UNITE HERE Local 2 Hilton Workers, NUHW in Struggles Against Kaiser

by Randy Shaw on July 26, 2010

In the largest internal hotel protest in San Francisco history, nearly 300 UNITE HERE Local 2 workers walked off their jobs and marched through the Hilton lobby on July 13 after Kaiser President Gregory Adams violated the union’s hotel boycott. The hour-long lobby takeover shut down dining facilities including the hotel’s Starbucks, and left Hilton management scurrying to block workers from reaching Adams, who was speaking at a Health Care Leadership Summit. According to Ingrid Carp, a Hilton cook and thirty-year member of Local 2, “workers were outraged when they heard that Adams was violating the Hilton boycott. It provoked the lobby takeover.” While Local 2 battles hotel owners over steep health care premium increases, Kaiser Permanente used the millions it gets from Local 2 and other unions to help generate a 64% rise in net income in the first quarter of 2010 alone. Meanwhile, Kaiser continues to do everything in its power to prevent Local 2’s ally, NUHW, from winning upcoming elections against SEIU-UHW. Kaiser is even allowing a violent thug employed by SEIU to roam their facilities, as it puts the defeat of NUHW ahead of worker safety.

While UNITE HERE Local 2 often holds massive street protests, its Hilton members recently did something unprecedented: nearly 350 walked off their jobs at 8:00am and spent an hour marching and chanting through the hotel lobby. This meant rooms were not turned over (150 housekeepers joined the march), customers at the hotel’s Urban Tavern were not served (the Hilton had to comp their meals), and Starbucks had to start giving away its pastries as its unionized employees joined the festivities.

Workers Angry at Kaiser

This uproar was caused by worker reaction to news that Kaiser’s President had come to the Hilton in violation of the Local 2 boycott. As Hilton housekeeper and Local 2 Executive Board member Guadulupe Chavez put it, “medical insurance is our big issue in our strike and when we heard that Kaiser would be coming to the Hilton everybody was mad and felt we had to take action.”

The workers organized the event, and Chavez is among the many leaders whose 30-plus years of experience with Local 2 have made them skilled organizers. So many housekeepers joined the protest that they could not fit in all of the elevators, leading to a stampede down stairways as they headed to the lobby.

Management was taken completely by surprise. It responded by blocking entry to the ballroom where the Health Care Summit was occurring, turning the lobby over to the workers.

The tourists in the lobby appeared to enjoy the scene, and to back the union. Local 2 activist and Hilton worker Ringo Mak told me he saw “tourists taking pictures and putting a thumbs-up.”

Health Care Hypocrisy

While the Hilton hosts a Health Care Summit, it is demanding that Local 2 members accept a cap on the employer contribution to Kaiser’s steadily rising premiums. The Hilton and other hotels also want to delay new employees from getting coverage for six months, unlike the current three.

And unlike many cash strapped employers unable to afford rising health care premiums, the hotel industry is now booming. Bartender Jim Taylor, a Hilton worker on the Local 2 bargaining committee, said “the Hilton is not saying it can’t afford to pay the increased premiums, they just don’t want to.”

Local 2 President Mike Casey noted that his union spends millions of dollars on Kaiser, and joined with members’ in expressing outrage over the Kaiser President’s refusal to support a major customer by skipping the summit.

Kaiser Battles NUHW, Favors SEIU

Kaiser’s violation of the UNITE HERE hotel boycott comes as the hospital chain battles NUHW, backed by Local 2, in its election challenge to SEIU-UHW.

Kaiser’s interference with NUHW’s organizing rights has been so severe that the NLRB has issued two rulings against Kaiser ordering it to not surveil NUHW supporters, interrogate them, block them from distributing literature, threaten employees because they wear NUHW buttons, tell workers they cannot talk about NUHW, prohibit the posting of NUHW materials on bulletin boards, “and discriminatorily enforce Kaiser’s solicitation and distribution rules “by prohibiting employees from distributing NUHW materials …”

Such specificity in the orders was required by Kaiser’s ongoing violation of NUHW supporters’ rights. According to labor experts, such broad orders against Kaiser never occurred during prior organizing drives.

Kaiser’s willingness to flagrantly violate federal labor laws is quite unusual for the company, and shows how desperate it is to ensure an SEIU victory.

SEIU Violence

On July 16, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge issued a one-year restraining order against SEIU organizer Tiffany Ford for threatening to kill two workers at Kaiser Baldwin Park Medical Center. Despite the court’s action, and worker demands that Kaiser remove Ford from the facility, Kaiser refuses to do so. Ford, who is represented by SEIU legal counsel, continues to walk around the hospital even after police were called twice after she violated the restraining order.

Why would Kaiser (or any employer) allow an outside thug to roam the premises threatening the company’s employees? Its gotten so bad at Kaiser Baldwin Park that NUHW supporters only feel safe walking to their cars in pairs, and one worker who displays an NUHW sign in her car has had her tires slashed 4 times in the employee parking lot.

Yet when SEIU staff tried to shout down NUHW supporter and former UFW leader Dolores Huerta at Kaiser’s Modesto facility (see video), management did not take such a hands off approach. Instead, they closed down the public cafeteria to prevent Huerta from talking to workers there.

This is what SEIU meant when it vowed to create “World War III” to drive NUHW out of hospitals. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that Kaiser is backing this effort.

Kaiser-SEIU in Legal Lockstep

In recent weeks, Kaiser has taken identical positions to SEIU’s regarding contract bar issues in an effort to block Kaiser employees from participating in elections. For example, Kaiser and SEIU both argued that three of the four elections requested by Kaiser workers in June should be blocked.

Kaiser and SEIU have to be coordinating legal strategies. It would be one thing if Kaiser opposed all elections, but to join SEIU’s bizarre claim that three should be postponed while only one is held could not be coincidence.

It should make Kaiser workers wonder which union is most likely to fight for their interests: the one backed by Kaiser, or the one Kaiser is doing everything in its power to defeat.

Randy Shaw writes about many of the figures in UNITE HERE and SEIU in Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. Follow Randy on Twitter: @RandyTHClinic

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