David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon
San Francisco Chronicle, 10/04

In the current hotel conflict, most attention has focused on the proposed contract length, and the dispute over health care. Yet another issue separates the two sides -- civil rights and the relationship between African American and immigrant workers.

For a decade, San Francisco’s UNITE HERE Local 2, and Local 11 in Los Angeles, have proposed and won language in their contracts protecting members from discrimination and firing because of immigration status. This reflects the important role immigrant workers play in the union. On San Francisco picket lines, voices speak in accents from Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean, China, the Philippines and a host of other countries. In big US cities, immigrants today make up a majority of the hotel workforce.

Last year UNITE HERE brought Black civil rights veterans together with immigrants on the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, pushing for immigration reform that would make it easier for immigrant workers to join unions, go on strike, and advocate for their labor rights.

This year Locals 2 and 11 added new language to their existing contract proposals on immigrant rights, and the hotels agreed. But the Multi Employer Group didn’t accept a new related proposal, asking the hotels to set up a diversity committee and hire an ombudsman to begin increasing the percentage of African American workers.

The proposal stems from an effort by the union to address the changing demographics of the hotel workforce. In the city’s hotels, the percentage of African American workers is falling, as employment continues to grow. African Americans now make up less than 6% of the San Francisco hotel workforce, a number that has declined in each of the past five years but one.

In San Francisco, this issue has a lot of history. The Sheraton Palace Hotel, where workers are now locked out, was the scene of the city’s most famous civil rights demonstration. In 1963, civil rights activists sat in, and were arrested, in the hotel lobby, as they demanded that management hire Blacks into jobs in the 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.”

Employment prospects improved for Black workers for some years, but the situation changed by the 1980s. Hotels hired increasing percentages of immigrants, in a move they hoped would create a less demanding and expensive workforce.

“I suspect that because the industry had had a great struggle with African Americans, they thought we were too aggressive,” Mason 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 in 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 their 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 – all the city's big hotels were struck in 1980, and smaller strikes took place in the following two decades. But Black employment fell nonetheless.

The union’s civil rights proposal “is an important first step,” according to Pitts, “in addressing this problem. But in the civil rights movement we learned we need structural change, that can bring community residents into the hotels, and make sure they progress.”

Winning that kind of structural reform would take a lot of bargaining power – an important argument for coordinated negotiations in cities like LA and San Francisco. By putting the demand on the table, even if the goal is still a long way off, UNITE HERE may gain the support, in the current strike, of African American and other communities who feel excluded from hotel employment.

This makes the union part of a new civil rights movement, geared to a changed world of globalization. The key is prohibiting discrimination against immigrants because of their status, while enforcing affirmative action to gain more jobs for underrepresented communities.


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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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