Unions think strategically
Hotel strike and lockout build on lessons from the SoCal grocery strike as workers seek to gain leverage

By David Bacon

Actor Danny Glover visited the picket lines in front of the Four Seasons and St. Francis hotels Oct. 7, the day after San Francisco hotel owners threatened to continue their lockout there indefinitely. These were just the latest episodes in a labor struggle that affects not only the 14 hotels involved in the contract fight, but potentially also the future of the labor movement in the United States.

There are many things about this strike that might seem reminiscent of the agonizing conflict that embroiled southern California grocery workers for four and a half months last winter. Most notably, they're both local strikes challenging powerful national corporations.

Like Safeway, Albertsons, and Ralph's, the big San Francisco hotel chains – including Starwood (which runs the Sheraton Palace and the St. Francis), Hilton, Hyatt, Intercontinental (which runs the Mark Hopkins and the Holiday Inns) – have a mutual support arrangement. A strike against any member of the San Francisco Multi-Employer Group, they agreed long ago, would result in a lockout in the rest.

Yet, unlike the picketers in the south, who had an air of desperation after the first few weeks, the San Francisco strikers are nothing if not upbeat and challenging. In many ways, the San Francisco strike could be called the un-grocery strike. In fact, its objective is the elimination of the very problem that brought such a bitter resolution to the supermarket dispute. It's a strategic strike – a test run for the kind of long-term planning advocated by many voices now calling for reform in the AFL-CIO.

Elena Duran, a locked-out housekeeper at the Sheraton, greeted with anger the announcement that hotel owners might extend the lockout beyond UNITE HERE Local 2's two-week, limited strike. Facing a barrage of microphones at a press conference in the union hall on Golden Gate Avenue, and surrounded by dozens of other hotel union members, she emphasized that "it's important for us to level the playing field." She was clearly willing to make some sacrifices to reach that goal – her husband works at the Sheraton and was locked out with her, leaving 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 strike at one of its franchises. That reality is why, although southern California grocery workers were able to empty stores of customers, the market chains were relatively unhurt. Ultimately, workers had to agree to higher payments for their health care and lower wages for new employees. Here in the city, health care premiums are the major sticking point, as well as the length of the contract – which potentially could give the union increased leverage.

In San Francisco, hotel chains have demanded the same kind of increases, proposing that workers go from paying the current $10 a month for insurance to $273 five years from now. Barbara French, spokesperson for the Multi-Employer Group, says this is just a proposal and is subject to negotiation. Hotel workers look at Los Angeles supermarkets and see it's not just a gambit. Health care premiums rise about 15 percent a year across the board. The question is, who will pay the increase: workers or employers?

For hotel workers to avoid the fate of their supermarket counterparts, they need a stronger union and more bargaining power. Over the past few years, Local 2 and its parent union have made several changes to meet that challenge, 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. Six markets already have achieved this goal: New York, Chicago, Hawaii, Monterey, Toronto, Detroit, and Boston. Although bargaining, to begin with, would still take place for separate contracts in each area, the parent union would be able to make similar demands across the country, and possibly even strike or take job action in multiple locations at the same time.

The chains may have been caught napping until recently, but that's changed now. Three contracts are up 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 hotel group spokesperson French emphasized the convenience of negotiating only once every five years, the problem isn't the duration of future contracts. It's whether there'll 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'll preview on a smaller scale the kind of multicity union coordination the companies find so disadvantageous. For their part, the hotels have raised the stakes, first turning a 4-hotel strike into a 14-hotel dispute, and now threatening to make a two-week lockout indefinite.

The plan for increasing union strength hasn't just concentrated on coordinated bargaining, however. A strike threat is an empty one unless workers are able to carry it out. Until recently, Local 2's strike fund held only $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 on strike, the fund has to pay out $200,000 a week – if workers in Los Angeles and Washington had also gone on strike, the fund wouldn't have lasted long.

But last year the old Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union merged with the garment workers union (the Union of Needletrades, Textiles, and Industrial Employees) to create the new UNITE HERE.

UNITE had been devastated by the massive relocation of clothing production to low-wage countries around the world. San Francisco's Koret and Levi's union plants all closed during the past two decades. But the union did have huge financial resources from years of investing in New York real estate and a labor bank. Furthermore, it also had members in laundry plants around the country, who often washed the tablecloths and sheets from the hotels. The new, merged union gained the ability to weather much longer strikes and brought together two parts of the same industrial workforce.

So now the stage has been set for an epic labor struggle that transcends pay and benefits, and even San Francisco. It's about whether workers will be able to stand toe-to-toe with management.