David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon
In These Times, 12/04

SAN FRANCISCO (11/23/04) -- Sometimes the fate of a single battle foretells the outcome of a war, long before it’s over. The end of the San Francisco hotel lockout promises to be this kind of watershed moment.

Last Saturday, minutes before San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom strode into his office, and announced the end of the 5-week lockout before a bank of television cameras, he went down the hall to pay respects to the workers who’d made it possible. As he walked through the door, dozens of room cleaners, waiters, bartenders and floor sweepers rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation. It was the culmination of one of the most remarkable turnabouts in the political history of a city known for unconventional politics.

The mayor, after all, was the candidate of the workers’ enemies. For years leading to his election, the city’s hotels had bankrolled Newsom’s political initiatives, especially the “Care not Cash” program designed to rid the streets of the homeless. When Newsom finally ran for mayor, downtown businesses, including hotels, were his primary supporters. At the time, the hotel union was one of the few that outspokenly campaigned for his opponent, Green candidate Matt Gonzalez.

But beginning last summer, UNITE HERE Local 2 skillfully exploited new fault lines in US urban politics, and the economics of the hospitality industry, in its quest for bargaining leverage. In fact, leverage has been at the heart of the whole conflict from the beginning, a more important factor than even wage increases or benefits.

By Labor Day, the union was locked in fractious negotiations with the fourteen hotels of the Multi Employer Group. This group represents hotel operators, including multibillion-dollar corporations like Hilton, Intercontinental, Starwood and Hyatt. The actual hotels themselves are owned by large investment groups and pension funds.

While the hotel operators were proposing tiny wage increases, and big hikes in medical insurance payments of up to $273 a month, the key issue was the duration of the contract itself. Local 2 proposed that a new agreement expire in 2006, when similar contracts with the same corporations expire in other cities around the country, from New York to Chicago to Honolulu. By lining up the expiration dates, the union hoped to form a common front of workers in major urban hotel markets, who could act together to win a new standard of living that individual local unions are too weak to gain alone.

Barbara French, spokesperson for the hotel group, called this idea “a non-starter from the beginning.”

At the same time, another union bargaining proposal sought to unify its membership base and consolidate community support. Existing contract language protecting the rights of immigrants would be combined with a new proposal to increase the diversity of the hotel workforce, particularly by hiring African American workers. Since the end of the 1960s-era civil rights demonstrations, the largest of which focused on the Sheraton Palace Hotel, Black employment in hotels has dropped to less than 6%.

In September the union launched a limited two-week strike against four of the employer group. The operators responded with the first of a series of strategic missteps. They locked the workers out of the other ten hotels in the group, and then announced they’d extend the lockout beyond the strike’s end, so long as workers continued to demand the 2006 expiration date.

Perhaps thinking that workers would be reluctant to sacrifice paychecks simply for an expiration date, hotels miscalculated again. Elena Duran, speaking for many others, responded by saying simply that “it’s important for us to level the playing field.”

Then the union turned the lockout, intended as a pressure tactic against workers, into a weapon against the operators themselves. The 4300 locked-out laborers mounted large boisterous picketlines. Bullhorns blasted their chants into the streets, and up into the hotel rooms themselves, from early morning until after midnight. Union members ate on the lines, often bringing their children with them. Picketers were a polyglot reflection of the city’s diversity, with all its colors and racial groups, speaking its bewildering variety of languages.

Some conventions pulled out of picketed hotels, while guests at others complained about disruption inside, or just refused to cross the lines. When operators brought in strikebreakers from hotels in other cities, the union extended its picketlines to Chicago, Honolulu and Monterey, provoking one-day shutdowns that previewed what coordinated bargaining in 2006 might accomplish.

Finally, the union turned to the city itself. Gonzalez, president of the Board of Supervisors, held a hearing in which hundreds of workers overflowed the chambers and City Hall itself. The mayor, hitherto quiet about the dispute, decided to make his own attempt to settle it. Here the hotel operators made their most disastrous miscalculation. Newsom asked them to end the lockout, while he tried to make progress in negotiations. The hotels turned him down flat. And when he said he would go picket with the workers, a gesture with little actual economic consequence, they criticized him publicly. Matt Adams, head of the Multi Employer Group, wondered aloud in the San Francisco Chronicle why the candidate whose campaign they’d financed was not taking their side without question.

Newsom went to the picketlines, and announced he was pulling city business from the hotels, encouraging all their clients to go elsewhere. As complaints mounted from businesses around the hotels at lost revenue and noise from the picketlines, Newsom pulled the police away, pointing out that the operators could end the ruckus any time they liked.

Finally, the union and its allies, now including the mayor, drove a wedge between the hotel operators, and the owners who gained nothing from the lockout’s contiuation. It became obvious that the longer it went on, the more pressure the operators themselves would feel. After five weeks, they finally let the workers return to their jobs, with no agreement on their essential demand that they give up the 2006 contract expiration date. When workers learned about the operators’ decision, many were actually reluctant to take the lines down, since they’d proven so effective.

The contract remains unresolved. The union, while it agreed not to strike for 60 days, announced it would continue the rest of its effective pressure campaign. The operators still have deep reserves, and the hotels will be able to function unhindered through their busiest season. But the grand strategy to stop the union’s march towards greater bargaining leverage has unraveled, leaving the Multi Employer Group disorganized and politically isolated.


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