Thursday, February 23, 2006
After decades on the decline, state labor unions are making a comeback.
Strong evidence of a resurgence came last November, when labor groups joined forces to successfully trounce anti-union ballot propositions backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. That victory toned down Schwarzenegger’s swagger and caused much rejoicing in labor halls across California.
Now another fight looms on the horizon. Only this time, it’s the unions that are seizing the initiative. They’re planning to take the fight to the enemy.
UNITE HERE, a labor organization representing 90,000 hospitality industry workers nationwide, kicked off a campaign last week in four critical US cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles. The idea is to build momentum as workers head into contract renegotiations at hundreds of hotels this summer.
In Monterey County, that includes nearly 1,200 workers at 10 hotels in Carmel, Monterey and Pacific Grove. Most of these workers’ existing contracts will expire July 31.
Leonard O’Neill, secretary-treasurer for UNITE HERE Local 483 in Monterey County, acknowledges that the contract renegotiations represent the first big test for their union—and for labor in general—after they and other labor unions underwent a well-publicized split from the AFL-CIO last summer.
“This is one of the projects that the new coalition, Change to Win, is adopting,” O’Neill says. “Basically, they recognize that manufacturing jobs and textile mills that used to provide a decent living are gone. So we want to turn hospitality jobs—which can’t be outsourced—into middle-class jobs with middle-class wages.”
Last summer, SEIU—the second-largest public employees union in the nation—split from the AFL-CIO along with the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, and UNITE HERE. Led by organizers like Andrew Stern, SEIU president, the coalition’s new strategies are being developed. One of them to have local unions link up with unions in other states to coordinate their labor demands and increase their negotiating leverage.
O’Neill says that as hotels in Monterey County are increasingly being run by national chains, local unions also have to start thinking nationally and globally.
“We can have a well-organized local union,” O’Neill says. “But if a hotel like the [Park Hyatt owned] Highlands Inn comes to the negotiating table, they can come to Monterey with all the energy, resources and firepower of their global company. So we simply become outmatched.”
In San Francisco, 10,000 workers at 14 hotels have been without a contract for more than a year—at one point they were locked out as temporary workers were brought in. A major sticking point in their contract negotiations is that the local union wants to schedule all of their contracts to end at the same time as other hospitality worker union contracts nationwide. Hotels have balked at that request.
Another strategy set forth by Change to Win is to make organizing a priority. That’s something that many claim the AFL-CIO had shied away from in recent years, concentrating instead on funding political candidates.
O’Neill says the focus in Monterey County remains on the contract renegotiations—which start in May—and not yet on growing membership.
Maricela Alaniz, a union worker at the Highlands Inn for the last 16 years, says their focus heading into the renegotiations is clear-cut.
“We want them to pay us more,” says Alaniz, 36, who makes $10.45 an hour. “And we want to keep our free health insurance.”