SAN FRANCISCO - Hotel workers issued a wake-up call to 31 prime hotels Nov. 5 as they massed outside the Grand Hyatt, in the upscale Union Square area, to begin a three-day strike.
The workers and their union, Unite Here! Local 2, have been negotiating for a new city-wide master contract with the hotels, including the Hyatt, Hilton, Starwood and InterContinental corporations, for nearly three months. On Oct. 22 they voted by over 92 percent to authorize their negotiating committee to call actions up to and including strikes if necessary. A "day of action" was held at the InterContinental Hotel last week, but the three-day walkout at the Hyatt is the first strike action.
Calling the action "a limited strike," Local 2 President Mike Casey said it was meant "to send a clear signal to this corporation that they cannot use a temporary downturn to permanently drive down workers' living standards." While the workers will return to their jobs Nov. 8, they are urging customers to honor an ongoing boycott at the property. Workers remain on the job at the other hotels.
Stepping aside momentarily from the picket line, Casey said the start of the strike coincided with the Hyatt Hotels Corporation's initial public offering, expected to raise nearly $1 billion for the Pritzker family, its principal owners.
"There hasn't been another day that symbolizes so clearly who we are, and who they are," Casey said. "The Pritzker family is already one of the wealthiest families in America. Today they made almost $1 billion in a few hours." Meanwhile, he said, "the proposal we made yesterday would cost this hotel $250,000 to maintain health care and pension benefits for 300 families" along with very modest wage hikes.
Casey was referring to the union's proposal for a one-year contract which would keep the rise in labor costs very low. The union, which says analysts foresee a rebound in the hotel industry and in the economy generally in 2011-2012, is also offering a three-year contract that would address core issues including continued affordable family health coverage, better dental and retirement benefits, fair wage increases, reasonable workloads and better language on organizing rights.
But Local 2 says that while details vary among hotels, the giant corporations are using the current economic downturn as an excuse to try for long-term takeaways including cutting health care contributions, combining jobs, shortening shifts, and establishing two-tier starting rates. The union also says the giant hotel corporations have made over $200 billion in profits in the past decade, while the average union hotel worker is paid $30,000 to $35,000 a year.
The hotel chains are being slow to respond to the union's offers, Casey said. "No one is in a hurry. Unfortunately, it looks like we will have to escalate our campaign. We will see more actions like this if they don't come to their senses."
While job actions could take place at any of the hotels, the Hyatt corporation is symbolic in several ways. Last summer, after getting housekeepers at three non-union Boston-area hotels to train new workers under the guise of "vacation replacements," the Hyatt fired nearly 100 longtime housekeepers and now pays their replacements half the original wages. And closer to home, at the Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf, the chain is refusing to let workers decide whether to join a union without fear of intimidation and retaliation.
The new city-wide contract will cover about 9,000 room cleaners, dishwashers, bellmen, cooks, servers, bussers, bartenders and others. The previous contract was signed in 2006 after two years of very difficult bargaining, a two-week strike, a nearly eight-week lockout and a union-initiated boycott of the city's hotels.