Either out of arrogance, ignorance or both, San Francisco’s global hotels are seeking to provoke a hotel strike. Local managers employed by the Multi-Employer Group (MEG) of 13 hotels are powerless in the dispute, as decisions are being made at the international corporate headquarters. The legal arrangement among the MEG allows a single hotel to hold up a settlement, which means that the most anti-union stance dictates bargaining for all 13. A hotel strike would unify San Francisco's social and political forces as never before, as many activists would be thrilled to have a local target for their frustrations over Bush Administration economic policies. San Francisco is the wrong city for global hotel forces to wage a pitched battle over the right to overwork maids, and to impose a two-tier health care system. If there is going to be a national battle over the right of working people to earn middle-class wages and benefits, UNITEHERE! Local 2 could not pick a better place to start than San Francisco.

There is a critical fact about UNITE HERE! Local 2 that explains why its fight is widely seen as a battle for the soul of San Francisco: its members look like what is often described as the “other” San Francisco. The Asian, Filipino, Latino, African-American and white working people of Local 2 are the tenants fighting displacement, the workers fighting for a living wage, and the residents who support downtown paying its fair share.
Local 2 members are the heart of San Francisco’s progressive movement, and their allies will not let them down in their time of struggle.

Every elected official in San Francisco will support the union should a strike occur. Mayor Newsom, who was neutral when the prior strike began in 2004, is now a strong Local 2 ally. The full power of San Francisco city government will be at Local 2’s disposal. When Supervisors Daly, Mirkarimi and Peskin start working in common cause with the Mayor, strong Local 2 backer Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Senator Boxer and potentially even Senator Feinstein, then the global hotel owners better have some tricks up their sleeves because they will be in serious trouble.

Non-profit organizations, clergy, other unions, the gay and lesbian community, and activist groups of all kinds are aligned with the hotel workers. This will not be a repeat of the 1980 strike, where Local 2 was internally divided and failed to do the pre-strike community work necessary. To the contrary, Local 2 has been building bridges in the community for years, particularly since the labor dispute began two years ago.

That’s why a strike will unveil a perfect storm against the global hotel industry. San Francisco has not been this primed for a labor fight since the General Strike of 1934.

In the big picture, Local 2’s stance is quite modest. We’re talking about businesses that will make hundreds of millions of dollars in profits in the next few years if they agree to Local 2’s offer.

A business that aggressively publicizes the fact that it is rolling in dough is hardly positioned to arouse public sympathy. While hotel industry multi-millionaires will not even miss the money needed to meet Local 2’s needs, union members are struggling to survive.

Particularly troubling about the current state of hotel business practices is that the overwhelming female maid staffs are being routinely afflicted with acute health problems. Tendonitis, back problems and other maladies are being caused from lifting the thick “Heavenly” bed mattresses, which, according to Local 2 President Mike Casey, now dominate the elite hotel industry.

The hotel maids’ talked about their health problems in relation to the need for a good health plan, but equally important is stopping these injuries. One of the key union demands is a reduction in the maid’s workload in response to the heavier mattresses, and this is not something that can be compromised.

What makes the prospect of a strike almost bizarre is that the sides have agreed on the fundamental issues that divided them in 2004. Then, the big sticking point was the MEG’s refusal to allow Local 2 to coincide its contract with that of other cities. But by not reaching agreement, San Francisco hotel workers are now on the same schedule as Chicago, Monterrey, Toronto, and Hawaii. As Casey pointed out, the MEG “forgot it could not stop the clock.”

The other big obstacle to settlement was the union’s demand that the hotels accept card check recognition rather than require a time-consuming election. But just as folks were gearing up to go after the Hilton chain, with all the tie-ins with Paris Hilton that such a struggle would bring, the Hilton corporation took away the fun by agreeing to the card-check process. Starwood Hotels has also agreed to card-check, which means that the MEG’s two real giants have accepted what many saw as the chief stumbling block.

The most curious aspect is how the MEG members can have an enforceable contract that gives one veto power over the entire deal. Shouldn’t this be an unenforceable restraint on business? When Major League Baseball owners agreed to refuse to bid on free agents, a federal arbitrator found them guilty of collusion. Yet labor law apparently allows global hotels to collude, even though they are even more capable than baseball owners of acting independently.

Not only does the most anti-union hotel chain have the power to hold up a deal, but the MEG agreement says that a strike against one hotel must result in the employers of the 12 others locking out their workers. When you see wealthy capitalists imposing such restrictions on their own behavior, it becomes more understandable why this labor dispute is heading for a strike.

The battle lines are drawn, and now it’s time for all of those who regularly and understandably complain about their inability to change Bush policies to join Local 2’s fight. For all the talk about the evils of Wal-Mart, growing income inequality, tax breaks for the rich, estate tax repeals and on and on---Bay Area residents now have a chance to do something concrete to bring economic justice for our neighbors.

The last-stage of the campaign for a fair contract for Local 2 begins Thursday, August 31, at 4:15pm, at Local 2 Plaza, located on Market Street between 3rd and 4th Streets. This citywide action will be a march on the MEG hotels, and this is the time for everyone to attend who cares about social justice in San Francisco and elsewhere.

There is a time for talking in cafes or reading Internet news on Bush’s latest outrage, and there is a time for action. Thursday at 4:15 is action time.

Local 2 members need to know that they can count on the entire Bay Area to join them in their fight. If you ever wanted to be part of making history, Thursday afternoon is the time to start.

Send feedback to rshaw@beyondchron.org