Local 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
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