Strike One for Hotels in San Francisco
By Carl Finamore
Every once in awhile we hear about big Lottery winners who lock their doors, close their shades and cut off their phones right after hitting the jackpot. Stories abound of distant relatives and long-lost acquaintances showing up unannounced on their doorsteps with their hands out.
In fact, there was a Cable TV program exclusively devoted to documenting the horrors faced by the newly crowned royalty who seem to run out of luck faster than a bride who passes a funeral on her way to the wedding.
We almost feel sorry for them. Take the poor Pritzker family, majority owners of the Hyatt Hotels, the third largest hotel chain in the U.S. They took home just under $1 billion on Thursday, November 5, after cashing in less than a quarter of their majority shares in the second biggest Wall St. initial public offering (IPO) this year.
It was a time of celebration. Pop open the Cristal Brut and serve the Beluga caviar, we’re on a roll now. But, sure enough, on the same day as the Pritzker’s were all smiles and slapping each other on the back, people showed up to rain on their parade.
San Francisco hotel workers announced a three-day strike of their premier downtown crown jewel, the Grand Hyatt. A Local 2, UNITE-HERE union bulletin states that “workers at the Grand Hyatt will return to work on Sunday, November 8, but have called for customers to honor an ongoing boycott at that property.”
Management was caught completely off guard. “We set up another meeting for next Thursday, which is why I’m stunned that the union pulled my employees out of the hotel,” hotel General Manager David Nadelman complained to the San Francisco Examiner. “We found the action by Local 2 to be irresponsible and stunning,” Nadelman lamented.
It seems the 300 workers at the hotel earning an average $30,000 annually think some of the Pritzker’s wealth should be shared, and they are not alone. Speaking in support of the strike, prominent community leader Rev. Norman Fong said that the owners of the “Grand Hyatt made a killing on the market today; how about $250,000 for the workers.”
Fong was referring to the total amount of money union negotiators say it would take to get a one-year agreement. “It would take less than 50 cents an hour per worker to get a one-year agreement,” stated union President Mike Casey, “one that keeps our crucial medical benefits intact, lifts our hourly wages by around 20 cents and avoids future strike actions like today.”
Such an agreement at the Hyatt could be the union standard that Local 2 wants to achieve as the model for the other 60 city hotels with expired contracts. Obtaining a short-term one-year contract would allow Local 2 to keep intact the best national contract in the industry as well as gain the union more bargaining leverage as more UNITE-HERE hotel contracts expire across the country in the interim.
But the hotels have their own strategy. Despite a significant recovery underway in North America that netted $110 billion profits in the last five years, the major hotels are still resisting an agreement that Local 2 estimates would add less than 2% to their payroll costs.
Unwilling to consider even modest gains, the owners believe the otherwise slumping economy gives them leverage to drive through with concessions. The hotels actually want to cut back medical benefits, lower wages and reduce staff. This uncompromising stance has drawn fire from leading political and community figures in the city.
Appearing at the Grand Hyatt, San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu said that “it is investors on Wall St. versus workers on the back streets of our city.”
Local 2 members are ready to make their point on the picket lines as necessary. Clearly this will not be the last strike action if the hotels continue their stalling tactics. Anticipating another tough fight reminiscent of their 2004-2006 53-day strike/lockout and victorious two-year boycott, members voted in the summer of 2008 to supplement their strike fund by assessing themselves a temporary 50% dues increase that will last through these negotiations.
With loud and enthusiastic pickets completely surrounding the hotel in the background, Casey reiterated his union’s stance that “there is an economic recovery going on in this industry and the question is whether the benefits will remain at the top or whether they will be shared with our members.”
Carl Finamore attended the first day’s strike picket at the Grand Hyatt, is a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council and former President (ret), Air Transport Employees, Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW, AFL-CIO. He can be reached at [email protected]