Empieza una gran huelga hotelera en San Francisco
Yosef M (desde EEUU)
Celeste Murillo, especial para PI
Especial Panorama Internacional
A big strike begins in San Francisco hotels
What could become a nation-wide strike of nearly 10,000 hotel workers in the U.S. started early Wednesday morning, September 29, when 1,400 members of Local 2 of UNITE HERE began a two-week strike against 4 large hotels in San Francisco, a major year-round destination for tourists. Union hotel employees in the city have been working without a contract for six weeks now. The hotel owners, who have already brought in scabs, are offering a five-year contract with an annual increase of 5 cents an hour for workers who get tips. As one picketer commented, "I make $8 an hour; I can't even buy a newspaper with that raise." (1) Hotel employees who do not receive tips would get an annual raise of 20 cents an hour. It is impossible to live in San Francisco on $8 an hour, so the wages the workers are currently being paid are inadequate, and the raises are an insult to the workers. The Wall Street firm Smith Barney predicts that the three biggest U.S. hotel chains will enjoy after-tax profits of more than $1 billion this year.
San Francisco hotel workers represented by UNITE HERE currently pay $10 a month for their health coverage, which is essential in the U.S., where health care costs far more than working people can afford. The
hotel owners are demanding that workers pay $32.53 every month in the first year of the new contract. By the fifth year of the proposed contract, workers would be paying $273.42 each month for their health care, a cost of $3281 a year, more than 27 times what they are paying now. A cook at one of the struck hotels asked, "It would be, 'What do I pay for? PG&E [electricity]? Food? Health care?'" (1) Thanks to the gigantic increase in the cost of health care coverage the hotel owners are demanding, workers will see their raises vanish. Faced with these attacks by the bosses, San Francisco hotel workers have no choice but to strike.
The hotel bosses also plan to change the eligibility requirements for participating in the health plan, so that 1,100 hotel workers and their families will no longer be covered. Local 2 has a total membership of 8,000.
Hotel owners in San Francisco are negotiating as a group; 14 of the biggest hotels in the city are legally able to lock out their union workers on Friday, October 1; 4,000 workers in all may soon find
themselves without a paycheck. In addition, another 4,000 workers in other union hotels in the city will be affected by the fate of the strike.
With noisy picket lines in front of the struck hotels, the strike so far is a combination of workers' militancy and the timidity of the union leaders, who have decided on a brief strike by a minority of
unionized hotel workers in the city. In a statement on Wednesday, the hotel owners denounced an alleged "hard-line take-it-or-leave-it national labor agenda" put forward by the union. In fact, a hard line labor agenda against the bosses would be a big change and a very good idea. It would be great if mass picketing by strikers and their allies could prevent scabs from entering struck hotels. Unfortunately, the UNITE HERE leadership has a record of trying to avoid confrontation with the bosses; the union leaders prefer "informational" picket lines instead of real strikes, and they would much rather have a time-limited partial strike than bring all the workers out to shut down every hotel in San Francisco.
Thanks to pressure from the ranks, the union is doing one thing right. Hotel workers in UNITE HERE Local 25, with 3,500 members in Washington DC, approved a motion to go on strike by a 94% majority vote. In Los Angeles, Local 11, representing 2,800 hotel workers, approved a strike by a majority of 85%. In all three cities, UNITE HERE is demanding a two-year contract, to which the hotel bosses are absolutely opposed.
The possibility exists for a national hotel strike: if UNITE HERE unionists in Washington DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco actually carry out the strikes they voted for, then there could be more than 10,000 hotel workers on strike and picketing this year. If these strikes are successful, then in 2006 the bosses could face hotel workers' strikes in nine large U.S. cities, as well as in Hawaii. In this ferment among hotel workers, we see the ranks of labor pushing for a hard-line, "take it or leave it" attitude to the
bosses which corresponds to awakening class consciousness among those whose only option is to fight to defend what little they have.
San Francisco labor has a glorious tradition. In May 1934, workers organized by the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) went on strike in San Francisco to secure the right of the ILA to represent longshoremen on the West Coast through union hiring halls. The ILA was also fighting for higher wages and improved working conditions. The strike continued for months. On July 5, 1934, a thousand cops tried to destroy union picket lines on the waterfront. When the strikers fought back, the Governor of California sent in the National Guard. In response, the ILA called for a general strike, which was supported by every union in San Francisco and Alameda counties. The general strike began on July 16 and lasted four days; it was undoubtedly a factor that helped the ILA win most of its demands. (2)
The 1934 General Strike in San Francisco can teach us a few important lessons today: to win, hotel workers need mass pickets enforcing rock-solid picket lines that no cop or scab can cross. UNITE HERE needs to organize the unorganized, to fight for closed shops and union hiring halls so that every hotel worker is a trade unionist. The coming national hotel strike really needs militant solidarity: it must shut down every hotel in any city where hotel workers go on strike. Industrial unions in the US were built by leftists, by socialists and communists in the thirties, not by bureaucrats. Today only a revolutionary workers party can supply the leadership that labor desperately needs, to survive and to prevail.
 George Raine, "Pickets plan to walk 2 weeks," San Francisco Chronicle, September 30, 2004.
 Information about the 1934 General Strike is courtesy of the California Historical Society.