VEENA: Hi everyone, this is Veena. Today we’re doing something a little different – we’re sharing a play called “Changing Lives, Changing L.A.” It was created from transcripts from the UNITE HERE Local 11 Oral History Project and was originally performed before a live audience at Loyola Marymount University and UCLA. You’re going to hear from four members of UNITE HERE Local 11, who are voiced by professional actors. Emma Worthington, Ignacio Ruiz, Regla Soto, and Soledad Garcia share their stories of becoming leaders in their union, and fighting for a better life while helping transform Los Angeles. We open with Emma. 

EMMA: The first time I got arrested was for Local 11… I got arrested when they were doing the housekeeper strikes. I think it was the Wilshire Grand. We got handcuffed to a truck in the middle of Wilshire Blvd. That was my first arrest. After that, I was hooked—[laughs] in doing demonstrations, that is. You have to learn to stand up and fight for yourself. But you can’t do it by yourself. It has to be a group effort.

IGNACIO: Ignacio Ruiz. I grew up over in Mexico in the state of Michoacán. When I was 7 years old, already I was working in the field with one of my uncles. I was performing the same job as a grown up person, but he was paying me different wages because of my age. So I went over and talked to my uncle. I say, “You are paying these workers 10 pesos and I am getting 5 pesos for the same work, performing the same duties that they do. Why is it that I’m not getting paid the same?” He didn’t agree on paying me the same wages. So I say, “Okay, I’m not working any longer with you.” And I went over and tell my father, “You know what? I don’t think this is fair!” So I left. Then after 2 weeks or so, my uncle calls me back and says, “Okay, I’m gonna pay you the same as the others.” So I went back. I delegated my uncle when I was 7 and I got it! So, ever since, I know that you if stand up, you get what you deserve.

REGLA: Well, I am Cuban, from the city of La Habana. I was raised poor – well, I have always been poor. I grew up, got married, had three kids – I came from Cuba to Miami. I came from Cuba with my three kids and my husband. We came through the sea in a really small boat. They put more people in the boat than it could take. I remember that I saw a boat that was sinking and the boat I was in kept on going. I saw a lot of people drown. They would throw out people from the boats for the weight, so not to sink… You could see the hands of the people screaming… and I kept going. I kept going because you have to keep going…I don’t like to talk about that. 

They put us in a refuge that was called the Base Cron. I was there for about two months, with my husband and my kids. A church took us in, a Lutheran Church, and they took us to Minneapolis. We were there for two years, but the snow was harmful to my kids – they had bloody noses all the time and I had a lot of problems based on the climate. So we arrived in California. I had some time without working, until I found work over there in the Westin.

SOLEDAD: I don’t remember what number I am in the family, but we’re a total of nine. I’m the last girl in the family. We had a very hard life, a very poor life… My parents, they both worked so hard to put food on the table. It’s either we eat, or buy clothes, or pay bills… I didn’t like that kind of life. When I started to learn the world a little bit, I started to want to do something different, to be different from my sisters.

They say they got married very early to get out of the house. I didn’t want to get married because I saw they were repeating the same life as my parents and I keep telling myself that is something I don’t want to do. I don’t want to get married early. I don’t want to bring kids in this world unless I have a way to raise them with a better life. I didn’t want to go to school because I saw my parents struggling a lot just to give us money for the bus, and sometimes we didn’t even have that.

EMMA: For us it was a matter of you have to go school, get good grades, graduate, go to college… but my aunts would also say “stay home, get married, and let your husband take care of you.” But when I was in high school, I wasn’t allowed to work, I was only supposed to go to school. I got married early, in fact – eloped. We were only 18 and we had just graduated from high school. He was going to go to school and I would go to nursing school up north. Everyone wanted us to get an annulment, but we refused to do it and I immediately got pregnant and had a baby. After that, I got a job at the airport. It was Host International at the time and they were union. It was the first and only job that I’ve had outside of my family.

SOLEDAD: When I was 15 years old and my sister asked me to travel and live with her in TJ, I went. I start working as a housecleaner. Then my younger brother says he wants to cross the border. He’s two years younger than I am and we were taking care of each other. So, when he decided to cross, I told him he’s not going by himself. I told him I was going with him. And that’s the way that I came.

IGNACIO: When I came over, it was by myself. I came to this country, to LA, in 1968. I cannot forget the year because, when I arrived, it was when Robert Kennedy got shot in the Ambassador Hotel. So I never forget. I was 16 when I arrived. Changing from a small town in Mexico– I didn’t like the city. I was in LA for two days. Then I decided to go to northern California. I worked in the fields for two years, picking tomatoes, grapes, all kinds of vegetables. In 1970 I came back to Los Angeles.

I went over to see my brother. He was working over at the Century Plaza Hotel. When I arrived at the hotel he tells me, “Just go and get dressed and start working. We’ll fill out the paperwork later.” Those days there was such a big demand for labor, they didn’t really care whether people were legal to work or not. So that’s how I got to the Century Plaza Hotel…since 1970.

EMMA: When I started out at Host all I did was fix the trays – I put a napkin and a fork and a knife and salt and pepper on them, stuff like that…. The food comes out and I set it on the tray, give it to the waitress and the waitress delivers it. I can’t believe that was my first job. I made a $1.85 an hour doing that.

IGNACIO: I wasn’t used to doing things by myself; I didn’t know how things were done…I worked as a dishwasher for 6 months. Then, they assigned me to help over in the kitchen – I’d get the equipment ready for the cooks and prepare silverware for the servers. Then I was promoted to a bus boy. Later they promote me to supervisor with the busboy team.

EMMA: I moved up to a cashier. Then, I got another job offer to become a pantry cook that catered to chartered flights at the airport. I was actually in charge of the terminal by the time we closed down. I’d also become a bartender while I was there – a lead bartender.

REGLA: Me, well I’m a housekeeper – cleaning the bedrooms. The guests leave the rooms really messy and we need to give it our all to finish… My job has been the same since I arrived here. I started working in Minneapolis, in a Radisson hotel. Well, my English didn’t help me move up to a higher job. When I arrived in Los Angeles I began to work again in cleaning the bedroom. And they didn’t move me up because again my English was not very good, [but] well, I got comfortable working there.

SOLEDAD: In 2000 I got this job at the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica. They assigned us to clean 17 rooms in 8 hours. I start off making the minimum wage – $6.50 back then – and no benefits, obviously. It was hard, especially when they give us a lot of guest check-outs. I have to work throughout my breaks, sometimes after we clock out.

IGNACIO: I didn’t like the way management treated the workers. They were not giving respect to the other workers the same way that I was getting it. And I felt like, “This is not what I am used to. I like to see people being respected.” Then, an organizer comes into the hotel and asks me : Hey, Ignacio, do you want to come to a union meeting? I was not interested in the union because the administration was not—I mean I didn’t trust them. I’ll say that. It was only run by one man and he would come over into the hotel and sit down with the bosses and negotiate. And at the end of the night, he would say, “Oh we got a raise for you! 10 cents.” Then the union leadership changed. I went to the meeting and I noticed the training that’s being given to the workers: how to represent other workers and empower them and to help them with issues on the job.

And I felt that it was something interesting. A union organizer gives me a union button. He says, “Would you like to wear this button?” And I say, “Sure.” I don’t know exactly what it means, but I feel good having this button on. Then at work one of the managers asks, “Why are you wearing this union button?” “Oh, the person from the union gave it to me.” “You know we treat you real well here.” “Yeah… but I see things from a different perspective.”

SOLEDAD: One of my coworkers, who was an organizer, came one day with a card, a union authorization card to sign…I ask “What’s the signature for?” She says “So we can have better benefits. “ I just signed the authorization card and I gave it to her. Then I heard bad things about the union, so I went back to look for her and ask for my signature card back. She didn’t want to give it to me. Instead, she started to explain why we need that card. I still didn’t believe her because it took me so long to get that job and I was afraid to lose that job. I said, “I don’t need the union—” But she’s – “Why don’t you come to this meeting and ask questions, and if you still don’t believe me, then I’ll give you your signature back.”

That was very convincing, so I went to the meeting. The first thing I ask the leader is, “What are you doing for immigration; is it true the union is helping deport people?” Obviously, he said no and showed me one of the contracts that had very strong immigration protection language. “Fine, you can keep the card then.”

I was very convinced. But after that, the organizer came to my house to recruit me to be part of the organizing committee and I said No, I didn’t have a need to do that. But she was very persistent. She came to my house over and over again, she left me voice messages, went to the hotel to look for me… It got to the point where I thought she had nothing else to do but bother me! Until I give her an appointment and we sit down. She learned that I was afraid to lose that job because it was hard for me to find that job.

Then I learned the company’s policy. I learned that I don’t have job security unless I have a union contract , and in the meantime, they can fire me for any reason. That’s when I said, “Oh my god, you’re right. Ok. I’m going to join the organizing committee.” That’s how I started with the union. And then I went on to organize at the Radisson Hotel on Century Blvd. Then, the Glendale Hilton, and after that, one of my biggest and most challenging assignments – the Hilton LAX… and then the Embassy Suites in Irvine… and the Westin Long Beach, then the Hyatt Long Beach… and then the Hilton Long Beach…

REGLA: I saw so much injustice in my work. much cruelty to people, so much discrimination… So much abuse…One day I saw a manager and a coworker in housekeeping. The co-worker needed a washcloth, and the manager took one ahead of everyone else and when the co-worker said something, the manager threw the washcloth on the floor and told my co-worker to pick it up. I told my co-worker, I said, No! Don’t pick it up. Leave it there on the floor.” And that’s what she did. From then on, I stepped up – and I always step up, for my people, for my coworkers. I decided to talk to some of my co-workers and I told them, “I know of a union; I know that this union is good; the union will help. We are going to go there. we can’t continue with our heads down, we have to lift our heads up! The employers are really unjust with us, and more with Latinos because they know that we don’t speak the language and that we need the money, and so they abuse us more…” And that’s when I started to become a leader within my job.

IGNACIO: They asked me if I could mobilize people. And I said, “Mobilize people? How does it work?” “We’re gonna have a rally. We’re organizing the New Otani. How many people can you mobilize?” I felt so confident I said, “How many you need?” They say: “Can you get 10?” I’m: “No. I think that I can get – at least 20 or more.” So I go over and talk to them one by one. When the date comes for the action, they come over to me one by one: “Hey, here I am, here I am, here I am, estoy aquí…” The organizers were looking at me like “what is this?” Because you know how difficult it is to mobilize people. But at the end of the day, I had over 25 people! They ask me if I want to be a shop steward. They say: We’re gonna train you. We’re gonna empower you to delegate over at the hotel. “You mean for me to go over and challenge management? I’m gonna be in the face of management now and leading a delegation of workers?”

IGNACIO: I wasn’t sure to do it or not. But he got me to meetings where they were sitting down and handling a grievance and I saw how things work, so I said, “Ok. I will do it. I will be shop steward.” He was pushing me. He was giving me assignments I wasn’t used to doing over in the hotel. He would say, “Okay, go over there and challenge the Human Resources Director.” So, I did it. At the beginning it was tough because they were not used to having people going over and telling them, “Hey, this is not proper what you are doing. This doesn’t make sense.” It took time for me to break this barrier, but once I got it over, I felt – This is great.

EMMA: I was a single mom with two girls, seven years apart. So when I really started getting active with the union, their lives changed. My aunt was there to take care of them but they didn’t appreciate the time I spent with the union. And not just my daughters but my sisters and my brothers, and my aunts and my uncles. Frankly, they said I was participating in a cult, that I had been brainwashed.

SOLEDAD: At first, my family was just like me; they didn’t know anything about the union. We were just so limited about what we were going to do here as immigrants. You know, we just let the bosses do whatever they want. My older sister was against me. She didn’t want me to become involved with the union.

IGNACIO: When I was assigned my first campaign I was out for a whole year – out on a union leave from my work at the Century Plaza. My wife never expected me to be out that long. Well, we had just finished negotiations with the Century Plaza— and he tells me We need you to go over to Oxnard and help with the strawberry workers. I told my wife, “Oh, I’m going over to Oxnard and be there for… 3 months…6 months…I don’t know.” She got upset. I never realized that I was putting my marriage on the line. It took time. Later, my wife realized I was doing the right thing. Now I just get up, like this morning, and say, “I’m going to the union.” And she says,  Oh… Okay.

EMMA: Later on, my daughter said she understood; she became a shop steward herself. My older daughter is a nurse and she understands because she worked for a company that wasn’t union. But because of the way she was and because of the things I taught her…she’s now very pro-union. They finally came to understand the importance of what it is to be union and how important it was to fight for your rights.

REGLA: I did a hunger strike for seven days. I said, one day I am going to feel happy about what I am doing. And well, those seven days, it was hard – my blood sugar dropped, I got skinny, but I didn’t care, I went on fighting, and in the end I saw victory. My kids also see me as a leader. They feel happy because they know that I am a fighter – that I fight for what I love.

SOLEDAD: Now they look up to me. My sister, she’s seen me change – not just my language and personality, but also financially – That’s when they start to learn what the union really does. My brothers now, if their bosses don’t want to give them their pay, the first person that they call is me. “Where am I supposed to go? Are they supposed to this?” Most of them started driving when they saw me start driving. They get motivation from me. They say: “If she can do it, we can do it.”

REGLA: My proudest moment was at the Westin when all the union authorization cards were signed and counted. And for me, that was it… I cried. Well, I cry about everything, but I cry seeing that my efforts are not in vain, that it is possible.

IGNACIO : The power that the housekeeping department has is incredible. I have seen it. Yeah, there was this convention at the Hyatt, and for some reason the hotel decided to overload the rooms with pillows and the housekeepers got so upset and they said—

REGLA:  “No, we’re going to take those pillows out and leave them in the halls!”

SOLEDAD : “ We are not going up to the rooms until you remove all those pillows because you never negotiated with the union.”

IGNACIO : Management refused so the housekeepers walked out. They stayed out on the picket line for almost 3 hours. And the hotel ended up paying all that time for close to 90 housekeepers that were standing there. Those are the things that empower the workers.

EMMA: What I’m most proud of is when we did our first big campaign for Host, I had to talk close friends and coworkers into giving up on a raise that they would get in order for someone else who made less money to get a raise. That made me feel the best – to get somebody to realize that they need to help pull somebody else up and by pulling them up, they have to get a little less. But they’re willing to do it and you helped convince somebody that it was the right thing to do.

IGNACIO: We have changed the whole fight for people to get out of poverty. It is incredible. I think one day I was driving to my hotel and I saw a huge bulletin that says, “New minimum wage covers 800,000 poor people in the city.” And right away I realized it is my union, Local 11, doing it. We have changed the lives of our people.

REGLA: I see it big. I see it big. I see all the hotels. I want to see them like Las Vegas. I want all the hotel workers to feel like we feel ourselves. I wish to fix the world in that way.

SOLEDAD: And to share what we have learned with others.

EMMA: And in telling your story, your life story, how you’ve taken charge, how you’ve moved ahead, and how you’ve done this, it helps other people realize that they can do the same thing.

VEENA: Thanks to Emma Worthington, Regla Soto, Soledad Garcia, and Ignacio Ruiz for sharing their stories. “Changing Lives, Changing L.A.” was conceived by veteran organizer Vivian Rothstein and crafted by playwrights Doris Baizley and Rose Portillo. It was directed by Rose Portillo and Doris Baizley, and produced by Vivian Rothstein. The oral histories of the women and men of UNITE HERE Local 11 were voiced by actors Joyce Guy, Marco Rodriguez, Rose Portillo, and Sarita Ocón.

For access to the UNITE HERE Local 11 oral history interviews, please visit

To watch a video recording of the play, please visit The video recording was edited by Robert Hillig. 

And lastly, thanks to all the individuals and organizations who made this episode possible. Please check out our show notes for a full list of credits. Thanks for listening! Until next time rethink, re:work.