As hotel workers’ strike looms, Anime Expo attendees sound off

The largest US hotel workers’ strike in recent memory and the largest anime convention in North America are both set to kick off this weekend in the same downtown Los Angeles spot — with all the attendant agitation playing out on social media.

More than 15,000 union employees at 62 hotels in Los Angeles and Orange counties are scheduled to walk off the job as early as Saturday after their contracts expire. They are seeking higher pay, which might allow them to live in more expensive areas closer to their jobs, as well as improved benefits and working conditions. On Thursday, the largest hotel, the Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites, announced it had reached a tentative deal with the union representing its more than 600 employees. The deal is the first among many that would be needed to avert the planned strike.

Meanwhile, thousands of fans of Japanese pop culture will gather Saturday for the start of Anime Expo, a four-day convocation of people interested in manga art, cosplay and video games with exhibitions and panels at the Los Angeles Convention Center and nearby hotels. Many have spent months hoarding vacation days and cash to trek to Southern California and commune with like-minded people.

The two passionate interest groups met up virtually in recent days, and the results weren’t pretty.

On Reddit, a union organizer with hotel workers’ Unite Here Local 11 kicked off the Ask-Me-Anything discussion by asking, “Did you know hotel workers at many of the properties you might be staying at for AX, such as the JW Marriott Downtown LA, Westin Bonaventure, Downtown Los Angeles Courtyard, Residence Inn Downtown LA, the Ritz Carlton and more, might be on strike?

“This could mean pickets, protests and other actions at hotels that could impact and potentially disrupt the Anime Expo,” wrote AnimeJustice11, the unnamed organizer.

“When workers go on strike, they stop work and walk off the job. If workers go on strike, there might not be anybody taking out the trash, cooking the food or cleaning the rooms. There may also be loud 24-hour picket lines right outside the property. How do you think this would affect the quality of the Anime Expo if you were attending / planning?”

An illustration by United Here Local 11 in advance of potential hotel workers strike.

Unite Here Local 11, which represents more than 15,000 Southern California hotel workers, has placed ads on Facebook and Instagram that target Anime Expo attendees. The union workers may go on strike as early as Saturday.

(Michelle Trance)

AnimeJustice11 wrapped up with a plea: “I hope most/all of you will stand in solidarity with the potential striking workers and don’t cross picket lines!” The poster also asked those planning to attend Anime Expo to “contact the management and ask if they would negotiate a new contract that meets what workers are for.”

Unite Here Local 11 also has reached out to Anime Expo attendees, as well as other groups, with a targeted anime-style advertisement featuring a pink-haired worker carrying a sign reading: “Anime is cool! Disrespecting workers is not!”

Reddit users had many thoughts, including anger at the union for disrupting an expensive and cherished tradition, anger at hotel owners for not giving raises, and anger at one another for attacking the union organizer. Others debated what it meant to cross the picket line.

The Hotel Assn. of Los Angeles has said a strike would hurt the workers by harming the city’s tourism appeal while the industry is getting back on its feet after the pandemic shutdowns.

Anaheim resident Jon Montes said he found out about the potential hotel workers’ strike via the union organizer’s Reddit AMA discussion. Although he didn’t call the hotel, he told his friends to be prepared.

Montes and friends may have to stay at someone’s house and commute, he said, but he is grateful that he has an option close by.

“You have a lot of people who will come in internationally, who don’t have like a house 45 minutes away to go to. They’re kind of out of luck,” Montes said. The Japanese pop culture expo attracts about 100,000 people from around the world.

Montes booked a room with two beds and a couch at Hotel Indigo with three of his friends in January, when Anime Expo opened the hotel-room allocation system. The blocks opened at noon one day in a “rat race” style, with discounted rates, as Montes scrambled to get his $1,700 rate for five nights. He has attended Anime Expo since 2018 but began staying at a hotel only last year.

“We used to not stay at a hotel because we would go from my buddy’s house in Long Beach and just go to the con every day, but now we’re getting a hotel because it’s a convenience factor,” Montes said.

Hotel Indigo is one of the inns with union contracts, according to Unite Here Local 11. The JW Marriott Downtown LA near the Convention Center also has an expiring contract.

A young woman directs a hotel worker toward ballot boxes

Nola Watson, right, directs a hotel worker toward ballot boxes during a strike authorization vote June 8 at Unite Here Local 11’s office in Los Angeles.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Montes said he looks forward to the annual convention because it serves as a social gathering with friends from out of town and “a citadel for a lot of people from a lot of places to come and hang out.”

Cosplay is a rigorously planned process, Montes said, requiring multiple suitcases for regular clothes and costumes. Before staying at a hotel, Montes and his friends would get ready by 4 am to drive, park and line up at the Los Angeles Convention Center by 6:30 am

“If you’re not in line early in the morning, you will be out there for at least two hours,” Montes said.

“I don’t want to be out in the California sun and just baking in my own outfits. The sooner I’m inside that convention center the much better. With a hotel, we don’t have to worry about getting up super early,” he said.

Montes, who works in security, had sick days saved up and had been working overtime for two months.

Denis Martinez felt particularly conflicted: He plans to attend Anime Expo but also works as a server at an IHG hotel in Charlotte, NC This would be his first convention, and he hopes to meet others who are building model kits.

Even though going to the convention would mean crossing the picket line, Martinez said that he has saved up for months for this vacation. In addition to Anime Expo, he also planned to go to Hololive Connect, a virtual idol concert at YouTube Theater on Sunday.

“My initial reaction was a selfish one: I got angry that they decided to do this in my first ever vacation in years,” Martinez said. He started selling things on EBay to prepare an emergency budget for places to stay.

But Martinez said that although he isn’t in a union, he understands the workers’ plight as someone who also works in the hospitality industry.

“It takes so long to get a wage increase of just a few cents,” Martinez said during an interview via Reddit chat. As a server, he said his earnings depend on tips.

People on escalators, some wearing costumes

Amine Expo 2022 attracted about 100,000 people to the Los Angeles Convention Center. This year’s convention could be disrupted by a hotel workers’ strike.

(Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)

“The anime expo website offered the housing. I guess many attendees really didn’t think about the brand or company hotel they’re staying at.”

Merchandise by exhibitors is also a huge selling point at the expo, with attendees spending heavily and bringing extra suitcases to transport their purchases. In particular, Artist Alley features local and international vendors who sell their prints.

Toby Holland is the artist behind California-based Barrett Creative, a small woodworking business focused on mechanical keyboards and desk accessories. Holland said Anime Expo is an opportunity to promote his brand and share his craft with other US and international artists. After finding out about the strike via the Reddit thread, he wasn’t sure what options would be available to him so it was close to the event.

“As a solo traveler, I just have to go with the flow and see what happens with the situation,” said Holland, who booked his stay at Westin Bonaventure.

Times staff writer Jeong Park contributed to this report.

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