Calif. hotel workers rally for contracts

Thousands of California hotel workers rallied in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego Aug. 13 to press their contract demands, with health care, pensions, contracting out, workload and wages heading the list. UNITE HERE, which represents the workers, is also seeking uniform contract expirations in 10 major cities in 2006. In San Francisco, the day before a master contract covering over 8,000 workers in 60 premier hotels expired, more than 2,500 demonstrators gathered in downtown Union Square to march past several of the hotels. They then rallied near the Four Seasons and the Marriott. Workers carried signs declaring, “Health care is a right,” and “Retire with dignity.” Participating were several other UNITE HERE locals including Local 2850 in the East Bay and Local 49 in Sacramento, as well as dozens of other union and community groups. Earlier in the week, Local 2 said, the Multi-Employer Group proposed to take away health care from hundreds of lower-seniority workers and to impose huge co-pay increases on retirees. The union said the corporations also proposed to restrict their own payments so that employees’ health benefits would either be slashed or made unaffordable for the majority of hotel workers. “We won’t allow the hotels to balance their books on our backs,” said Local 2 President Mike Casey, adding, “Hotel employees work too hard to keep our city’s economy strong, to be cast aside in their retirement.” In his remarks to the crowd, UNITE HERE International President John Wilhelm emphasized the importance of unity in action for building the union’s strength. In Los Angeles, where a contract covering 2,900 workers at nine hotels expired June 1, over 1,500 members of UNITE HERE Local 11, clergy and other union and community supporters chanted, “No justice, No peace!” as they blocked a downtown intersection for about two hours during the evening commute. They rolled 20 beds into the intersection so workers could demonstrate the hard work they perform. Some 45 demonstrators and union officials were arrested. The Aug. 13 action, one of a long series of protests and rallies, followed a spontaneous demonstration Aug. 12 at the St. Regis and the Century Plaza in Century City, sparked by the issue of health coverage. On July 28, workers staged a mass demonstration in front of the Century Plaza with support of community and interfaith organizations. Simultaneously a demonstration was held in downtown Los Angeles at the Hyatt Regency. Other rallies and protests culminating in civil disobedience and downtown traffic tie-ups have been held through the month. Separate meetings of each side with a national mediator were slated to start this week. Last week Local 11 President Maria Elena Durazo questioned the employers’ motives in requesting mediation, asking, “Do they want a serious discussion, or is this just to position themselves, so they can say to the members that they triedeverything?” In San Diego, some 90 hotel workers and their supporters took over the lobby of the posh Hotel del Coronado, chanting “Don’t check in, check out,” for nearly an hour Aug. 13 before management asked them to leave. Nine who refused to leave were charged with trespassing. At issue is the behavior of the Coronado’s new owners, KSL Corp. and CNL Hospitality Properties, which invalidated the hotel’s contract with the workers three-and-a-half years early when they took over in December. The new owners laid off all 800 workers and then failed to rehire about 50. UNITE HERE Local 30 President Jeff Eatchel said the Coronado had set up two-tier wage and health care structures, for old and new workers. “It’s making it harder for workers to qualify for health care coverage and that’s not acceptable,” he said. The two sides last met two months ago. KSL is also the owner of Oakland’s Claremont Resort and Spa, where workers represented by UNITE HERE Local 2850 have been without a contract for two years. Last month the 180,000 members of the clothing, textile and laundry workers union UNITE and the 260,000 members of HERE joined forces to form UNITE HERE. Both unions have powerful histories of organizing, together having organized over 100,000 new members in five years. The authors can be reached at pww@pww.org. Marilyn Bechtel contributed to this article.