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Strikin to Survive in San Francisco
San Francisco workers try to negotiate with Multi-National Corporate Hotels for fair wages and health care and get Locked Out!
The marble floors glistened like freshly cut diamonds in the morning sun. My feet, shod in my favorite mickey mouse socks glided down the halls like an expert skier It was 6:00 am. I was 10 years old and had sneaked out of our hotel room at The Waikiki Sheraton while my mother was asleep. We were there cause my moms new boyfriend was the head of HouseKeeping so he could get us a room for free in that very expensive hotel. He had been a server for 16 years and finally after so many years of dedicated labor at slave wages was promoted to a pseudo-staff position. It meant he could wear a cheap tie and a better pair of polyester slacks, but most importantly it meant he could get health benefits and a .50 cent raise.
"We’re just trying to hold onto an affordable health benefit plan, and a cost of living (COLA) wage raise, basically we're just trying to survive in San Francisco…that's all" . My brief stint with those marble floors in Hawaii 21 years ago came back to me as I listened to Anna, a housekeeper at Hotel Mark Hopkins.She had worked tirelessly there for the last 18 years and was a current member of the Local 2 union that was holding a powerful strike of many of the city's most expensive hotels, all of which are owned by some of the worlds largest multi-national corporations. Anna went on to explain that housekeepers like her only earn between $8.00 and 8.75 per hour.
As I walked up the massive hill leading out of the tenderloin where I live to the Monolithic pillar of wealth and privelege that was The Hotel Mark Hopkins and The Fairmont Hotel, I was struck by the tragic irony of these workers' situation, most of whom were immigrants and/or people of color, having to strike just to get basic worker rights like health care and COLA wage increases from the large for-profit corporations, like The Hilton, The Starwood(Sheraton) and The Intercontinental which owns the Mark Hopkins, all of which showed net profits of $156-325 Billion in 2003. The same corporations that if they can get away with it pay virtually nothing to their workers, like my mothers boyfriend who was so afraid to lose his job he never dared join a union or even think about such an act of resistance as striking for benefits.
"They (hotel corporations) are offering us a health plan that will cost an employee with a family of four $273.00 per month to start with an annual increase, a family of four can barely afford to pay rent in San Francisco much-less afford those kind of premiums," Riva , a 15 year PBX operator at The Fairmont Hotel concluded by explaining that the new contract proposed by the Hotels did not include a 401(K) or a fully funded pension.
The strike was born out of failed contract talks between the Union (UNITE HERE and Local 2) and The Hotel Corporations which began on August 14th when the old contracts between workers and the corporations expired and the hotels refused to change their very unfair contract proposal which included a mere .5 cent raise for workers earning $8.00 per hour and not much more for higher paid workers, as well as the overpriced health care plan. The unions, who were not eager to strike, worrying about the patrons and the City's economy, much of which is built on tourism, waited for 15 days more after they voted to strike on September 14th just to see if the corporations would offer at least something a little better, but they didn't budge by even a nickel.
"We are not striking now, we are locked out," Ann Hunch, a server for 26 years at The Fairmont Hotel clarified the workers current situation "the negotiations (between workers and the Hotels) were stalled after 16 sessions so the Union decided to have a measured strike, just a two week strike at a small group of hotels, cause we don’t' want to mess up the economy at all, and two days later, all of the other multi-group owned hotels like the Fairmont, The Mark Hopkins, and the Holiday Inn civic center locked us all out like garbage, and this isn't regular people, this is big Corporations, like the Fairmont, half of this hotel is owned by a Saudi Prince "
As Ann was speaking a very vocal African Descendent member of the picket line (who doesn't want to named) added, " When this hotel was a family owned hotel, when it was owned by The Swig Family, we had decent working conditions" He went on to break down some of the percentages of the global corporate interests that make up the huge transnational corporations that own these hotels today. This situation has a frightening impact on workers today meaning that when hotels were owned by local families workers could successfully negotiate on a local basis. Now they are trying to negotiate with faceless corporate heads from as faraway as Atlanta, London and Hong Kong. These workers' situation was very similar to the kind of attacks felt by Grocery workers in Southern California last year.
I asked Riva and the other workers what they would do if the next weeks planned negotiations failed "We will continue to stand out here, we will continue to strike, some of us will seek temporary work at a Walgreens or Rite-Aid, something to tide us over, but other than that we have no place to go"
My mother only lasted with the sweet Bill Jimenez, an African-Pilipino Vietnam vet, for a few more months, long enough for my mom to find out he was married and for us to get a free three month hotel stay complete with a filled refrigerator and room service on the shores of Waikiki Beach. I heard later that year that after a few more months in that job he was fired so a college educated guy 10 years his junior could "re-vamp" housekeeping, something management didn't think Bill was "up to"
Tiny is the co-editor of PoorNewsNetwork/PNN.For more journalism on the struggle of low and no-wage workers locally and globally and issues of poverty and racism go on-line to http://www.poormagazine.org