2009: Year of Hope and Struggle for SF Hotel Workers

by Marc Norton on February 3, 2009

I am standing with a hundred other UNITE HERE Local 2 members and community supporters in the lobby of Le Meridien hotel, on Wednesday, January 28, demanding that the general manager meet with us, right now. It is the union’s first big action of 2009, which looks to be a hot year for hotel workers. Hotel contracts expire in August, both for the big class A hotels, and for many of the smaller boutique hotels.

It will be a tough year for labor. Mingled with hope from the new administration in Washington is fear of the deepening economic instability. A million and a half people descended on the capitol to welcome the future, yet every day brings more news of layoffs, foreclosures and cutbacks. The budget crises here in San Francisco, in every big and small city in the nation, and in state capitals from Sacramento to New York, grow by leaps and bounds. Nobody can claim to know where or when it will end.

But, right now, I am standing with a hundred other workers in the lobby of Le Meridien, where the elite rests their pampered bodies, starting at $250-plus per night, paid to the huge and profitable Starwood Hotels conglomerate. Le Meridien is a non-union hotel, but the union is in the midst of a serious organizing campaign. Just days before, management laid off several workers. Since there is no union contract, there are no seniority rights and no promise of future work. Not surprisingly, three of the laid off workers are members of the Union’s organizing committee. That’s why we are here.

The leaders of our delegation are David Chiu, the recently-elected President of the Board of Supervisors, and Rev. Phil Lawson, of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. The GM is not pleased to see us. We fill up most of their small lobby. We are quiet and respectful, more respectful than he deserves. He agrees to meet with our delegation, but demands that we get out of his lobby. After some consultation, our leaders decide to march us outside, where we are no longer either quiet or respectful. “This is Union territory,” we chant.

Needless to say, our delegation gets mostly bafflegab from the GM. He claims that he laid off workers in order of seniority, even though most of them had worked at the hotel for 20 years. He claims that he had posted a notice about their recall rights, although this was the first any of them had heard about it. When asked why their medical coverage had been cut off the day before they were laid off, the GM’s only response was that this is the “industry standard.”

The week before, at our monthly Union meeting, President Mike Casey had talked about the upcoming hotel contract negotiations. He made it clear that the Union is not going to agree to any concessions, that the plan is to improve our contract, not go backward. That is music to my ears, especially in this era of concessionary contracts and all-too-many floundering union misleaders.

Hotel contracts last expired in 2004. That was the year that thousands of workers were locked out for nearly two months. It took two more years of boycotts and strike votes, but the union won a hands-down victory for the big hotels in 2006. For some of the small hotel workers, it took until 2008 to settle. And now we start again.

Today, in front of Le Meridien, listening to the report of the meeting with the GM, nobody is in any mood to concede a damn thing. We’ve fought too long, and too hard, to accept anything except victory. Hope and fear mingle, but the struggle continues. Here, at the corner of Clay and Battery, are assembled hotel, restaurant and banquet workers, and supporters from the SF Organizing Project, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, the Filipino Community Center, students from SF State and many more.

The last chant of the day is the union standard, “We’ll be back!”

Copyright © 2009 by Marc Norton

Marc Norton is a bellman at a small hotel in downtown San Francisco. Contact him at nortonsf@ix.netcom.com, or through his website at www.MarcNorton.us.

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