Strike Force

SAN FRANCISCO -- Socorro Carrillo, Junior Tejano, and Davey Eng didn't really expect they'd be going back to work. Nevertheless, at the start of their normal 7:30 a.m. shift, they presented themselves at the ornate entrance to the Fairmount San Franciso Hotel, one of San Francisco's classiest establishments, backed by dozens of other workers, clergy, and public officials. Confronted with all these people and hoping perhaps that they'd go away, manager Mark Huntley waited half an hour before meeting them in front of the doors. When he did, despite their low expectations, the trio still found his message upsetting.

The limited lockout, instituted by 10 hotels after UNITE HERE's Local 2 struck four others, would be continued indefinitely, Huntley said. The Fairmount was one of the 10, and workers there had already gone almost two weeks without paychecks. It wasn't economic pain that upset the three workers, however. "They just don't respect us," Tejano said.

After decades in the hotel, workers felt they were as much a part of the business as the managers. Carrillo had labored there for 33 years, turning down sheets and washing toilet bowls. Tejano, a bell captain, had probably hauled a hundred thousand suitcases through the doors in 31 years. Eng's three decades were measured out in similar labor. Now they were on the outside.

One might think these workers would be dismayed by the uncertainty, worried about when they'd be able to return to their jobs. Instead, at the Sheraton Palace down on Market Street, they seemed happy. Their boisterous, noisy picket lines have been driving hotel managers to tears, and at the hotel's insistence, motorcycle cops last week even started handing out tickets to passing drivers who were honking their horns in support. Meanwhile, each person going in or out of the polished glass doors was greeted with leaflets and hoots from bullhorns. Some reacted with grace and interest, while others spat insults as they quickly got into waiting taxis or retreated down the sidewalk. Meanwhile, through the lobby windows, picketers could see managers pacing back and forth, mentally counting up the canceled reservations.

There are many things about the San Francisco hotel strike that might seem reminiscent of the agonizing conflict that embroiled southern California grocery workers for four and a half months last winter. It is a local battle challenging powerful national corporations. Like Safeway, Albertsons, and Ralph's, the big San Francisco hotel chains -- Starwood (which runs the Sheraton Palace and the St. Francis), Hilton, Hyatt, and Intercontinental (which run the Mark Hopkins and the Holiday Inns) -- have a mutual support arrangement. A strike against any member of the Multi-Employer Group, they agreed long ago, would bring a lockout in the rest.

Yet, unlike the picket lines in the south, which had an air of desperation after the first few weeks, San Francisco strikers are nothing if not upbeat. In many ways, this strike could be called the "ungrocery" strike. Its objective is the elimination of the very problem that brought such a bitter resolution to the supermarket dispute. It is a strategic strike, a test run for the kind of long-term planning advocated by many voices now calling for reform and renovation in the AFL-CIO itself.

Elena Duran, a locked-out housekeeper at the Sheraton Palace, got angry at the announcement that hotel owners would extend the lockout beyond the union's two-week, limited strike. Facing a barrage of microphones at a press conference in the union hall on Golden Gate Avenue, surrounded by dozens of other Local 2 members, she emphasized, "It's important for us to level the playing field." She was clearly willing to make some sacrifices to reach that goal; her husband, who also works at the Sheraton, was locked out with her, giving her family only strike benefits on which to survive.

For Duran, the playing field is uneven today because an international corporation like Starwood can use its profits from operating hotels around the world to subsidize its losses during a local strike at one of its franchises, like San Francisco's Sheraton Palace. That's why southern California grocery workers were able to empty stores of customers, while the market chains used profits earned elsewhere to weather the conflict. Ultimately, workers had to agree to big, new payments for their health care, and lower wages for new employees.

In San Francisco, the hotel chains have demanded the same kind of increases, proposing that workers go from paying $10 a month for insurance today to $273 five years from now. "That would be a complete disaster for us," says Linda Knighten, another Sheraton worker. While Barbara French, the spokeswoman for the Multi-Employer Group, notes carefully that this is just a proposal and subject to negotiation, workers look at Los Angeles supermarkets and see it's not just a gambit. Employers in many industries, even highly profitable ones, are making the same demands, as health-insurance premiums skyrocket at about 15 percent per year. The question is, who will pay the increase, workers or employers?

To avoid the fate of their supermarket counterparts, hotel workers are trying to strengthen their union and increase its bargaining power. Over the last few years, Local 2 and its parent union have made several changes in this direction, and the current hotel lockout revolves around one in particular. The union's locals want to synchronize their contracts with large corporations so that in many cities they'll end in the same year, 2006. Eight cities -- New York; Chicago; Honolulu, Hawaii; Monterey, California; Toronto; Detroit; Boston; and Sacramento, California -- have already achieved this goal. Although bargaining, to begin with, would still take place for separate contracts in each area, the union would be able to make similar demands, and possibly even strike or take job action in multiple locations at the same time.

Until recently, the chains may have been caught napping, but that's changed. Contracts have expired in three of the country's largest hotel markets (San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.). The same demands are on the table in each area, and this time, the companies are refusing to budge. While French emphasizes the convenience of negotiating only once every five years, the problem isn't really the duration of future contracts. It's whether there will be simultaneous negotiations in 18 months.

The San Francisco strike, therefore, may soon spread to Los Angeles and the nation's capital. If it does, it will preview on a smaller scale the kind of multicity union coordination that the companies find so disadvantageous. On their side, therefore, the hotels have raised the stakes, first turning a four-hotel strike into a14-hotel dispute involving 4,000 workers, and now making a two-week lockout indefinite.

The plan for increasing union strength hasn't just concentrated on coordinated bargaining, though. A strike threat is an empty one unless workers are able to carry it through. Until recently, the Local 2 strike fund only held $3 million. For families like the Durans, who now depend on the $200 weekly strike-benefit checks to buy food and avoid eviction, the fund was dangerously inadequate. For every 1,000 workers on strike, $200,000 is needed a week. In a prolonged, wider strike, the fund wouldn't last long. But on July 4, the old Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees (HERE) union merged with the former Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) to create the new UNITE HERE.

UNITE has been devastated by massive relocation of clothing production to low-wage countries around the world. San Francisco's own union Koret and Levi's plants all closed during the last two decades. Still, after years of investing in New York real estate and a labor bank, the garment union has huge financial resources. Furthermore, it also has members in laundry plants around the country, those often wash the tablecloths and sheets from the hotels. By merging the two unions, the new entity gained the ability to weather much longer strikes and brought together two parts of the same industrial workforce.

UNITE HERE was also the union that initiated the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride a year ago, which brought caravans of immigrant workers and their supporters to Washington and New York. The cross-country action promoted the kind of immigration reform that would make it easier for immigrant workers to join unions, go on strike, and advocate for their labor rights. For a decade, Local 2 in San Francisco and Local 11 in Los Angeles have proposed and won language in their contracts protecting members from discrimination and firing because of immigration status.

On San Francisco picket lines, one hears voices with accents from Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean, China, the Philippines, and a host of other countries. In big cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, immigrants today make up a majority of the hotel workforce (and therefore the union). But the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, in its conscious use of the language of the civil-rights movement, highlighted growing efforts by UNITE HERE to find common ground between African American and immigrant communities, which are often pitted against one another for jobs in hotels and other service industries.

This year the union added new language to its existing proposal on immigrant rights, asking hotels to set up a diversity committee and hire an ombudsman to begin increasing the percentage of African American workers. The Sheraton Palace, where Duran and Knighten work, was the scene of the most famous civil-rights demonstration in San Francisco history. In 1963, civil-rights activists staged a sit-in and were arrested in the hotel lobby as they demanded that management hire African Americans for jobs in visible, front-of-the-house locations, where the color line had kept them out.

Richard Lee Mason, an African American banquet waiter at the St. Francis, remembers, "African Americans had been kept in the back of the house for far too long. People wanted to be in the front of the house, and rightly so." The day after the arrests, thousands of people ringed the entire block, picketing and chanting for hours. Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who finally retired last year, launched his political career as a lawyer for the demonstrators.

But while employment prospects got better for black workers for some years afterward, the situation changed by the 1980s and '90s. Hotels hired increasing percentages of immigrants in a move they hoped would create a less demanding and expensive workforce. Mason moved from New York to San Francisco at the end of the 1970s, and says that already by then the percentages of black workers had fallen.

"I suspect that, because the industry had had a great struggle with African Americans, they thought we were too aggressive," he speculates. "A lot of us had come out of the civil-rights movement, and we were willing to fight for higher wages and to make sure we were treated fairly." Steven Pitts, an economist at the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley, says Mason's experience was not uncommon. "This perception by employers of African American workers is true nationwide," he says. "Blacks aren't perceived as compliant, and therefore when many employers make hiring decisions, they simply don't hire them."

If the hotel industry hoped its new immigrant workforce would be more compliant, however, those hopes were not realized. Immigrants proved to be as militant as the workers who came before: The city's hotels were struck in 1980, and smaller strikes took place in the following two decades. But one lasting consequence of the turnover was a fall in the percentage of African American workers, who now make up less than 6 percent of the San Francisco hotel workforce.

The union's civil-rights proposal "is an important first step," according to Pitts. "But one of the lessons of the civil-rights movement is the need for structural change. We need structures in communities, including the black community, that can bring residents into the hotels and make sure they progress."

Achieving that kind of structural reform, essentially reinstituting the old affirmative-action consent decrees, would take a lot of bargaining power (itself an argument for multicity negotiations). But by putting the demand on the table in San Francisco and Los Angeles, the union is moving beyond simply taking a good position, even if the goal is still a long way off. That can help gain it the support, even in the current strike, of African American and other communities that feel excluded from hotel employment.

These internal changes inside the hotel union and in its community relations are as strategic as lining up common contract-expiration dates. They reflect elements of a new reform program advocated by UNITE HERE and three other unions, called the New Unity Partnership. Last August, another of those unions, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), held its convention in San Francisco. Its president, Andy Stern, made national headlines when he announced that if the AFL-CIO didn't adopt some of these suggested changes, these unions might leave the federation.

Significantly, all of the unions involved, which also include the Laborers International Union of North America and United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners unions, have been vocal advocates for immigrant rights and helped the AFL-CIO adopt a new, pro-immigrant policy in 2000. Their program calls for merging smaller unions into larger ones, devoting more resources to organizing new workers, and developing a strategic plan for increasing union power in the industries they represent. Unions around the country are looking at the San Francisco hotel strike (and its possible spread to Los Angeles and Washington) as an effort to put these ideas into practice.

Some of these ideas are hardly new. Coordinated bargaining with hotels itself is just a step toward having a single contract with each chain, and perhaps eventually for the entire industry. The gains of San Francisco's dockworkers' union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, demonstrate the potential results. Longshoremen were considered bums and derelicts through the 1920s. But after the West Coast maritime strike (and San Francisco General Strike) of 1934, they won the ability to negotiate a single contract with all the shipping companies on the West Coast, covering all the ports. As a result, longshoremen's wages are now among the highest of U.S. industrial workers. At the end of World War II, workers had similar industry-wide contracts in auto, steel, meatpacking, and other industries as well.

If hotel workers achieve the same kind of bargaining, they can begin to challenge one of the most basic assumptions about the U.S. workplace: that service workers, and immigrants, are destined by nature to get wages at the bottom. Yet the reason why room cleaners get paid less than dockworkers has little to do with the exhausting nature of each form of labor, or of the nationality or skin color of the person performing it. It is a function of bargaining power. The current strike, intended as a step toward stronger unions with more bargaining power, could begin to end this second-class status. That would certainly make unions more attractive to unorganized workers, and help the labor movement start to grow again, instead of shrinking steadily every year.

That gives hotels a big reason to resist. But Mike Casey, Local 2's president, points to other occasions in the past where employers put up a similar fight. "They said we'd never get successorship [the right of workers to keep their jobs and contract when a hotel changes owners] in 1996, but we got it," he recalls. "They said we'd never get a ban on outsourcing the jobs in food service, but we got that. We can win this one, too."

David Bacon, associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a San
Francisco-based writer and photographer. His book on the ten-year
impact of free trade on the US/Mexico border, The Children of NAFTA,
was published by University of California Press this spring.

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