Chanting “Si Se Puede” (Yes We Can) and harkening back to the historic labor struggles of the United Farmworkers and Southern textile workers, a crowd of over 2000 union members and community supporters at San Francisco’s Parc 55 Hotel launched a national campaign yesterday to improve wages, benefits and working conditions in the North American hotel industry. The ambitions of the campaign are striking, as the goal is not simply to get good contracts for unionized workers in 2006, but to also ensure economic justice for all workers in the traditionally low-paying hotel industry. As UNITEHERE! Hospitality Industry President John Wilhelm put it, the campaign seeks to “recreate the middle class dream,” replacing America’s lost manufacturing, steel, and auto industry jobs with service jobs that pay a living wage. Those wondering whether the Change to Win federation could revitalize the labor movement learned yesterday that the answer is a resounding Yes!

If you are under 40 years of age, chances are that you missed out on the early stages of the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the United Farmworkers movement, and the movement against nuclear power. But yesterday’s kickoff event for the national hotel workers uprising represents the emergence of a campaign that could prove as broad and diverse as any of the above struggles, and its outcome could determine whether America continues to move in the direction of gross income inequality, or becomes a country where service jobs can propel workers into the middle- class.


Senator John Edwards (all photos by Casey Mills)

Speakers at yesterday’s rally included former Senator and Democratic Vice-President candidate John Edwards, UFW President Arturo Rodriquez, actor and activist Danny Glover, UNITEHERE Presidents Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, and hotel workers from Toronto, Hawaii, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seattle and the host city. The speakers were ethnically diverse and spoke different languages, but all sounded a common theme: hotel service jobs need to replace the good-paying manufacturing jobs that are leaving North America and that provided the foundation for the American middle-class.


Bruce Raynor, General President, UNITE HERE, International Union

As maids spoke of their daily workload increasing from 10 to 17 rooms without additional compensation, and the increased size of the cleverly named “Heavenly beds,” Raynor noted that the “hotels have Heavenly beds, but not heavenly jobs.” He then brought the crowd to a roar, declaring “without workers, hotels are just big empty buildings. It is a lesson we must teach the global hotel owners, and they’ve gone to school in San Francisco.”

Also present at the kickoff were SEUI International President Andrew Stern, SEIU Secretary-Treasurer and Change to Win Chair Anna Burger, Teamsters Vice-President Chuck Mack, and Sal Roselli, President of SEIU Local 250. Large delegations of Change to Win federation members from the United Food and Commercial Workers and the UFW were also present, creating the broad sense of labor unity around national organizing that Stern and other backers of the new federation pledged to create when they broke from the AFL-CIO last summer.


Anna Burger, Change to Win Chair

While the focus of yesterday’s event was the national campaign kick-off, each UNITEHERE! local is essentially running two simultaneous campaigns. As described by San Francisco’s Local 2 Vice-President Lamoin Werlein-Jaen, “we have a local contract fight and a national campaign to highlight the need to improve wages in the hotel industry. We see the fate of unionized and non-unionized workers as joined.”

This parallel campaign means that the battle for economic justice in the hotel industry will not end even if excellent contracts are won in 2006 by local unions in each city. This could mean a long fight, something hotel workers---particularly those who spent seven years before winning unionization at San Francisco’s Marriot---are prepared for. Leslie Salmeron, a Nicaraguan-born houseman at San Francisco’s Hilton Hotel, captured the union’s willingness to fight for the long haul, saying “no matter how long the bosses resist us, we will last a day longer than they do.”


Danny Glover

Many prominent politicians and union leaders were present, but it was actor and activist Danny Glover who got the flashbulbs going and the crowd surging to get a closer look at a real-life movie star. Raynor noted how Glover was that rare actor who gave back to the community, and Glover then gave a powerful speech in which he called for a worldwide struggle for justice, and identified all workers around the world as his “brothers and sisters.”

This great actor has all the makings of a natural political leader, and it is good to see him putting his talents behind the national hotel workers rising campaign.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom followed Glover, and it is likely that he had never received such a loud ovation from a labor crowd. Newsom stated “you cannot live a good life in an unjust society,” and called rising income inequality in America “an outrage.”


Local 2 members look on at the rally

Wilhelm noted in introducing Newsom that he ran for office as a “pro-business” mayor, but then sided with the hotel workers when he saw their mistreatment by global corporations. Given Newsom’s close alliance with San Francisco’s business community, his support of the hotel campaign and the Local 2 hotel boycott makes the global hotel owners appear per se unreasonable; it also frames the global owners as being outside the business mainstream when it comes to employee relations.

Organizers did not want to divulge details about strategy, but having written a book (“Reclaiming America”) on national anti-sweatshop campaigns and other social justice struggles, the Hotel Workers Rising campaign should not overlook student involvement in addition to the community groups, religious leaders and other constituencies already targeted. Students have played key roles in every major national social justice struggle, and the campaign for justice in the hotel industry closely resembles the battle against sweatshops that mobilized campus activism in the late 1990’s.


Lesli Salmeron, Hilton Hotel worker, and Arturo Rodriguez, President, United Farm Workers

A major limitation in anti-sweatshop organizing was that the workers were overseas. In contrast, there are campuses near Hiltons and other major hotel chains across America, and today’s students---if recruited-- will be eager to get involved in this cause.

It is hard not to conclude from yesterday’s kickoff that we are witnessing the start of something big. If you ever wanted to make history, now is the time.

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