San Francisco Readies for a Labor Dispute

Contract negotiations for 9,000 hotel workers in San Francisco have not yet reached the three-month mark. Yet, there have already been over 100 arrests, several downtown protests of over 1,000 people, a planned extended hotel siege that "drives the cheap bosses nuts," and a conclusive strike vote.

It seems clear that another major street fight is shaping up between the powerful Local 2, UNITE-HERE, AFL-CIO hotel workers’ union, and two dozen of the city’s largest and most prominent hotels. Big names like Starwood, Hilton, Hyatt, Fairmont, and InterContinental are all locked in a battle with the union over shifting more health care costs to employees and increasing workloads. There are also another 30 smaller union hotels with expired Local 2 contracts that are affected by negotiations with the larger chains.

At least one major hotel owned by the Blackstone Group, the Hilton, has proposed cutting starting wages for new hires by 25 percent. According to Local 2 figures, the CEO and part owner of Blackstone was paid $1,385,391,042 in 2008. This is not a typo though it may seem like one. The average Local 2 member earns $30,000 annually.

On the one hand, employers are stalling negotiations, seeking to ride out the approaching holiday season to keep profit levels up without any disruptions. Hoping to swing things their way, on October 22 hotel workers voted by 92 percent to authorize a citywide strike. At the meeting, Local 2 President Mike Casey said that, "We are not going to let the hotels balance their books on the backs of our members. We didn’t let them get away with it in 2004, we’re not going to let them get away with it now."

A Local 2 Strike Vote Factsheet put it even more bluntly, letting the hoteliers know that it will not be business as usual if they continue to stall: "Workers are taking this strike vote to prompt the hotel industry to recognize that it is cheaper to settle with the union than to fight it."


August 14 UNITE-HERE picket

photo by Finamore

Now that strike authorization is approved, Local 2 can legally engage in boycotts and workplace actions "up to and including a strike. The last time we did this, we went out on strike," Riddhi Mehta, Local 2 spokesperson, told the San Francisco Examiner. "This is not an empty vote."

These two powerful forces pitted against each other are very reminiscent of the 2004-06, 53-day strike/lockout and the 2-year labor-organized hotel boycott. The union emerged victorious in that battle with the highest contract standards in the country and expanded rights to organize non-union hotels.

Subsequently, because of Local 2’s focus on organizing, over 90 percent of upscale hotels in San Francisco are now union. Another byproduct of that fight was the strengthening of membership unity gained from Local 2’s militant strategy of "One Union, One Contract." Big hotel or small hotel, all 9,000 Local 2 members working in 61 city hotels enjoy the same contract standards.

The same plan is in place for 2009 negotiations. Local 2 Negotiations Bulletin 4 states: "Since we are not negotiating with a multi-employer group, we intend to negotiate a ‘pattern’ agreement with one or a couple of companies…. That deal will become the new Union Standard."

But the large hotel chains are not about to cave in, even though they are estimated by the San Francisco Examiner to have lost between $50 million and $100 million in the 2004-2006 battle. Though suffering these embarrassing losses, the hotel industry retains a bloated war chest from over $200 billion in national profits during the past decade. In addition, since the $5.3 billion tourist industry is the largest economic sector in San Francisco, the hotels have other cards to play in exerting pressure on city politics. For example, a 14 percent municipal tax on each room generated $528 million to depleted city coffers in 2008 alone.

But Local 2 is also holding a few aces. In addition to uniting its own membership behind the strategy of "One Union, One Contract," the union has also reached out to hotel workers in other cities. An important element of Local 2’s strategy is to gain more bargaining leverage by lining up common expiration dates with UNITE-HERE units in other cities.

As a result, Local 2 is bargaining along with 14,000 other union hotel workers in Chicago and Los Angeles. If the bosses delay negotiations longer, other local contracts will expire and hotel workers in other major cities will also work together to establish common expiration dates and common bargaining objectives. This national approach puts maximum pressure on the large chains and can potentially shift the balance towards employees. "Hotel workers in Chicago and throughout North America are experiencing the same thing as we are here in San Francisco," Casey told me. "Everywhere they can, this industry is trying to take advantage of the economy to roll back the clock on working people, even while the companies make millions. That’s why we’re fighting side by side with hotel workers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and elsewhere."

It’s a strategy that can work. A mass-action approach of mobilizing the membership locally to directly confront employers, combined with a national approach, unites hotel workers across the country behind common goals and objectives.


Carl Finamore attended the October 22, 2009 strike vote meeting in San Francisco. He is a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council and former President (ret), Air Transport Employees, Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW.