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Working In These Times

Thursday, Nov 19, 2009, 10:45 am

Hotel Workers to St. Francis Hotel: Live Up to Your Good Name

BY Carl Finamore

Westin St. Francis Hotel employees, members of UNITE-HERE Local 2, protest while on strike outside of the hotel in San Francisco, Calif.   (Photo by Carl Finamore)

SAN FRANCISCO—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.

But not so in this city, where the name St. Francis brings howls of anger and disapproval—sometimes amplified with a bullhorn. On Wednesday, November 18, 650 Westin St. Francis Hotel workers— all UNITE-HERE Local 2 members—walked off the job and began a loud, moving picket line in front of the hotel.

It will continue all day and all night for three days, and will be followed by a boycott. This is the same strike/boycott pattern targeted the city’s Palace and Grand Hyatt hotels during 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 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 UNITE-HERE/hotels 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 were 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 healthcare, 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.

Casey said UNITE-HERE members are ready to continue the conflict well into next year. “We will not be predictable," he said. "We will use these types of brief, targeted actions and then move on to another location.”

Unlike the real St. Francis, who famously claimed to have emptied his pockets of coins after chasing down a beggar, the hotel owners appear more likely to chase after those whose pockets they can empty.

In negotiations, the hotel has asked workers earning an average of $30,000 a year to pay more for healthcare, 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, and 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 hotel manager Starwood Hotels & Resorts 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 healthcare costs, which is affecting businesses across the country, Curiale complained.

Apparently, Westin St. Francis owner Strategic Hotels & Resorts is not satisfied with earning $11 million from its 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 a 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. But the hotel worked feverishly to repair itself, and was soon up and running, a shining example of San Francisco’s revival.

Today the hotel has a similar chance to repair its reputation, this time damaged by its refusal to agree to a contract with employees that would cost less than 1.5 percent of its payroll. It ought to work just as quickly as it did more than 100 years ago so it can get back to business.

What would the real St. Francis do?

Carl Finamore is a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and former President (retired), Air Transport Employees, Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW.

Carl Finamore is a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and former President (retired), Air Transport Employees, Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW.

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