by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | December 01, 2004

Striking hotel workersLocal labor battles rarely make the national news any more, but this one did. In October, 1,400 hotel workers in San Francisco staged a two-week strike against four properties. The action followed weeks of tough negotiations between Local 2 of the Unite Here union and the San Francisco Multi-Employer Group, which represents 14 of the city’s largest downtown meeting hotels, where labor contracts had expired on Aug. 14. Quickly, the SFMEG struck back by locking out 2,600 union workers at the other 10 properties.
    Other hot spots were erupting at about the same time. In Los Angeles, where contracts expired on June 1 at nine major downtown properties, a Labor Day protest march by workers and supporters turned ugly, as confrontations with police resulted in 46 arrests. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., where contracts at 29 hotels expired on Sept. 15, negotiators for both sides remained deadlocked, leading to workers voting overwhelmingly to authorize a strike. And in Atlantic City, thousands of workers at seven casinos walked off their jobs and onto the picket lines.
   While some of the specific issues in each city differ, two commonalities have emerged: The players at the bargaining tables have evolved from their historic roles, and the stakes are higher than before. Today, Unite Here, the New York City-based union representing a wide cross section of hotel workers, has 440,000 members and an annual budget of $70 million, 40 percent of which is earmarked for organizing. And for its part, the lodging industry has matured from groups of individually owned properties into a rarified strata of global corporations with portfolios of several chains under one umbrella, in a business that grossed $12.8 billion in pretax profits in 2003 and employs 1.7 million workers in the United States.
    All sides agree that how labor issues are handled this year will affect how they play out in 2006, when contracts are set to expire in Boston, Chicago, Honolulu, New York City and Toronto.
    “The reality is that 2006 will be a watershed for collective bargaining in the history of American lodging,” says John Wilhelm, president, hospitality division, of Unite Here. “We have to find a way to put this on a positive track. Without customers, the hotels don’t have profits, and our members the employees don’t have jobs. It is a recipe for disaster.” Not to mention a horrible bind for planners trying to book meetings in advance.

New state of the unions
Unite Here was created this June from the merger of two labor groups the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, and an amalgam called Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, the “Unite” and “Here,” respectively, that comprise the new union’s name. In a time when labor’s strength in general appeared to be dwindling, due largely to the siphoning of manufacturing jobs overseas, this marriage signaled a new way of doing business, that of pooling members and financial resources into a collective bargaining front.
    “This is one of the leading unions today,” says professor Ruth Milkman, director of the Institute of Industrial Relations at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Their numbers are growing, they know the industries they deal with and they have hired people with a knowledge of business to help them.”
    Strong organizing is the backbone of Here’s success; over the past six years the union enrolled 6,000 to 12,000 new workers annually, largely through a concerted strategy of reaching out to the Latinos and Asians who have helped swell the ranks of hotel workers. Such aggressive efforts will continue to make the expanded union an increasingly powerful force, says Milkman.
    In addition, Unite Here has formed strong strategic alliances. At a Sept. 15 press conference in Washington, D.C., presidents Kweisi Mfume of the Baltimore, Md.-based NAACP and Raul Yzaguirre of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of La Raza, the country’s most prominent Hispanic-American advisory group, pledged their support to the union.
    Snagging the endorsements was an especially savvy move, says Milkman. “It is a contest for public hearts and dollars,” she notes. “And if the NAACP can steer business away from the hotels, that helps the union. It is a growing union sophistication that is playing out for the first time in the hospitality industry on a national level.”