HOW THE LOCKOUT BACKFIRED
By David Bacon
SAN FRANCISCO (11/23/04) -- Sometimes the fate of a single
battle foretells the outcome of a war, long before it's over. The
end of the San Francisco hotel lockout promises to be this kind of
Last Saturday, minutes before San Francisco Mayor Gavin
Newsom strode into his office, and announced the end of the 5-week
lockout before a bank of television cameras, he went down the hall to
pay respects to the workers who'd made it possible. As he walked
through the door, dozens of room cleaners, waiters, bartenders and
floor sweepers rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation.
It was the culmination of one of the most remarkable turnabouts in
the political history of a city known for unconventional politics.
The mayor, after all, was the candidate of the workers'
enemies. For years leading to his election, the city's hotels had
bankrolled Newsom's political initiatives, especially the "Care not
Cash" program designed to rid the streets of the homeless. When
Newsom finally ran for mayor, downtown businesses, including hotels,
were his primary supporters. At the time, the hotel union was one of
the few that outspokenly campaigned for his opponent, Green candidate
But beginning last summer, UNITE HERE Local 2 skillfully
exploited new fault lines in US urban politics, and the economics of
the hospitality industry, in its quest for bargaining leverage. In
fact, leverage has been at the heart of the whole conflict from the
beginning, a more important factor than even wage increases or
By Labor Day, the union was locked in fractious negotiations
with the fourteen hotels of the Multi Employer Group. This group
represents hotel operators, including multibillion-dollar
corporations like Hilton, Intercontinental, Starwood and Hyatt. The
actual hotels themselves are owned by large investment groups and
While the hotel operators were proposing tiny wage increases,
and big hikes in medical insurance payments of up to $273 a month,
the key issue was the duration of the contract itself. Local 2
proposed that a new agreement expire in 2006, when similar contracts
with the same corporations expire in other cities around the country,
from New York to Chicago to Honolulu. By lining up the expiration
dates, the union hoped to form a common front of workers in major
urban hotel markets, who could act together to win a new standard of
living that individual local unions are too weak to gain alone.
Barbara French, spokesperson for the hotel group, called this
idea "a non-starter from the beginning."
At the same time, another union bargaining proposal sought to
unify its membership base and consolidate community support.
Existing contract language protecting the rights of immigrants would
be combined with a new proposal to increase the diversity of the
hotel workforce, particularly by hiring African American workers.
Since the end of the 1960s-era civil rights demonstrations, the
largest of which focused on the Sheraton Palace Hotel, Black
employment in hotels has dropped to less than 6%.
In September the union launched a limited two-week strike
against four of the employer group. The operators responded with the
first of a series of strategic missteps. They locked the workers out
of the other ten hotels in the group, and then announced they'd
extend the lockout beyond the strike's end, so long as workers
continued to demand the 2006 expiration date.
Perhaps thinking that workers would be reluctant to sacrifice
paychecks simply for an expiration date, hotels miscalculated again.
Elena Duran, speaking for many others, responded by saying simply
that "it's important for us to level the playing field."
Then the union turned the lockout, intended as a pressure
tactic against workers, into a weapon against the operators
themselves. The 4300 locked-out laborers mounted large boisterous
picketlines. Bullhorns blasted their chants into the streets, and up
into the hotel rooms themselves, from early morning until after
midnight. Union members ate on the lines, often bringing their
children with them. Picketers were a polyglot reflection of the
city's diversity, with all its colors and racial groups, speaking its
bewildering variety of languages.
Some conventions pulled out of picketed hotels, while guests
at others complained about disruption inside, or just refused to
cross the lines. When operators brought in strikebreakers from
hotels in other cities, the union extended its picketlines to
Chicago, Honolulu and Monterey, provoking one-day shutdowns that
previewed what coordinated bargaining in 2006 might accomplish.
Finally, the union turned to the city itself. Gonzalez,
president of the Board of Supervisors, held a hearing in which
hundreds of workers overflowed the chambers and City Hall itself.
The mayor, hitherto quiet about the dispute, decided to make his own
attempt to settle it. Here the hotel operators made their most
disastrous miscalculation. Newsom asked them to end the lockout,
while he tried to make progress in negotiations. The hotels turned
him down flat. And when he said he would go picket with the workers,
a gesture with little actual economic consequence, they criticized
him publicly. Matt Adams, head of the Multi Employer Group, wondered
aloud in the San Francisco Chronicle why the candidate whose campaign
they'd financed was not taking their side without question.
Newsom went to the picketlines, and announced he was pulling
city business from the hotels, encouraging all their clients to go
elsewhere. As complaints mounted from businesses around the hotels
at lost revenue and noise from the picketlines, Newsom pulled the
police away, pointing out that the operators could end the ruckus any
time they liked.
Finally, the union and its allies, now including the mayor,
drove a wedge between the hotel operators, and the owners who gained
nothing from the lockout's contiuation. It became obvious that the
longer it went on, the more pressure the operators themselves would
feel. After five weeks, they finally let the workers return to their
jobs, with no agreement on their essential demand that they give up
the 2006 contract expiration date. When workers learned about the
operators' decision, many were actually reluctant to take the lines
down, since they'd proven so effective.
The contract remains unresolved. The union, while it agreed
not to strike for 60 days, announced it would continue the rest of
its effective pressure campaign. The operators still have deep
reserves, and the hotels will be able to function unhindered through
their busiest season. But the grand strategy to stop the union's
march towards greater bargaining leverage has unraveled, leaving the
Multi Employer Group disorganized and politically isolated.