OAKLAND, Calif. - "The company wants to make us pay $350 a month for our family health care; for me that would mean a 10 percent wage cut. I would have to choose between paying for health care and putting food on my family's table."
That was the dilemma posed by Fidel Arroyo, for 16 years a cook at the luxurious Claremont Hotel and Spa in the Oakland hills. Arroyo and hundreds of his fellow workers were preparing to march with union and community supporters from the Marriott Hotel, whose management also proposes hiking workers' health care costs, to City Hall and to the headquarters of Morgan Stanley, the Claremont's majority owner. Marchers were also greeted by elected officials from Oakland and nearby Emeryville and Berkeley.
"Most of my co-workers are here today," Arroyo said. "Everyone is very upset at the company's demands. The Claremont's contract with the workers' union, Unite Here! Local 2850, expired Aug. 1. While no strike vote has been taken and the workers fervently hope one will not be necessary, they have been voluntarily putting money into a strike fund each month for three years.
The union had to talk tough with the previous owners, Arroyo said, but at least talks could take place inside the hotel. Since Morgan Stanley's hotel management arm, the Pyramid Corp., took over the Claremont a couple of years ago, he said, it has been a struggle just to agree on a place to meet, with a corner of the tennis courts the latest venue.
"I would like the company to understand that people are ready to fight," Arroyo declared. "We are serious, not joking. We will win!"
The union points out that Morgan Stanley got $10 billion in public TARP funds and reported in October that it had set aside nearly $5 billion "for its compensation pool for the three months to September." But it has not only proposed slashing health coverage, it also wants to end overtime pay for workers as the holidays approach.
The Downtown Marriott and Courtyard's management company, Interstate, also wants workers to pay far more for medical coverage while doing without wage increases for the first two years of their contract. Aramark, which operates concessions at the Oakland Coliseum, is calling for a three-year wage freeze and a cap on health care payments.
Meanwhile, San Francisco hotel workers embarked on their third three-day strike in three weeks, as they walked out of the Westin-St. Francis, in the posh Union Square district, Nov. 18. Their union, Unite Here! Local 2, says talks for a new citywide contract covering some 9,000 workers at 31 prime hotels are at a standstill over the hotel corporations' demands for health care and retirement cutbacks and increased workloads.
The workers voted last month by more than 92 percent to authorize work stoppages if necessary, in support of their campaign for a new contract. Earlier three-day walkouts affected the Grand Hyatt and Palace Hotels.
In Chicago, Unite Here! Local 1 leaders say hotel workers' contract talks have stalled and are far from settlement.
Hotel workers in all three cities see the giant corporations as seeking to use the economic crisis as an excuse to force cutbacks, though in fact the hospitality industry has continued to be profitable and can afford fair contracts.