A battle out of the movies

January 12, 2011

Carl Finamore, a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, reports on spreading solidarity for hotel workers in their struggle against the Hilton and other owners.

FOR A few hours on January 7, San Francisco's most contentious and longest-running labor dispute recalled scenes straight out of Hollywood. At least that's how distinguished law professor Jack Getman saw it.

Speaking from a flatbed truck parked in front of the city's one-square-block premier downtown Hilton hotel, the Earl E. Sheffield Regents Chair Professor at the University of Texas, fired away. "This is like an old Western movie where there are good guys and bad guys--and here in San Francisco," Getman said, pointing his finger toward the hotel doorway entrance, "clearly, Hilton management are the bad guys, and hotel workers are the good guys."

The sidewalk picket audience of around 100 laughed and cheered, including Getman's numerous colleagues from the most prominent law schools in the nation.

The Association of American Law Schools (AALS), comprised of around 300 law schools, scheduled its annual convention of 3,000 delegates at the Hilton, the largest hotel on the West Coast, with 1,908 rooms and three enormously tall towers offering majestic panoramic views of the wondrous San Francisco skyline and bay waters.

A lively picket line outside the posh Hilton complex in downtown San Francisco
A lively picket line outside the posh Hilton complex in downtown San Francisco (Carl Finamore)

Impressive indeed, but progressive law professors throughout the country like Jack Getman were more impressed with the down-to-earth street-level views of hotel workers who have been in difficult contract negotiations with management since August 2009.

According to the union, Hilton is demanding that housekeepers increase their workload substantially, from cleaning 14 rooms a day to 20 rooms. It is also imposing bigger medical costs and freezing pensions.

Because of some hard work, and probably aided by the hotel's rather disturbing publicized stance in negotiations, efforts were successful in convincing the AALS to shift most events away from the union-boycotted hotel.

Among the boycott advocates was the Society of Law Teachers (SALT), which moved all of its meetings out of the Hilton.

SALT had already released a September 1 statement urging AALS to support the boycott, pointing out that "the San Francisco Hilton Union Square (Blackstone Group) recently posted its fourth straight quarterly profit and increased the value of its private-equity holdings by 16 percent."

In addition, the hotel union, UNITE-HERE Local 2, reports that the Blackstone Group the world's largest private equity firm, which owns the Hilton chain, announced earlier this year that it had $28 billion available for investment.

By comparison, union spokeswoman Riddhi Mehta explained to me, "the union's contract proposal would cost Blackstone $2.5 million each year of the contract, to cover 850 Hilton Union Square workers and their families." This total settlement is also less, Mehta emphasized, "than the nearly $3.5 million Blackstone reportedly set aside for each corporate employee in 2010. Clearly, Blackstone has the resources to settle this labor dispute."

The extraordinary disparity between executive compensaition and the wages and benefits of ordinary workers has become a national disgrace. The ugly truth of the Blackstone Group will, therefore, likely ignite some amount of moral outrage, influencing more people to support the boycott.

For example, echoing speeches by several law professors who addressed the January 7 picket, a SALT written statement observed that "core educational values of justice and public service that law professors are supposed to instill in students will not be on display if AALS members have to weather the picket lines of low-wage workers."

The prestigious National Law Journal also took note of the controversy and reported on January 7, "AALS scrambled to move most of the larger events...although a number of sessions are still being held at the Hilton." Local 2 estimates that two-thirds of the convention was ultimately relocated.

The list of boycotted city hotels now numbers 10 and has steadily grown in the 17 months since contracts covering 9,000 workers expired at 61 hotels. AALS is only the latest success story. According to Mehta, "Since the Hilton Union Square boycott was called in January 2010, we have moved over $6 million out of the hotel."

WITH SO many of the most prominent law professors in the nation calling out Hilton management for its mistreatment of workers, I figured enough evidence had been presented. The verdict was in, case closed.

But not so fast, Hilton management called me aside during the picket line and asked if I would like to hear their side of the story.

I interviewed a very cordial and professional hotel spokesman, Sam Singer, who insisted that the boycott "has not impacted the hotel but it has hurt city tourism." I did not pursue further what seemed to me like a contradiction. In any case, Singer backed up his remarks by mentioning that Local 2 President Mike Casey "was actually thrown out of the San Francisco Visitors and Convention Bureau" because of the damage boycotts have caused to the city.

The hotel spokesman also dismissed the enthusiastic picketers--100 by my count--at the entrances of his hotel as "25 people outside, a very small minority, while we have 3,000 inside."

Commenting on talks with the union, Singer accused Casey of "walking away from negotiations" and "of doing a real disservice to his members" because the hotel medical benefits offer "is very good and pretty close to what the union wants." Finally, when asked about union claims that Hilton was seeking to impose far heavier workloads on employees, Singer responded by saying he "was not too familiar with that issue."

Local 2 research director Ian Lewis did not look surprised when I told him of Singer's comments. He shrugged his shoulders a little and told me that, yes, Mike was kicked out of the Convention Bureau, but that it is an organization exclusively of hotel owners, so "his feelings weren't really hurt that bad." Regarding the "very good" Hilton medical offer, Lewis said the "actual current company proposal on the table would cost our members around $200 a month."

So, there you have it. The case remains open, to be settled in the court of public opinion, with workers averaging $30,000 a year in wages standing up to some of the most powerful corporate investors in the world.

The conflict playing out in the streets of San Francisco may sometimes resemble a Hollywood movie, but on most days, it is not so very different from what real life looks like in virtually every working-class community in America today--and that is what gives hope to hotel workers confident they will gain more and more allies.

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