Sometimes the fate of a single battle foretells the outcome of a war, long before it’s over. The eventual end of the San Francisco hotel lockout promises to be this kind of watershed moment.
Last Saturday, before San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom strode into his office to announce the end of the five-week lockout before a bank of television cameras, he went down the hall to pay respects to the workers who had made it possible. 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 political turnabouts in a city known for unconventional politics.
The mayor, after all, was the candidate of the workers’ adversaries. For years, 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 strongly campaigned for his opponent, Green candidate Matt Gonzalez.
But beginning last summer, UNITE HERE Local 2 skillfully exploited new fault lines in 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 conflict from the beginning, more important than even wage increases or benefits.
By Labor Day, the union was locked in fractious negotiations with the 14 hotels of the Multi Employer Group representing hotel operators, including multibillion-dollar corporations like Hilton, Intercontinental, Starwood and Hyatt. The actual hotels are owned by large investment groups and pension funds.
While the hotel operators were proposing tiny wage increases and big hikes in health 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.”
Another union proposal sought to unify its membership base and solidify community support. Existing contract language protecting the rights of immigrants would be combined with a new bid to increase the diversity of the hotel workforce, particularly by hiring African American workers. Since the end of the 1960s-era civil rights protests, the largest of which focused on the Sheraton Palace Hotel, black employment in hotels has dropped to less than 6 percent.
In September the union launched a limited two-week strike against four hotels in the employer group. The operators answered with the first of a series of strategic missteps. They locked the workers out of the other 10 hotels in the group, saying they’d extend the lockout beyond the strike’s end, so long as workers kept demanding the 2006 expiration date.
Perhaps believing that workers wouldn’t sacrifice paychecks simply for an expiration date, the hotels miscalculated again. Hotel worker Elena Duran, speaking for many others, reacted by saying simply, “It’s important for us to level the playing field.”
Then the union turned the lockout, meant as a pressure tactic against it, into a weapon against the operators themselves. The 4,300 locked-out laborers mounted large, boisterous picket lines. Bullhorns blasted their chants into the streets, and up into the hotel rooms, 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 racial groups, speaking a bewildering variety of languages.
Some conventions pulled out of picketed hotels, while guests 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 picket lines 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. Matt Gonzalez, Board of Supervisors president, held a crowded hearing at City Hall. The mayor, hitherto quiet about the dispute, decided to make his own attempt to settle it. Here, the hotel operators made their most disastrous error. Newsom asked them to end the lockout while he tried to make progress in negotiations. The hotels turned him down flat. And when he threatened to picket with the workers, a gesture with little actual economic clout, they criticized him publicly. Matt Adams, head of the Multi Employer Group, wondered aloud in the San Francisco Chronicle why the mayor, whose campaign they had financed was not taking their side without question.
Newsom went to the picket lines and announced he was pulling city business from the hotels, encouraging all their clients to go elsewhere. As complaints of lost revenue and noise from the picket lines mounted from businesses around the hotels, Newsom pulled the police away, saying 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. After five weeks, the operators let the workers return to their jobs, with no agreement on their essential demand that the union give up the 2006 contract expiration date.
The contract remains unresolved. The union agreed not to strike for 60 days. The operators and the hotels will be able to function unhindered through their busiest season. But the grand strategy to stop the union’s bid for greater bargaining power has unraveled, leaving the Multi Employer Group in disarray and politically isolated.
David Bacon writes regularly on labor and immigration issues. His latest book is The Children of NAFTA (University of California Press, 2004).