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Hilton Hotels Look Back to the Future

All of us at one time or another had things pounded into our heads so often that ultimately a light bulb goes off. Finally, one or more of our experiences, good or bad, influences our behavior.

This is not new. The esteemed 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had a penchant for quotable parables and said it this way: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

You might say this is exactly what happened to management at the private equity Blackstone Group-owned Hilton Hotels. After years of strikes, picket lines and boycotts haunting the industry, Hilton decided all the strife was bad for business.

The result is a long-term agreement extending to August 2018 between Hilton and hotel union, UNITE-HERE. It covers six cities, including San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Toronto.

“I’m very pleased with the settlement,” said Guadalupe Chavez, room attendant, Hilton San Francisco Union Square and executive board member of San Francisco’s Local 2, UNITE-HERE.  “We are happy to know that our health care and wages are secured for the next five years.”

The settlement does indeed provide fully paid medical insurance, no small achievement these days. It also strengthens job security in case of a hotel sale and, worse-case scenario, if bankruptcy looms, the union has the contractual to protect those rights by striking.

Job security and healthcare were the two most important concerns of Local 2 members who enthusiastically approved the contract by a 99 percent margin.

In addition, annual compensation increases of four percent will be distributed between wages and benefits as decided by the union negotiating committee. This is somewhat unusual for the union but warranted, Local 2 president Mike Casey said, “because of the uncertain costs associated with the Affordable Care Act.”

In remarks to a March 25 press conference, Hilton general manager, Michael Dunne, greeted the settlement as a breath of fresh air. “It is good for our hotel, our team members and the City of San Francisco.”

San Francisco mayor Ed Lee also chimed in by congratulating Dunne and Casey for “setting a standard for our City’s hotel industry, keeping San Francisco’s economy vital and supporting working families in the Bay Area.”

It’s safe to say both were very relieved that there will be a break from marches, rallies and boycotts for the next five years, at least at the Hilton.

But the union is not sitting still. The Hilton contract is now the standard.

“Over the coming weeks and months, we will begin talks with the rest of the union employers and hope to quickly reach the same agreement,” Local 2 spokeswoman Julia Wong told me.

Now What?

Room attendant Guadalupe summed up Local 2’s stance at the press conference by saying that “we are now ready to realize our vision to organize other hotel workers because they have a right to these same benefits.”

With Mayor Lee and general manager Dunne looking on, a message was sent to both union and non-union hotels in the area.  It was stressed again and again by Local 2 members.

A Hilton doorman with 22 years experience said “we are ready to stand with others to make our union stronger.” A housekeeper with 14 years said “we can now take the time to organize to make us stronger.”

It is clear the members have been prepared to launch a massive organizing now that they have a won a five-year contract. And there are plenty to choose from with tens of thousands of non-union hotel workers in Northern California lacking affordable family health care, pensions, and living wages.

“By settling contracts early with union employers like Hilton,” Wong emphasized to me, “we hope to have a clear path to embark on organizing, starting with our current fights for non-union workers at Hyatt [with the worst safety and employee relations’ record of them all] and HEI.”

To improve conditions in the hotel industry, we must reach out to both union and non-union workers, the union says.  And they are doing just that.

In early April, hundreds of San Francisco hotel workers will engage in a week of action against Hyatt in early April, with pickets at the Grand Hyatt Union Square, Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf, and Hyatt Regency Santa Clara.

So, while Hilton management can now sigh with relief for the next five years, those taking the Hyatt route or “low road” as Casey describes it, don’t seem to be in for relief any time soon.

Carl Finamore is Machinist Lodge 1781 delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He can be reached at local1781@yahoo.com

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Carl Finamore is Machinist Lodge 1781 delegate, San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He can be reached at local1781@yahoo.com

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