Nearly 1,000 hotel workers and supporters converged on the posh downtown San Francisco Hilton on January 5, opening a new front in UNITE HERE Local 2’s months-long contract battle.
Hundreds of students, community organizers, and workers from other unions joined them on boisterous pickets. Union President John Wilhelm and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka were among the 130 protesters arrested at a civil disobedience action in front of the Hilton—UNITE HERE’s newest boycott target.
Separate contract talks with each of the 61 city hotels are at a standstill over health care benefits and workload despite months of union pressure—including a boycott at five hotels, civil disobedience actions, and weeks of rolling strikes at three hotels.
“The corporations will not budge until they feel it in their pockets,” said Riddhi Mehta, spokeswoman for Local 2. “They think they have nothing to lose but they are mistaken because guests are not getting quality service.”
Facing a hotel industry that registered more than $200 billion in profits in the last decade, Local 2 upped the ante again. Demonstrators marched from Grant Avenue to a picket line in front of The Hilton demanding a contract before leaders and rank-and-file activists blocked the Hilton’s main entrance and were arrested.
The hotel chain wants to cut pay for new hires by 25 percent and shift an increasing portion of health care costs onto all workers in each year of the contract. The union reports several chains are demanding costs for workers rise from $35 a month to $200 a month in the third and final year of their offer. San Francisco hotel workers make $30,000 a year on average, the union says.
Meanwhile the CEO of Blackstone Group, which owns Hilton, earned more than a billion dollars in 2008.
According to Mehta, Local 2’s proposal would have amounted to a 1.5 percent increase in labor costs for the hotel corporations. But resistance from management to accept even this meager increase influenced the union’s decision to scrap their proposal, which would have basically maintained current benefits for a year-long term.
Now the union has opted for one with bigger demands over the long term.
“The negotiations have been a waste of time because management has been giving us the same proposal before and after the actions we have had,” says Patricio Bautista, a cook at the Westin Market, and a 15-year union veteran who sits on Local 2’s negotiation team.
The raucous crowd was composed of members from dozens of area unions. Maria Guillen is a member of Service Employees (SEIU) Local 1021 and works with the Department of Health Services for San Francisco. The sit-in at the Hilton was her third civil disobedience action in solidarity with Local 2. “It is important for SEIU members to support hotel workers because they are in a tough struggle, and it’s our struggle too,” she said.
This spirit of solidarity was in the air in downtown San Francisco yesterday, and resonated in Trumka’s address at the rally.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a job in a coal mine, a hotel, a classroom, or a car wash,” he said. “That’s why the struggle of the hotel workers here in San Francisco and across the country is so very, very important for all of us. If we don’t protect the wages and benefits and health care for hotel workers, no job is safe, no worker is safe, no family is safe, and we won’t tolerate it.”
The hotel giants have yet to budge in ongoing talks with thousands of UNITE HERE members in San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles. But the union’s position will only get stronger as tens of thousands of members undertake new contract battles in 2010 in Toronto, Minneapolis, Honolulu, Washington, D.C., Vancouver, British Columbia, and Monterey, California.
Catherine-Mercedes Judge is a Local 2 volunteer and daughter of a Local 2 member who serves on the rank-and-file negotiating committee. Nicholas Tichy, a recent graduate of the University of Washington, where he studied journalism and political science, also contributed to the piece, as did Carl Finamore.
Published on Labor Notes (http://www.labornotes.org)