Hyatt Hotels wasted no time and pulled no punches in condemning UNITE-HERE's seven-day strike against six hotels in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles and Waikiki.
Spokesperson for San Francisco Hyatt Hotels, Peter Hillan, told me on the first day of the strike that "we offered UNITE-HERE's Local 2 the same contract they signed with the Hilton, Starwood and Intercontinental but the union leadership rejected our offer. This strike is nothing but street theatre that hurts our associates."
"Oh yeah," responded 15-year Grand Hyatt employee Aurolyn Rush when learning of Hillan's dismissive remark, "then why are we all here?" Her arms extended proudly to the active picket line outside her hotel.
All 700 workers walked off the job on September 8 at the two downtown Hyatt hotels in the "City by the Bay," with the union indicating over 2,000 workers participating in the strike nationally.
Directly responding to Hillan's statement, union negotiating committee member Rush said, "first of all, right now what is on the table from the Hyatt, contrary to what Mr. Hillan told you, is less than the Hilton agreement.
"For example, Hyatt proposes to take out contract card-check language for hotels newly acquired or constructed in the area. Our members fought for two years and were locked out for 58 days in the 2004-2006 dispute to get these organizing rights. We are not about to give that up.
"However," she strongly emphasized, "this is not why we are on strike now."
So, Hillan appears to be right in one sense, this dispute is quite different from the union's negotiations with other hotels, "but then again," says Local 2 spokeswoman Julia Wong, "the Hyatt is unlike any other hotel."
Wong cited the Hyatt's horrible safety record and mistreatment of employees as the worst in the industry.
"The Hyatt can ignore that but we won't. That's what this strike is all about," she added.
So, while negotiations with the Hyatt are different than bargaining with other hotels, it should also be acknowledged that this work stoppage is also quite different than other strikes.
Different Strike for Different Hotel
As experienced union negotiators understand, no contract is just about wages and benefits. There are other extremely important protections and rights for workers that are often the most controversial aspects of negotiations.
In this particular case, the union is taking a stand for specific contract language that allows workers to organize solidarity actions such as strikes and boycotts when Hyatt management imposes egregiously unsafe and abusive working conditions.
This is the controversial language that Hillan terms "unprecedented in San Francisco."
"Yes, well this unprecedented language, as Mr. Hillan describes it, is in direct response to Hyatt's unprecedented abuse," UNITE-HERE national boycott coordinator Lisa Jaicks told me while holding a picket sign.
But, as Jaicks reported to me, neither is it quite so unprecedented as Mr. Hillan suggested.
In fact, Local 2 sources negotiated similar language with the prestigious landmark Fairmont Hotel after management there recently threatened to convert prime guest rooms into exclusive private condominiums.
After citywide protests, the hotel backed off. But if the issue comes up again, the union now has contractual rights to organize economic actions such as a strike and boycott. And, just in the last month, the union negotiated similar contract language covering workers at restaurants employed at San Francisco International Airport (SFO).
"So, again, contradicting what Mr. Hillan claims in your interview, this language is not without precedent," Wong said. "But it is not about getting what we got at the Fairmont or at SFO, it is about addressing specific conditions at Hyatt hotels where workers need rights to express solidarity with each other."
Antonia Cortex, 35-year San Francisco Grand Hyatt housekeeper agrees: "I have chronic pain in my shoulders and elbows and I clean just 14 rooms a day. In some cities, Hyatt makes [non-union] housekeepers clean 30 rooms in one day. I'm on strike because I want the right to take action for all Hyatt housekeepers, no matter where they work. We all work for the same company. We should all have the right to stand up for each other."
While the unique character of the strike has attracted scorn from management, labor supporters both recognize and admire its bold and courageous stand.
For example, the 100,000-member affiliates of the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, support obtaining contract language that would give Hyatt workers rights "to organize, get contracts, or protest abuses wherever they may occur."
Clearly, in a period when unions are fighting mostly defensive battles to hold onto workers' current wages and health benefits, UNITE-HERE's weeklong nationally coordinated strike attempts to do much more.
"This is an exciting and historic event for our union," Local 2 President Mike Casey told me. "After two years without a contact, workers in four cities for the first time have coordinated week-long strikes to advance the principle of solidarity."
We Are the Best Place to Work in Town
UNITE-HERE and the Hyatt chain have been at odds for some time with currently active boycotts at 17 locations around the country, all initiated by workers at the targeted hotels. The union has documented an impressive $20 million loss in hotel revenue.
Union safety concerns are a major issue and would seem to be backed up by a November 19, 2009, Chicago Tribune report by Julie Wernau: "Housekeepers at Hyatt Hotels are more likely to get injured on the job than at other major hotel chains, according to a study set to be published in January's American Journal of Industrial Medicine. The study, led by researchers at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, is based on data from 50 unionized hotel properties of various brands."
Again, Hillan doesn't put much stock into this. "On claims of Hyatt abuse, the documentation of the supposed academic study is not credible."
Unimpressed, union supporters point out that the critical report was published in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal.
Nonetheless, Hillan asserts, "the Hyatt is the best place to work in town."
Not according to Rush: "They fired 100 housekeepers in Boston, made them train minimum-wage replacements and then, on very short notice, gave them plastic garbage bags to clean out their lockers. Some of these workers had over 20 years. Is this the best place to work?
"This is not the only example. I would not be working here in San Francisco because of their harassment if not for the union protecting me. Neither would others at my hotel."
Pointing to a woman on the picket line with her infant child, Aurolyn described the case of seven-year Hyatt employee Victoria Guillen, who had a doctor's excuse from work for her recent high-risk pregnancy.
"San Francisco Hyatt management told Victoria she would be fired if she did not return to work three days after the birth of her daughter even though her doctor advised several more months of recuperation.
"We were outraged. Co-workers petitioned for her, the union had religious and community delegations plead her case and Victoria eventually was able to return to work only after the doctor approved her medical release. But, of course, the horrible stress of these threats during her pregnancy was outrageous and unnecessary.
"We want the right to express that same kind of solidarity for other Hyatt workers wherever the abuse occurs without being harassed or intimidated. It's that simple!"
That basic idea of concern for each other originally motivated workers to build unions in the first place and it appears now again to be the inspiration for hotel workers on Hyatt picket lines across the country.