The name St. Francis generally invokes serene images of the devout canonized Catholic aesthetic who is a favorite even among the non-religious because of his professed humility and sincerity. Not so in San Francisco.
The name St. Francis brings howls of anger and disapproval, sometimes amplified with a bullhorn. Each one of Local 2, UNITE-HERE’s six hundred and fifty members at the Westin St. Francis Hotel walked off the job on Wednesday, November 18, and began a loud, moving picket line surrounding the hotel.
It will continue all day and all night for three days to be followed by a boycott, the same pattern of strike/boycott that targeted the city’s Palace and Grand Hyatt hotels the last two weeks.
Local 2 President Mike Casey expects a long and tough fight as individual negotiations with over two dozen major hotels and another several dozen smaller ones have bogged down according to the union because employers "press for a contract that would slash health and retirement benefits and would increase workloads."
The conflict is reminiscent of the union’s 2004-2006 strike/lockout and two-year boycott which resulted in complete victory for the union.
In fact, the hotels are reported to have lost $100 million in revenues during that dispute. Local 2 is very serious about boycotts and aggressively reaches out to major clients to suggest rescheduling conventions, invoking cancellation clauses or rebooking at non-boycotted union hotels.
"The last time they tried to slash health care, the resulting struggle cost them millions. This year’s shaping up to be a replay of that fight," Local 2 organizer Mark Westerberg told me.
But, still, there is no indication that any hotel is backing off from attempts to extract concessions.
"They just want to use the economy as an excuse to cut back, even though we know they’re making money," said Francesca Ramos, a 19-year seamstress at the hotel.
"We are already preparing for 2010, our members are ready to last this one out just as we did in our 2004-2006 victory when we turned up the heat with a two-year broadly-supported boycott," Casey told me. "We will not be predictable. We will use these types of brief, targeted actions and then move on to another location."
Unlike the storied real St. Francis who is famously claimed to have emptied his pockets of coins after chasing down a beggar, the hotel owners appear more likely to chase after others whose pockets they can empty.
That’s exactly what is being proposed in negotiations. Workers who earn an average of $30,000 a year are being asked to pay more for health care, contrary to the long-term understanding between Local 2 and the hotels that benefits would be preserved if workers would accept only modest wage increases over past years.
Local 2 says workers have kept their end of the bargain, the hotels have not.
Hotel management is additionally asking that there be no retiree medical coverage for new hires, according to attorney Richard Curiale who represents Starwood in negotiations.
The current contracts provide medical coverage to all retirees for the rest of their lives, "but that [system] is going to come crashing down," he told SF Appeal. The issue is skyrocketing health care costs, which is affecting businesses across the country, Curiale complained.
Apparently, Westin St. Francis owners, Strategic Hotels & Resorts, are not satisfied with earning $11 million from their flagship hotel in the first nine months of this year. Nor is Starwood, managers of the hotel, satisfied with $180 million profits in this same period. In response, Local 2 estimates the cost of the union’s one-year contract proposal to be less than $500,000.
The disparity between the lofty name of the hotel and the rather earthly designs of the owners and managers has not gone unnoticed by supporters of Local 2. "They should either change their name or change their attitude," Rev. Israel Alvaran told a group of strikers.
The famed St. Francis hotel has the premier location in San Francisco, located right in the middle of the busy downtown Union Square commercial district. With classic 19th century construction modeled on the renowned Ritz hotel in Paris, construction was completed in March 1906 with California railroad money. But all the money in the world couldn’t buy it good fortune even with its holy namesake.
The St. Francis has the unfortunate distinction of opening its doors just one month before the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake that completely burned its interior. Working feverishly to repair the damage, the hotel was soon back up and running and stood as a shining example of San Francisco’s revival.
Today offers the same opportunity. But hotel management must work just as feverishly to repair a damaged reputation caused by their refusal to agree to a contract with employees that would cost less than 1.5% of payroll.
Now what would the real St. Francis do?
Carl Finamore is a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and former President (ret), Air Transport Employees, Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW. He can be reached in San Francisco at [email protected]