An estimated 1400 hotel workers and their supporters rallied and marched to the San Francisco Hilton demanding a fair contract last week. (Photo: David Bacon)
San Francisco, California - AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm joined 1400 hotel workers and their supporters last week as they rallied and marched to the San Francisco Hilton demanding a fair contract. Over 100 protesters, including Trumka and Wilhelm, were then arrested for sitting in and blocking the doors. The action culminated in the launch of a boycott of the hotel, one of the city's most luxurious.
The Hilton march and arrests are a preview of a spring of growing conflict between workers and the giant chains that now own and operate the city's Class A hotels. Although San Francisco has seen more of that conflict over the last six months than other cities, it is now spreading around the country. By the summer, it may involve a confrontation among the hotels and over 40,000 workers in at least nine cities.
The contract with San Francisco's hotel union, UNITE HERE Local 2, expired on August 14. Since then, Local 2 has been trying to bargain a new agreement in the middle of an economic depression. Last fall, hotel workers' Local 2 members struck, and then began boycotts, at three other Class A hotels - the Grand Hyatt, the Palace and the St. Francis.
San Francisco's largest hotels are demanding cuts in health and retirement benefits, and increased workloads, saying that the economic crisis has reduced tourism in the city. The luxury hotel chains want workers to begin paying for their health care premiums - $35/month this year, $115/month next year and $200/month the year after. A typical San Francisco hotel worker earns $30,000 per year, and many can't work a full 40-hour week.
"Negotiations are going nowhere," declared Elena Duran, a housekeeper at the Palace and member of the union negotiating committee. "They're trying to take away our health benefits, to reduce our hours, from eight to four hours, and to combine classifications, so we'll have to do the jobs of two people. We're saying no to all those things. We want a fair contract and quality, affordable healthcare coverage. If they can pay a CEO $4 million, they can afford our health coverage."
Areola Benevidez, a worker at the St. Francis, said, "We are ready to fight and ready to strike. I need the insurance for my kids and for me too."
According to Local 2 President Mike Casey, "The hotels are trying to exploit the bad economy to lower levels of benefits. That's just not acceptable for corporations that are making significant profits, even now." The owners of the Hilton chain, the Blackstone investment group, told Wall Street analysts recently that it had $12.6 billion in available capital. CEO Stephen Schwarzman was given a compensation package of $1.39 billion in 2008.