Return of the Class Struggle: Hotel Workers National
Battle, One We Can't Afford to Lose
By Gene Pepi
ON SEPTEMBER 29, 2004, 1400 San Francisco hotel workers (members of
UNITE-HERE Local 2) hit the streets at four of fourteen major San Francisco
hotels for a two-week strike. Two days later, the other ten hotels in the
San Francisco Major Employers Group (SFMEG-who bargain together
against UNITE-HERE Local 2) responded by locking out the other 2600
San Francisco UNITE-HERE members covered under the SFMEG contract.
A week earlier, Local 2 members had authorized a strike by a 97% vote
of more than 3000 members. As of September 23, 2004, in cities across
the US, over 14,000 hotel and casino workers had passed resolutions to
authorize strikes by margins and numbers similar to those in San Francisco.
And on October 1, 2004, 10,000 union casino workers in Atlantic City,
New Jersey, struck with massive picket lines against seven of the twelve
major Atlantic City casinos. This is the start of a new wave of class
struggle, one we should win.
Hotel union labor contracts began to expire last June for 2800 Los
Angeles workers and in August for San Francisco hotel workers.
Contracts have expired for casino workers at the 12 major Atlantic
City gaming palaces, 12 major hotels in Washington, DC and on the
casino boats and casino facilities in cities of Indiana: Gary, Michigan
City and East Chicago.
Across the country in every hotel, casino, and union restaurant UNITE-
HERE members face similar issues. The bean counters at the hotel,
restaurant and gambling conglomerates want workers to pick up the
increased costs of healthcare for their families and retirees, to hold
the line on pension contributions, and to accept increased workloads
without increases in wages.
They absolutely do not want to have major hotel contracts expire in
2006, the common expiration date that UNITE-HERE members and
leaders are fighting for.
The 2006 expiration date would align the contract negotiations
for somewhere near 50,000 to 70,000 hotel workers from New York
City, up and down the East Coast, through Chicago and the Midwest,
up and down the West Coast, and across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii.
It also reflects the merger of the unions that now make up UNITE-
HERE, possible changes in the leadership of the AFL-CIO union
confederation and the massive restructuring and consolidation of
the hotel, restaurant and gambling industries as represented by
the conglomerates that own, run and franchise what is now a multi-
billion dollar industry. The hotel and casino conglomerates adamantly
oppose the 2006 common contract expiration date, as reflected in
the San Francisco lockout and "bad-faith bargaining" legal action
by SFMEG taken against UNITE-HERE Local 2.
On July 8, 2004, two existing AFL-CIO affiliated unions merged to
form UNITE-HERE. They were the Union of Needletrades, Textiles
and Industrial Employees (UNITE) and the Hotel Employees and
Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE).
The combined unions now number almost 500,000 active members
and 400,000 retirees throughout North America. More than half of
the current active members are women and the combined union has
organized more than 100,000 new workers in the last five years.
Three things preceded this union merger. UNITE itself was created
by the merger of two unions: the International Ladies Garment
Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile
Workers Union (ACTWU), both famous for their struggles in textile
manufacturing and US politics. However in the years since the 1950s,
the two unions have lost a combined total of 850,000 members, as
clothing and textile manufacturing jobs were exported from the US.
By 2004 their combined membership totaled only 180,000.
The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union
(HERE) was originally formed in the 1890s. Its membership peaked
in the 1980s. Just before September 11th, 2001 its membership was
272,000. Following the 2001 terrorist attacks union membership
dropped to 180,000, as much of the tourism industry collapsed.
The collapse was aggravated by the bursting of the 1990s economic
bubble. However by 2004 HERE membership had grown again to 260,000.
To support its call for the 2006 expiration date, UNITE-HERE points
out that in the last two decades, hotel lodging companies have
undergone a major consolidation. Hotels that used to be locally
owned are now parts of huge transnational corporations.
According to information provided by the union, 75% of UNITE-
HERE Local 2 workers in San Francisco are employed by national
chains (like Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental, Marriott and Starwood).
These 5 transnational conglomerates together run 60% of San Francisco
hotels. Local companies run only 5% of San Francisco hotels.
The largest conglomerate, InterContinental, owns or franchises
3500 hotels in 100 countries and in San Francisco operates the
Mark Hopkins hotel and others. In 2003 InterContinental reported
an operating profit of more than one-half billion dollars.
In a like manner, in 2003 the Hilton Corporation reported over
$160 million profits on $4 billion in revenues, Marriott reported
$500 million profits on $9 billion in revenues, and Starwood reported
over $309 million profits on $3.8 billion in revenues.
Power in 2006
On Friday, August 13th, Hyatt Chicago Regency hotel workers
marched into management offices wearing their new red and black
"2004 Unity, 2006 Power" buttons. They presented managers with
a 500-signature petition. Five workers were sent home for wearing
the "2004 Unity, 2006 Power" buttons.Power in 2006
On Saturday, August 14th, in the face of 1400 guest check-outs,
82 button wearing hotel workers, including the main kitchen crew
and the main luncheon banquet server crew, were sent home when
they refused to remove their "2004 Unity, 2006 Power" buttons.
Food service at the hotel all but collapsed.
Management had to scramble to serve food buffet style and serve
a VIP luncheon using managers and other hotel staff. On Sunday
Hyatt Regency hotel managers asked UNITE-HERE Local 1 hotel
workers to come back to work and said that it was OK to wear the
"2004 Unity, 2006 Power" buttons.
"We sent a message to the hotels in Chicago and the giant
corporations that run them that this is a national fight and
we are ready for it," Francine Jones, a Hyatt Chicago Room
UNITE- HERE Local 2 Vice-president Lamoin Werlein-Jean, told
San Francisco news-media reporters that, "We're fighting to build
a national movement to unite our brother and sister hotel workers
across the country so we may be able to negotiate with more
balance with these multinational hotel corporations."
Ignacio Ruiz, a food server at the Los Angeles Century Plaza, told
an LA reporter that hotel workers had learned from the super-market
strike that they need national coordination to win these battles against
international hotel chains.
UNITE- HERE Local 2 President Mike Casey told us that UNITE- HERE
is trying to avoid the problems that UFCW grocery workers in Southern
California had with their contracts. Casey also said they are trying to
connect with Northern California UFCW Grocery workers and SEIU-
represented hospital workers, who face similar issues in their
contracts that are expiring and are being negotiated now.
Post 911 Recovery
The tourism industry suffered an economic blow immediately
following the 911 terrorist attacks. That was on top of the economic
downturn already taking place. In San Francisco, about one third of
union hotel workers were laid off and many of the rest had their work
hours reduced. However in the last year, the industry has been
experiencing a recovery to levels at or above those of 2001,
particularly in San Francisco and New York.
In Washington, D.C. both room occupancy and rates have increased
in the last year. The Washington Post, reported on September 3, 2004
that Smith Travel Research Inc. states that area hotels reported revenue
per room to be up from $75.77 in 2003 to $86.45 in 2004, over
a similar time period.
This figure is also higher than the same period preceding the
terrorist attacks in 2001. However employment levels in the
hotels have not kept pace with increased workloads. Fewer
workers are now doing more work than they did in 2001.
As Mike Casey, President of UNITE- HERE Local 2 puts it, "We
won't allow the hotels to balance their books on our backs ..."
In San Francisco (and around the country), UNITE-HERE Local 2
is also fighting to defend immigrant workers, arguing that employers
should join the union in the fight to change US immigration laws.
UNITE-HERE unions are also proposing to increase the hiring rates
of black workers, which are underrepresented in the hotel work
force. UNITE-HERE Local 2 also has endorsed San Francisco Ballot
Initiative F, which would allow non-citizens, with children in public
schools, to vote in school board elections.
The contracts expiring in San Francisco affect other San Francisco
hotels, where contracts will expire soon. Which is why we see SFMEG
(and all other hotel employers across the country) proposing
increased employee contributions to health insurance costs,
meager wage proposals, inadequate pension contributions, and
finally, more than anything else, opposition to the 2006 contract
expiration date. In fact the fight for the 2006 expiration date is
the main reason that negotiations broke down and that UNITE-
HERE Local 2 called the strike.
In every hotel across the country, if their regular employees strike
or employers lock union workers out, hotel managers and executives
say they will keep their hotels open. It remains to be seen if they can
do this if union workers put up the fight necessary to shut down the
hotels despite the use of strikebreakers.
Words are cheap. What the striking workers need is massive solidarity.
The AFL-CIO and all local Labor Councils and individual unions must
help the Hotel Workers with money, food and, more importantly, labor
actions such as boycotts of hotel chains and massive support for picket
lines. Supporters must enforce the premise that picket lines are not to
Politicians, especially those running for office, should be put on the spot
and in the spotlight. They must speak out in favor of the mostly
immigrant strikers and avoid the trap of "mediating" in favor of the
hotel owners-as San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom has hinted at doing.