S.F. hotel owners defy mayors ultimatum

SAN FRANCISCO — The fat was in the fire Oct. 26 as operators of 14 large downtown hotels defied San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s demand to end a four-week lockout of their workers and accept a proposed 90-day cooling-off period previously agreed by the union.

The mayor had set a deadline of 2 p.m. for the hotels to comply, and had warned that if they failed to do so, he would press the city to stop doing business with the hotels in the Multi-Employer Group (MEG), and would call for a public boycott. Following the owners’ announcement, Newsom joined the picket line at the Westin St. Francis, where he received an enthusiastic welcome.

Though emphasizing his neutrality in the dispute, the mayor said the owners had shown they care more about their own interests than the city’s needs.

The hotel owners said they feared another strike at the end of 90 days if they accepted the cooling-off period. They said they would hold talks with the union during the continuing lockout.

The mayor had told a press conference the previous day, “I will do everything in my power to see to it that the city and county of San Francisco does not do business with those hotels, and I will extend that in multiple ways because I am very intense about this.” Newsom said he would be “an extremely strong advocate for the people out there on the lines, in the rain, through the holidays, who are the pawns in this.” He said he would urge the U.S. Conference of Mayors to pass a resolution of condemnation, and added that he would warn mayors of other cities where hotel contracts are expiring about what they could expect.

The mayor’s first appeal for a cooling-off period, earlier this month, was accepted by the union but rejected by the owners.

On Oct. 24, Newsom reiterated the proposal in a letter to Mike Casey, president of UNITE HERE Local 2, which represents the 4,000 cooks, cleaners, bartenders, bellmen, servers and other workers at the 14 hotels, and to Mark Huntley, president of the MEG. At issue in the dispute are:

• Health care, with employers demanding an enormous increase in the $10 per month premium workers currently pay.

• Immigrant rights and hiring, with Local 2 calling on employers to join with the union in working to reform immigration laws and to make quality hotel jobs more accessible to the city’s African American community.

• A contract expiration in 2006, sought by the union to coordinate with contracts at hotels owned by the same giant corporations in other cities, including Chicago, New York and Boston. The MEG seeks a five-year contract.

• Workload, with hotels having failed to rehire workers laid off in 2001-2002 despite rebounding occupancy levels.

The struggle has now been joined by the international labor community, with the London-based www.labourstart.org campaigning for messages in solidarity with the workers, and Australia’s 130,000-member Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union sending an official message and urging its members to send protest e-mails.

On Sept. 29, workers represented by UNITE HERE Local 2 began a two-week strike against four of the 14 hotels. The other 10 members of the Multi-Employer Group then locked out their workers, while the original four hotels refused to allow their workers to return when the two weeks were up.

On Oct. 22, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors held a hearing on a resolution introduced by board President Matt Gonzalez, urging the hotels to let the 4,000 workers return to their jobs. Nearly 2,000 workers joined a rally before the hearing, while over a thousand jammed the hearing room to hear co-workers tell their stories. The Multi-Employer Group rejected the board’s invitation to appear, complaining about the participation of several supervisors on the workers’ picket lines.

The 14 MEG facilities account for about a quarter of the city’s 32,500 hotel rooms. Among them are landmark hotels such as the Mark Hopkins, the Fairmont and the Westin St. Francis.

The author can be reached at mbechtel@pww.org.