Act Locally » December 22, 2004
San Francisco hotel workers triumph with help from city-by-city support
The five-week San Francisco hotel lockout was fought by workers who wanted to “level the playing field,” in the words of Elena Duran, a room cleaner at the city’s Hilton. Inspired by the idea of unions in many cities around the country sitting down at the same time with the giant hotel operators, they demanded a common contract expiration date in 2006. And although those operators had agreed to that date in eight cities, in San Francisco they drew the line.
The idea was “a non-starter,” says Barbara French, speaking for the Multi-Employer Group (MEG), which bargains for 14 of the city’s largest establishments, including corporations like Hilton, Intercontinental, Starwood and Hyatt that manage hotel properties around the country and the world.
When workers wouldn’t take the demand off the table, MEG said they couldn’t come back to work until they did. UNITE HERE Local 2 not only didn’t fold—it began to implement the very strategy of city-to-city cooperation that the hotel chains were so afraid of.
Chicago was one of the first cities to mount a one-day walkout of the union hotels managed by the same corporations battling workers in San Francisco. Henry Tamarin, president of Chicago’s UNITE HERE Local 1, wrote a letter to the city’s labor movement, calling on them to boycott the Intercontinental and the Four Seasons for the same reason. “If workers in San Francisco, Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. make concessions to their multinational employers,” he warned, “our Chicago families will soon feel them too.”
This fall, when negotiations started in San Francisco for a new contract, MEG proposed tiny wage increases and big hikes in medical insurance payments—up to $273 a month. But the key issue at stake was Local 2’s proposal that a new agreement expire in 2006, part of an effort to form a common front of workers in major urban hotel markets.
In September the union launched a limited two-week strike against four MEG member hotels. The operators then locked the workers out of their other 10 hotels and announced they’d extend the lockout beyond the strike’s end, so long as the expiration date was on the table.
UNITE HERE, however, turned the lockout into a weapon against the operators. The 4,300 locked-out laborers mounted large, boisterous picket lines. Bullhorns blasted picketers’ chants into the streets, and up into the hotel rooms, from early morning until after midnight. Union members ate on the lines, often bringing their children with them. They reflected San Francisco’s diversity, with all of the city’s racial groups and languages represented. Some conventions pulled out of picketed hotels, while guests at others complained about disruption inside, or just refused to cross the lines.
When operators brought in strikebreakers from hotels in other cities, the union extended its picket lines to Chicago, Honolulu and Monterey, California, provoking one-day shutdowns that foreshadowed what a multi-city campaign in 2006 might mean.
Finally, the union turned to the city itself. The Board of Supervisors held a hearing in which hundreds of workers overflowed City Hall. Despite the fact the Local 2 had endorsed his opponent in last year’s election, Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to try to settle the dispute. But when he asked the hotels to end the lockout, they turned him down flat, and then criticized him publicly. Matt Adams, head of MEG, wondered aloud to the San Francisco Chronicle why the candidate, whose campaign they’d financed, was not taking their side without question.
Newsom pulled city business from the hotels. As complaints mounted from businesses surrounding the noisy picket lines, he also pulled the police away, pointing out that the operators could end the ruckus any time they liked. As the workers’ health insurance was set to expire, the city hospital union, SEIU Local 250, convinced the workers’ HMO to extend it. The state announced that since Local 2 members were locked out, they’d receive unemployment benefits.
After five weeks, the operators finally let the workers return to their jobs, with no agreement on their demand that they give up the 2006 contract expiration date. When workers learned about the decision, many were even reluctant to take the lines down, since they’d proven so effective.
The union, while it agreed not to strike for 60 days, announced it would continue the rest of its effective pressure campaign, including boycotts of the 14 hotels. The operators still have deep reserves, and the hotels will function unhindered through their busiest season. But MEG’s grand strategy to stop the union’s march toward greater bargaining leverage has unraveled.
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David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (2013), Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dbacon.igc.org.