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Universal

LARRY KANTER Senior Reporter After battling nearby homeowner groups for years, Universal Studios Inc. could face an even more formidable foe as it tries to launch an ambitious, $2 billion plan to expand its production facilities and theme park. More than 60 labor unions, religious organizations and community groups have joined forces to demand that the approximately 8,000 new jobs expected to be created by Universal’s expansion be high-quality jobs, meaning that they pay a “livable wage” and include health benefits. “There has been a lot of talk about expansion, but nobody has been talking about what kind of jobs they are creating at Universal,” said Jason Elias, coordinator of the Coalition for Accountability in the Universal Studio Expansion, or CAUSE, which plans to kick off its efforts July 2 with a demonstration in front of Universal’s headquarters. “Most of the jobs that are coming in will be in the low-wage sector. Universal needs to be accountable to the people who are going to work for them.” Universal has long faced criticism from neighborhood and resident groups concerned about additional traffic, pollution and noise generated by the expansion. Last summer, the studio agreed to scale back its plans by some 40 percent, dropping a new theme park and several hotels from the proposal. But shifting the focus of the debate from traffic to jobs represents a new and potentially rocky road for Universal as does the strong presence of L.A.’s labor unions, which wield considerable influence with the county Board of Supervisors and L.A. City Council, both of which must approve the expansion before it gets underway. So far, 35 unions and 31 community and religious groups have joined the coalition, which includes many of the same organizations that successfully pushed the Living Wage Ordinance through the L.A. City Council last year. The unions represent everyone from hotel employees and janitors to some of Hollywood’s highest-paid blue-collar workers who are concerned that Universal may attempt to subcontract some of the new production jobs to non-union firms. “Over the last few years, Universal has consistently looked for ways to downgrade jobs,” said Carmine Palazzo, international vice president of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, citing the company’s use of non-union labor in the construction of CityWalk as an example. “We can’t allow that to happen anymore.” Universal representatives were unavailable for comment. Organizers say they are not opposed to the expansion per se, they just want assurances that the new development will not create thousands of poverty-level jobs that will swell the ranks of the working poor. And they plan to make their concerns known to city and county officials, said Elias. The county Planning Commission currently is preparing the final draft of an environmental impact report on the expansion, which is expected to be completed by the end of the summer. After that, the expansion proposal must be approved by the Board of Supervisors and the City Council. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he sympathizes with the coalition’s concerns. But legally, the board can only require mitigation measures specifically related to the expansion, such as a new freeway onramp or an added lane on the freeway, as a condition for approval, he said. Measures such as wage or benefit rates are beyond the board’s reach. “It would be legally questionable to tie a labor negotiation to a land-use decision,” Yaroslavsky said.

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