S.F. hotel workers hit the picket line

November 13, 2009

Diana Macasa and Jeremy Tully report from San Francisco on brief strikes at two hotels as members of UNITE HERE organize to win a new contract.

UNITE HERE Local 2 members in San Francisco continued their rolling pickets of city hotels this week, initiating a three-day strike of the Palace Hotel November 11. All day and night, workers and sympathetic community members picketed the hotel's entrances on New Montgomery and Market streets.

The Palace strike followed a three-day walkout at the upscale Grand Hyatt that took management completely by surprise. Both actions are part of a struggle by workers at 31 San Francisco hotels, where union members have been working without a contract since August. The key issue is hotel owners' demand to reduce health care coverage, even as they ask workers to pay more for it.

Hotel management is using the recession as a justification for the cuts, but UNITE HERE members know better.

In the last three years, Starwood Corp. (which manages the Palace Hotel) made over $1.9 billion in profits. Starwood's CEO, Frits Van Paasschen, "earned" $5.7 million in total compensation last year, and as recently as October was bragging about how the company was beating Wall Street profit expectations. Indeed, Starwood's share price has more than tripled since the beginning of the year, and the company has had the money to open 60 new hotels this year.

What you can do

For more information on the hotel workers of UNITE HERE Local 2, and what you can do to support them, visit the Local 2 Web site.

If you're visiting the San Francisco area, please boycott the 31 hotels listed on their Web site.

While Starwood and the Palace increase their profits, Palace workers struggle to get by on an average income of $30,000 per year in one of the most expensive areas in the country. Local 2 members are angry at management's insistence that they accept further cuts in their already low compensation.

As Elena Duran, a server at the Palace with 18 years on the job, said, "It's clear management still thinks they can use this year's economy as an excuse to permanently slash our health care. But we're not going to let these hugely profitable companies get away with that."

The Grand Hyatt and Palace walkouts follow an October 22 strike authorization vote by Local 2 members. The vote gave union leaders the ability to call walkouts at 31 of the largest hotels in the city.

Besides demanding reductions in workers' health care benefits, the hotels want to slash wages, increase workloads and cut shifts.

Such a contract would further strain the finances of hotel workers, who have an average salary of between $30,000 and $35,000 a year. One worker on the picket line angrily said, "The CEO of Hyatt made over $6 million this year--with less than a quarter of that salary, all of our health care would be paid for!"

Rev. Israel Alvaran, outreach coordinator for UNITE HERE Local 2, explained the goal of the Grand Hyatt strike:

We are fighting against corporate greed and for basic health care and benefits. Corporations have caused the recession through their greed. All we want is a fair contract, and we will keep fighting until we win. This three-day strike is a signal to prove that the union's strike vote is real.

The workers back the union. The hotel GM [general manager] says the union leaders are out of touch. Who's really out of touch is the GM. They have very little institutional memory and don't remember previous strike. Some of the strikers today are veterans of that strike. The hotels lost $100 million last time. We are showing them that we are ready to strike citywide.

In 2004, the hotel workers of UNITE HERE Local 2 went on strike for 53 days, demonstrating their determination to fight for a fair contract against the most profitable hotels in San Francisco. That same spirit exists today and is exhibited by the workers as they chanted on the picket line, "If we don't get no contract, you get no peace!"

Local 2's strike of the Palace is set to end November 13, but the union is asking that people continue to honor a boycott of the Palace and the Grand Hyatt. And while it's not yet clear where the battle will move next, one thing is certain: Until UNITE HERE workers have a contract, other hotels throughout San Francisco can expect more work stoppages.

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