Strikes Loom at Major Hotel Chains on Both Coasts

With their contracts recently expired, hotel workers at three UNITE HERE locals in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. voted to authorize a strike against a group of major hotel chains, including Hilton, Four Seasons, Hyatt, and Holiday Inn.

“We’ll strike if we have to, and we will win,” said Jon Palewicz, a bellman who is a Local 2 shop steward and member of the negotiating committee.

The strike votes affected nearly 4,000 members of San Francisco’s Local 2, nearly 3,000 members of Los Angeles’ Local 11, and 2,000 members of D.C.’s Local 25. Union spokespeople said that workers voted to authorize the strike by 83 percent in Los Angeles, 94 percent in Washington, and 97 percent in San Francisco.

BARGAINING STALLED

Palewicz says that Local 2 members began preparing for a strike over 18 months ago, when they agreed to pay an extra $10 per month into their strike fund. The local committed to mobilizing rank-and-filers through meetings of district contract committees, as well as by reaching out to churches and community groups. “The trust of the rank and file in both our international and local leadership is far greater than it was 20 years ago,” he says.

On Labor Day, three weeks after their contract expired, Local 2 staged a protest in the heart of San Francisco’s tourist district; 130 workers were arrested for sitting down and blocking traffic in and around Union Square. Local 11 members in Los Angeles have also conducted actions over the last few weeks, and both groups have requested a national mediator to aid in negotiations.

In Los Angeles, the Hotel Employers Council declared an impasse, saying that negotiations could go no further until the union dropped its demand for a two-year contract. This allowed employers to stop deducting union dues and to begin charging $40 a month for health benefits. Local 11 filed an unfair labor practice charge in response.

The nine hotels in the Council signed a lockout pact in July, agreeing that all hotels will lock out union workers if there is a strike at just one of them. Conversely, if six of the hotels agree to an offensive lockout, all nine must participate.

BUILD NATIONAL POWER

The main issues in all three cities have been continued maintenance of health care and the union’s demand for a two-year contract that would expire in 2006, alongside contracts with hotel workers in other major cities around the country. Although, according to Local 2 President Mike Casey, the union is not attempting to win a national contract at this time, UNITE HERE hopes to build power by putting workers across the country in a position to take action against national hotel chains.

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A two-year contract would put future contracts in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington in line to expire around the same time as contracts in New York City, Boston, Toronto, Chicago, and Hawaii. The hotel chains are offering five-year contracts and have remained steadfast in rejecting two-year pacts.

Says David Koff, a research analyst with UNITE HERE International, “The two-year contract issue seems to be the key issue as far as the companies are concerned. It’s also a key issue for the workers, particularly in L.A., where workers have really seized on this sense of potential power and leverage that is available to them by lining up these contracts.”

Says one Local 2 organizer, “Even if we got a good package on wages and benefits now, if we have to face them alone in five years, we could be in a position of real weakness. We don’t want the same thing to happen to us that grocery workers faced in L.A.”

INDUSTRY CONSOLIDATION

The hotel industry has changed dramatically over the last two decades, with massive mergers consolidating the industry. Moreover, in the wake of the late-’90s dot-com crash and September 11, the hotel industry lost business and slashed staffing.

Other issues on the table reflect this change, with the increasing workload and speedup of hotel workers’ jobs a major concern. The union is also asking for wage increases that would reflect the rising cost of living and for card-check and neutrality agreements at newly acquired hotels.

Koff says, “Hotel chains have consolidated, much as the grocery chains have consolidated, and have been willing to take on any losses until workers are defeated, in a sort of war of attrition.

“In fact, what was good for the hotels was the mergers and consolidations. But when the workers stand up and say, ‘We want to do the same thing,’ they say, ‘No.’ [The hotels] say that it would be bad for the industry if the workers had a common national voice, because they didn’t know whether or not their demands would be ‘reasonable.’”

Local 2 President Mike Casey says, “We’re dealing with corporations that have consolidated and merged, and as a result, have massed tremendous amounts of power. The only way to protect our standards is to consolidate among North American unions. We can’t take on global capitalism with local and regional strategies.”