Inside Organizing and Outside Representation, at San Fran’s Grand Hyatt

Carl Finamore

Rev. Israel Alvaran briefs a delegation of community activists just before entering the main lobby of San Francisco's Le Meridian Hotel on February 19, 2010.

Organizing workers into a union usually brings out the best in labor. Organizers are truly motivated, work long hours and genuinely believe in helping workers.

But not everything is always as good as it appears. We know from watching pumped-up 30-second movie trailers that the full 90-minute release might not actually measure up to its hype. We are sometimes disappointed. It’s the same with us in the union movement.

We have to work on closing the gap between how we project ourselves so favorably while organizing workers, and how we sometimes actually perform while representing them. Connecting the dots between representing current members and recruiting new workers played out on the downtown streets of San Francisco on Friday, February 19.

UNITE-HERE, Local 2, was conducting one of their trademark All Day, All Night Sieges” of the boycotted Grand Hyatt hotel in conjunction with their ongoing six-month contract dispute with 63 city hotels.

Bullhorns were blaring, drums beating and dozens of loud, enthusiastic chanting pickets were making sure hotel guests heard loud street sounds from each of the building’s 35 floors: A Contract or A Boycott!” and Don’t Check In, Check Out!” Judging from the confused and irritated looks, it appeared that at least some of the guests exiting the hotel wished they had taken that last bit of advice.

Meanwhile, ten blocks away on the same day, another Local 2 protest was taking place in the main lobby of the non-union Le Meridien hotel. The premier hotel is in the middle of the city’s Financial District, only steps away from picturesque Chinatown and atmospheric Little Italy.

But there is another side, an underside if you will, of this grand hotel.

In only eight years, its owners, HEI Hotels & Resorts, have become one of the largest hotel management firms in the country. UNITE-HERE says that the company specializes in buying properties, lowering labor costs and selling them off quickly for a profit.

Collective bargaining is clearly not a good selling point” for these quick-sale speculators.

For example, Le Meridien San Francisco management rejected an employee petition in June 2008 that suggested fairer ground rules for how employees could select a union. Local 2 has won this same proposal for a Card Check or Majority Sign Up” agreement at many locations in San Francisco, where around 90 percent of the big hotels are now union.

However, the Le Meridien remains a big stumbling block. In February 2009 employees responded by calling for a boycott of their own hotel. Demonstrations have occurred almost weekly ever since.

Hundreds of religious, community and political figures have spoken out in favor of the boycott, including David Chiu, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who said hotel workers and the hotel industry are critical to our city’s economy, and we ask the hotel owners to respect the workers’ choice to organize freely as other San Francisco hotel companies already do.”

Act like a union to get a union

According to UNITE-HERE, Le Meridien continues to harass employees. On February 4, the manager threatened to fire three union supporters. On February 9, he told employees asking about a newspaper article reporting that the hotel might not be paying its mortgage that their petition of inquiry would be thrown away.

This arrogance is what triggered two-dozen religious, community, student and labor figures to pay an unannounced visit to the hotel on February 19. The delegation stood quietly in the congested main lobby holding up signs that read: Respect Yes, Intimidation No.”

Spokespersons Sister Bernie Galvin and Gordon Mar told the front desk clerk that no one was leaving until meeting with the manager. Two unnerved top hotel representatives hurriedly showed up, claiming the manager was not on the premises. Of course, they still received an ear full from delegation spokespersons, who asked for an end to the reported harassment of employees.

Ignoring dismissive suggestions from management to write us a letter,” half a dozen activists made their own additional comments in full view of guests and workers who all seemed to enjoy the obvious discomfort of the two hotel representatives nervously fiddling in the main lobby.

Besides being lots of fun, this action and similar ones that preceded it at the hotel accomplished two goals for the union.

First, it puts the hotel on notice to respect employees seeking rights to organize. Rev. Israel Alvaran, Local 2 community organizer and member of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) told me that the community is watching and this disrespectful attitude towards workers will not be tolerated under our watch.”

Secondly, it provided outside support to hotel employees who are attempting to organize workers inside. As one union leader told me,

workers are stronger when they are united holding their employers accountable for their actions. And we as a community then must stand by them, must continue to mobilize support, provide legal assistance and, in fact, back up their efforts on every level.

High stakes, long fight

It is generally assumed that the Hyatt contract dispute is going to be a long fight. The union has an extremely tough array of hotel adversaries that are determined to impose higher healthcare costs, increase workloads and lower wages, all despite corporate treasuries bloated enough to satisfy the union’s primary objective of maintaining current health benefits.

Local 2 emerged victorious from a two-year fight ending in 2006 against this same company by regularly mobilizing its members and involving community allies. This time around, their coalition will be strengthened by inclusion of more hotel workers desperately seeking collective bargaining rights and a voice on the job.

Solidarity between union members and their more vulnerable unorganized fellow workers is a powerful alliance that can possibly even the odds in this showdown.

It is very fortunate that the union’s program enjoys the enthusiastic support of members as evidenced by the hundreds of activists regularly participating in actions. But this is not accidental.

A very good consequence of Local 2’s militant One Union, One Contract” approach — which holds that all hotels, big and small, should provide the same wages and benefits — is that the membership remains united regardless of where they work. They also more generally understand how expanding this same solidarity throughout the industry protects their contract.

This is a classic labor confrontation taking place in San Francisco between two formidable foes. One has money, and plenty of it; the other has people, with more on the way.

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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