Hotel and casino workers from coast to coast are lighting a spark for the U.S. labor movement, waging a determined battle to save healthcare benefits and win synchronized contract negotiations for greater bargaining power.
These workers are multi-hued and multilingual. Many are immigrants, and most are women. Their jobs range from housekeeping to serving banquets.
Solidarity protests began in June 2004, followed by strikes and company lockouts in the fall. These events have been largely ignored by the media and by national AFL-CIO leaders, busy trying to elect Kerry and the Democrats.
At stake is the welfare of thousands who labor too long and too hard for too little pay. Representing them is UNITE HERE, the merger of UNITE (formerly the Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees) and HERE (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees).
One of the main goals of UNITE HERE is to combat the might of national and international hotel corporations acting in concert against the workers. To this end, the union set out to win contracts for hotel and casino employees across the country that would expire simultaneously. For hotel workers, this would mean two-year contracts expiring in 2006; for casino workers, three-year contracts expiring in 2007.
Said Mike Casey, president of UNITE HERE Local 2 in San Francisco: “We can’t beat those global forces of capitalism with local and regional strategies.”
The big squeeze. After the dot-com crash of the late 1990s and then 9/11, the hotel industry lost customers and laid off workers. But business has picked up again. InterContinental, for example, showed profits of $522 million in 2003. Meanwhile, hotel workers have suffered merciless speedup while earning wages of between $9 and $15 per hour.
Now, the hotels want employees to accept pitiful wage increases while shouldering gigantic increases in health insurance copayments. For example, if the 14-member cartel of luxury hotels in San Francisco had its way, a new union contract would look like this: It would run for five years. Annual hourly wage increases would be 20 cents for non-tipped workers and five cents for tipped workers. Instead of the current copayment of $10 per month for health insurance, workers would pay $119 per month, or do without.
Service workers in motion. In mid-September, UNITE HERE members in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., all working under expired contracts, voted soundly to authorize strike action against the hotel chains that were stalling on negotiations.
On September 29, Local 2 in San Francisco called a limited, two-week strike against four of the 14 hotels. The other hotels retaliated by locking out their own UNITE HERE workers. When the strikers tried to go back to work on October 13, they too were locked out. Local 2 members are waging this struggle’s flagship fight with courage and defiance, and have won state unemployment benefits and support from the mayor.
In Los Angeles, nine luxury hotels have a pact to lock out union workers if there is a strike against any of them. They have unilaterally stopped deducting union dues and started charging workers $40 a month for health benefits. In D.C., hotel employers are also playing hardball, refusing to negotiate and threatening to hike healthcare copayments. As in Los Angeles, unionists in D.C. maintain a tense strike watch.
Meanwhile, 10,000 Atlantic City workers in UNITE HERE Local 54 walked out against seven casinos on October 1. Their rowdy picket lines brandished signs in both English and Spanish. After the longest strike in the 26-year history of New Jersey’s casino industry, the union settled in November.
Its members won total coverage for healthcare, a 28.3 percent wage increase, and hefty pension contributions from management. They also stopped the casinos from leasing space to nonunion bars and restaurants. Unfortunately, they did not get the three-year contract that would have synchronized with other casino contracts nationally. This may weaken the hand of other union locals on this issue and make it harder for Local 54 to hold on to its gains next time around.
Playing to win. The strike is labor’s most potent weapon. But to be effective, strikes need to be serious, not symbolic. This means making a commitment to outlast the bosses and calling on other unionists for heavy support.
That support includes no members of any union crossing picket lines to do work of any kind. Joint community-labor coalitions could be formed to swell the picket lines and persuade people to honor them. They could also help organize soup kitchens, childcare and other services for workers who cannot survive on picket pay or unemployment.
A national boycott against the hotel chains would be a welcome change from the militant but unsuccessful grocery strike in Southern California, during which stores across the country continued to operate at huge profits. Regional or national one-day solidarity strikes also could be called. The time is now, in the crucial holiday season, to give the hotel workers serious backing. They cannot do it by themselves.
In San Francisco and Queens, New York, there are scattered acts of tremendous solidarity by union locals and individuals refusing to cross picket lines. What is missing is national leadership bold enough to do whatever it takes to win. That responsibility properly belongs to AFL-CIO leaders who have the resources to make it happen. But they will only rise to the occasion if pressure from the ranks compels them.
One thing is certain: success in San Francisco would invigorate the entire labor movement and go far to clinch victory for the hotel workers nationwide — a victory that they badly need and have richly earned.
For a list of hotels to boycott and more information, visit www.UNITEHERE.org.