Hotel/Casino Workers Strike Both Coasts as Union Puts National Strategy to Work

Strikes involving 14,000 workers in San Francisco hotels and Atlantic City casinos are shaking up the tourism industry on the East and West coasts, as part of a concerted effort by UNITE HERE to line up contracts to expire at or around the same time within industries. With this strategy, the union hopes to set the stage for greater bargaining power for workers whose job sites are scattered across the country but often part of the same multinational chains.

Hotel workers in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles are pushing for a 2006 expiration date that would put them in line to expire with hotels in other major cities such as Chicago, New York, Toronto, Boston, and Honolulu. Casino workers are pressuring management for a three-year contract that would expire in 2007 along with contracts in Las Vegas, Detroit, and other gambling markets.

“We are the working poor,” says Sue Donahue, a cook at the Hilton Hotel and member of Local 2’s negotiating committee in San Francisco. “We have no illusions. I don’t make $65,000 a year. When I take a hit, it directly impacts my dinner table, my mortgage…We’re hopefully changing this labor movement and showing folks that they need to follow suit no matter what your income bracket is and no matter what the risk.”

SPIRITED PICKET LINES

Over 4,000 members of UNITE HERE Local 2, a majority of them Asian and Latino immigrants, continue to be locked out at 14 of the city’s hotels. The mood on the picket lines has been described as “buoyant” and “exuberant” by fellow workers, with picketers blowing whistles, chanting, beating drums, and banging pots and pans, beginning in the early morning and continuing well into the night.

“It’s amazing,” said Jeff Meyers of the early days of the strike. Meyers, a banquet waiter and member of the negotiating committee, described people as “dancing, grinning at each other. We tell people, come to the picket line, and the only requirement is that you have a great time. We have plenty of people out there.”

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, 10,000 casino workers in UNITE HERE Local 54 are on strike against seven Atlantic City casinos, demanding the common expiration date.

The strike, which began October 1, is the longest ever against casinos in Atlantic City. The union has extended an open invitation to the casinos to negotiate, but management has not responded. The picket lines are reported to be equally spirited, but not without problems; one striker suffered a broken kneecap in a clash with security guards.

FROM STRIKE TO LOCKOUT

On September 29, UNITE HERE Local 2 announced a two-week strike at four San Francisco hotels. Soon after, the bargaining group representing hotel management, the San Francisco Multi-Employer Group, locked out workers indefinitely at the ten other hotels represented by the group, in accordance with a previously agreed-upon lockout pact. When the employees at the four struck hotels tried to return to work at the end of the strike on October 13, management locked them out too.

Says Local 2 President Mike Casey, “[Hotel management] is attempting to condition any attempt to return to work based on our dropping proposals. Their position and their actions are completely indefensible. [This dispute] goes far beyond the issue of contract length. It goes to health care, whether they should be able to eliminate health care for families, for retirees, and raise co-pay.”

In Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., Locals 11 and 25 are still in negotiations after both voted to authorize a strike vote. In all three cities, the major issues on the table are health care and length of contract. The union is pushing for a two-year contract.

RALLIES IN SUPPORT

Large demonstrations in Atlantic City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas have helped to build pressure on employers.

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Over 1,000 Local 11 members in Los Angeles took to the streets in response to the lockout of the San Francisco workers. On October 14, several thousand Local 2 members rallied in San Francisco, joined by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. In Atlantic City, 2,000 participated in a demonstration on October 9, with 100 members of Local 54 sitting down in the middle of the street, waiting for police to take them into custody. Eighty-five were arrested.

In Las Vegas, members of the Culinary Workers Union, part of UNITE HERE, have been supporting the Atlantic City workers by leafleting and asking tourists not to patronize the Las Vegas locations of the casinos that are on strike in New Jersey. Nearly 1,000 members, including some members of Local 54 bused in for the action, marched into casino company Harrah’s corporate headquarters in Las Vegas, demanding that the company hire no replacement workers in Atlantic City. Ninety-five were arrested in that action.

At an October 16 rally in Atlantic City, witnesses said that demonstrators lined the boardwalk for three miles. They included UNITE HERE members from locals in New York City, Philadelphia, Maryland, and Yale University, members of SEIU 32BJ and TWU Local 100 in New York, and the Laborers union.

DEADLOCKED TALKS

In Los Angeles, negotiations remain deadlocked, as employers have declared impasse, and one hotel has locked out laundry workers from a different UNITE HERE local in an unrelated dispute. Negotiations in Washington remained stalled over the same issues as in L.A. and San Francisco.

“The workers there [in L.A.] seem to resemble the workers here,” says Donahue. “They’re very ready for the fight. They know what time it is… mentally they’re ready.”

Hotel management says that they are prepared to negotiate on any and all issues. The groups representing management in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and D.C. all filed unfair labor practice charges against the UNITE HERE locals, claiming that the union is bargaining in bad faith and suggesting that the locals are attempting to form a larger national unit for bargaining without employer consent.

Lynn Lawson, spokesperson for the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., says, “They have made the basis of their discussions an effort to try to get a consolidated series of contracts with several contracts expiring at the same time around 2006. [That] doesn’t work for D.C.—the economies are different in all of these cities. We think it’s very unfortunate that national union politics would be played out on the backs of these workers.”

The workers, however, disagree.

“In my 20 years in Local 2, I have been a very loyal member of the union,” says Jeff Meyers. “But I have always been a dissident member of the union. I have fought the local and the International as enthusiastically as I have [fought] for workers’ rights on the floor.

“In this circumstance, however, that is no longer the case. The rank and file of Local 2 conducted with very little support almost all the major strikes, [such as] the 1980 and 1982 [hotel] strikes. What’s different this time is that we have tremendous support and very intelligent, far-reaching planning and decision-making going on by International leadership, with the support of the local negotiating committee.”