

She was one of several hotel workers who told their stories at a truth commission hosted on November 16 at St. Augustine by the Sea Church. Organized by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) and Unite Here! Local 11, a series of testimonies were given to an audience of supporters and fellow union members. Truth commissioners — members of the community selected by CLUE to respond to these stories — composed of leaders in local political and religious groups were also in attendance to hear the testimony.

Truth commissions have been used worldwide since the mid-1970s, though the term “truth commission” was not used as a general term until the 1990s. Among the most well-known and most impactful of these was Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, founded in 1995 to investigate human rights violations during apartheid.

There were three main sections to the November 16 Truth Commission focused on a different aspect of the wrongs done to workers by the hotels in Santa Monica. For each, a pair of workers who had been affected by that particular wrongdoing spoke on their experience, and commissioners responded to those stories with support.

The first section was one on violence against the protesting workers started with a worker named Liliana Hernandez telling her story. A housekeeper for 11 years at Fairmont Miramar at 101 Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica, Hernandez explained that she had felt singled out by the hotel’s security team, saying they had people follow her every time Hernandez came to the hotel.

“They are trying to intimidate us,” Hernandez said.

She recalled a particularly violent experience on August 6, where security blocked Hernandez and other protesting workers from entering the garden area of the hotel, then physically confronted the protesters to remove them from the property entirely. 

One of the men who was thrown onto the ground during this incident was Martinez, who has served as a steward at Fairmont Miramar for 34 years — said that the incident did not deter him from continuing to fight for fair wages for himself and his coworkers.

“I am growing stronger every day…I want to fight with my coworkers,” Martinez said

Following these testimonies were responses from truth commissioners, Neil Commess Daniels — who is Rabbi Emeritus of Santa Monica’s Beth Shir Shalom — and St. Monica’s Catholic Church Pastoral Associate, Delis Alejandro. Rabbi Daniels argued that Judaism has doctrine supporting workers’ rights, comparing the struggle of labor activists to Moses. He said that there should be an investigation into why more wasn’t done to protect the safety of the protesters on August 6.

“Somehow, there was a separation between the value of workers’ lives and that of the security people,”  Daniels said. “They were the face of the hotel that day, and it was an ugly face.”

In her remarks, Alejandro said that she was shocked and surprised by the footage of the August 6 incident and noted that Christian teaching respects working people as a “form of continued participation in God’s creation.”

“We should not be fearing people who are fighting for their rights, we should be celebrating them,” Alejandro said.

The next section focused on the retaliation that workers received from the hotel for their striking and work as union members. Gregorio Lopez had been working at the Viceroy Santa Monica Hotel for 20 years, but that didn’t stop the management at the hotel from telling him to stay home following his participation in striking and other union activities.

He recalled the union existed at the hotel when he first arrived, resulting in his wages rising from $7 per hour in his previous hotel to $11 at the Viceroy. Lopez was also at the Fairmont in August and was one of many union protesters physically confronted by security.

Lopez continued by saying he had been fired a week and a half prior, accused of stealing headphones from a guest. He confessed it had a significant impact on him mentally and emotionally.

“This fight has been hard for me,” Lopez said.  “I have had many nights without sleeping because of these false accusations, I truly believe this was retaliation against me because I am a leader in the union.”

Meridien Delfina housekeeper Patti Ibanez has lived through a similar story at her hotel. Since taking on a leadership role for union operations at her hotel, she has seen clear retaliation against her, culminating with the hotel simply not giving her work.

“I am noticing that change with management…they call me into the office for very small things now that I have a leadership role,” Ibanez said during her testimony. “The retaliations got so deep that I was actually suspended.”

She mentioned her kids several times as inspiration for her to keep fighting for her job, noting the sadness she felt not having a stable income as her daughter is attending college.

“She depends on me, and I cannot pay for her things,” Ibanez said.

Despite these challenges, both Ibanez and Lopez say they will continue to fight to return to their respective hotels, professing that the support of their coworkers will keep them in the fight. Organizing Director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, Anjuli Kronheim praised that will, professing her full support for the striking workers.

“What you just described was horrifying, and I cannot imagine being put through that,” Kronheim said. “It sounds so intense and my heart really goes out to you.”

The youngest truth commissioner was New Roads High School student Sam Cozolino, who is also the Vice-Chair of the Political Action Committee of the Santa Monica Democratic Club. He said in his remarks the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been “torn up in the city of Santa Monica.” Santa Monica Human Services Coordinator Luis Castanon was also a truth commissioner, encouraging the workers to share their stories with as many people as they can.

Finally, the third section touched on a nefarious tactic that some hotels are using: hiring newly arrived migrants as workers to replace those who are striking. Alex Gallego arrived from Columbia just four months ago and hoped his four years of hotel experience in Columbia would help him find a job, which he did. 

However, Gallego said he was overworked and wasn’t given any explanation on the rules of working like breaks, nor the number of hours he was getting paid for or what rate those hours were at.

“I didn’t have enough staffing,” Gallego said. “I did the work of three or four people, and worked without knowing what my hours would be or what my days would be or knowing any of my rights in the workplace.”

He said that he didn’t take more than a few minutes to eat, and said it was an ordeal to find out exactly where to pick up his checks to get paid. Gallego noted he waited for three hours for a recent check, but it told him very little.

Following these presentations, several speakers spoke on the potential legal responses and preached the importance of enforcing the laws meant to prevent these issues.

One of those was former L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, who said that laws don’t end the battle and that it is crucial to truly enforce them. 

“When you hear stories like this, many times you think ‘there should be a law against this,’“ Bonin said. “Well there is a law against this, there’s a lot of laws against the mistreatment you have been facing.”

He also made sure to emphasize one important point to these workers: there are those in the community ready to support their fight.

“You are not alone in this, we are going to stand with you. We are going to insist this enforcement happens and we are going to fight for justice for you.”

Photo by the author.

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