The San Francisco Hilton is the city’s largest hotel, taking up a square block of prime downtown real estate and boasting 1900 rooms. Celebrity heiress Paris Hilton’s signature phrase, “That’s Hot!” might very well apply to the “stunning million dollar views” advertised by her hotel namesake. But it’s more like “That’s Cold!” when describing the views of the Hilton owners towards their employees.

In fact, the Blackstone Group, which owns the Hilton chain, proposes cutting starting wages for new hires by 25%. According to a union fact sheet, the CEO and part owner of Blackstone was paid $1,385,391,042 in 2008 ... That’s right, one billion dollars plus. The average union hotel worker earned $30,000 in that same year.

This explains why over 800 members of Local 2, UNITE-HERE and 400 supporters staged their impressive rally and civil disobedience action blocking for several hours the main hotel entrance before 140 sit-in protesters were arrested, cited for misdemeanor trespassing and released a short time later.

Arrestees included Richard Trumka, new President of the 13-million member AFL-CIO and John Wilhelm, International President of the 265,000-member UNITE-HERE. Trumka called the attitude of the hotels a “disgrace” while Wilhelm congratulated Local 2 for its “heart, spirit and endurance” which he said “would spread across the country in 2010” as other hotel contracts expire.

The rally attracted city firefighters, nurses, machinists, teachers, engineers, longshore, teamsters, construction workers and letter carriers displaying union emblems of support.

The protest also drew several hundred community supporters organized by Rev. Israel Alvaran, assigned by Clerics and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) to work exclusively on winning community support for hotel workers.

Refusal to come to an agreement with the modest demands of the union is producing growing public outrage because hotels have been profitable the last few years. In fact, according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, profits soared nationally to over $200 billion in the last decade.

While each of the 61 city hotels has chosen to negotiate separately with the union, the corporations that run many of the largest hotels remain united in demands to shift more health care costs to employees, increase workloads and reduce staffing.

They have rejected Local 2’s minimum one-year contract proposal. In Hilton’s case, the whole package would cost just $550,000 this year or around a 1.5% increase in labor costs.

“We’ve proposed the cheapest contract in the union’s history while the corporations continue to make millions,” said John Elrod, a bartender at the W Hotel. “I think the hotel workers have sacrificed enough. It’s time the hotel corporations realize that we’re not going to give up.”

So far, the union has called three brief strikes, five boycotts, numerous “Sieges” of all-night picketing and two peaceful civil disobedience actions resulting in several hundred arrests.

Bargaining Prospects in 2010

Nonetheless, facing stiff resistance and a lull in the tourist season, Local 2 realizes this dispute will not be settled soon. These major international corporations have enormous financial resources that allow them to absorb indefinitely the costs of ordinary labor disputes.

So, the union has adopted a variety of tactics looking forward to mid-2010 when tourists begin flooding the city. This influx provides an inviting audience for the union’s very effective protests at boycotted hotel entrances with bullhorns blaring. “Years before, We would Cower, Now We have Union Power!” and “Don’t Check-In, Check Out! This is Local 2! Boycott is what we’re all about!”

New negotiating allies are also in the wings as Wilhelm mentioned. At the moment, 9000 hotel workers in San Francisco and another 16,000 in Chicago and Los Angeles are negotiating.

This bargaining leverage will soon substantially increase later this year with the addition of units in Toronto, Minneapolis, Vancouver, BC, Honolulu, Monterey and Washington D.C. In total, over 50,000 Unite-Here members in the hotel industry will be fighting for new contracts in 2010.

In the meantime, Local 2 will be busy planning regular street protests and considering more of their patented surprise strikes while still vigorously enforcing their boycotts.

The union has a history of mobilizing local broad actions and UNITE-HERE nationally has recently adopted very high standards for its boycotts. A most important new feature is that a majority of union members are urged to consider a boycott of their selected hotel before one is announced.

As a result, all current Local 2 boycotts are worker-initiated, minimizing employer attempts to divide employees from boycotters.. There must also be a funded staff and a clear program of active enforcement before any boycott is launched.

This includes regularly scheduled pickets with amped-up sound systems to remind guests there is an ongoing labor dispute. It means organized visits to major clients showing videos of protests and taped interviews with disgruntled guests who endured the stress of strikes, loud picketing and boycotts. It means enlisting the national support of non-profit and socially-conscious conventioneers to join the boycott.

One important endorsement occurred the day the Hilton boycott was announced. Sarah Shaker, Executive Director of the Instituto Laboral de la Raza, issued this January 5 statement, “It is very unfortunate that we have to move our annual awards banquet. Normally, we have over 1,000 people from all over the country attend and we spend close to $100,000 with the Hilton’s banquet department. We now have changed our plans and moved the Event to a solidly Union banquet hall, the United Irish Cultural Center.”

More of the same is sure to come. The SF Examiner estimates the 53-day strike/lockout and two-year boycott in 2004-2006 cost San Francisco hotels around $100 million. Owners made it worse for themselves by locking out workers during that strike, something that turned out to be a major public relations blunder.

Enormous political and community pressure forced hotels to back off, end their lock out and return to negotiations. But the union still continued full-scale boycotts until the hotels finally agreed in 2006 to all the workers’ demands.

Local 2 President Mike Casey considers this victory as validation of the current strategy of staggered, brief strikes, longer boycotts and regularly scheduled mobilizations.

As a result, the union is determined to reinvigorate boycotts as one of their tools, especially useful in an industry dependent on delivering consumers comfort and relaxation uninterrupted by clamorous rallies and periodic strikes.

“We want to bring back boycotts that have the scale and commitment of the Farmworkers’ enormously successful and historic Grape Boycott,” UNITE-HERE boycott organizer Mark Westerberg told me.

While Casey is quick to remind hotels that a city-wide strike is never off the table, the union has shown it has a formidable array of other tactics as well. All of them will be necessary to pry open the pocket books of the powerful owners.

Carl Finamore paid up all his parking tickets before joining the Hilton sit-in. He is a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council and former President (ret), Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW. He can be reached at local1781@yahoo.com